About 100 members of the 372nd Military Police Company returned to American soil Monday evening, ending a tour of duty that found it in the middle of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal.
While most of the Cresaptown, Md.-based reserve unit was welcomed home by family and friends in a tearful ceremony at this Army post south of Richmond, five soldiers remained in Baghdad, where they face criminal charges and courts-martial. A sixth, Pfc. Lynndie R. England, is at Fort Bragg, N.C., for a preliminary hearing that is scheduled to start Tuesday.
The seventh soldier charged in the case, Spec. Jeremy Sivits, was convicted in May and sentenced to a year in prison.
Family members and military officials said Monday that the unit's notoriety, which began when the scandal became public in the spring, should not follow the rest of the soldiers as they try to resume their civilian lives. They served courageously in their twice-extended tour and were not part of the abuse captured in stunning detail in photographs published around the world, relatives said.
In brief remarks to reporters last night, Capt. Donald J. Reese, the commanding officer of the 372nd, said the scandal "definitely made it more difficult" for the unit to fulfill its duties in Iraq.
"But we got through it," he said. "I'm sure the military justice system will sort through it all." Reese declined to comment further on the abuse case, saying "the investigation is still ongoing."
During a speech to his soldiers, Reese said, "It's been a long, difficult deployment. . . . I'm proud of every soldier standing here today."
Reese was criticized in an investigative report by Army Gen. Antonio M. Taguba. During a pretrial hearing for one of the soldiers charged in the case, Reese testified that a military intelligence official was present when a detainee died during an interrogation. And he described how soldiers tried to hide the body by hooking it up to an intravenous drip -- as if the detainee were still alive -- and taking it out of the prison.
Linda Comer, wife of 1st Sgt. Keith Comer and the unit's family readiness coordinator, said that if those charged in the abuse case "really did these things, it doesn't represent the unit."
"The unit did a lot of good over there," she said.
The Army did everything it could to give last night's event the look and feel of a typical homecoming ceremony. Buses carrying the soldiers arrived about 8 p.m. to a throng of family members waving American flags and welcome-home signs. The troops, who had arrived at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va., at 4:20 p.m., marched in formation into the base gymnasium as children waved and spouses cried.
Army officials said the soldiers wanted a relatively calm welcome-home ceremony where they could reunite with their families in peace. So the media representatives who descended on the base Monday were kept at a distance and were granted no interviews besides Reese's brief comments.
The soldiers were eager to get home after so much time away from their families and civilian jobs. Many were called up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and again in February 2003, just before the war in Iraq started, for what was supposed to be a one-year tour. But with a strong need for military police to help secure the country, the unit's tour was extended.
In April, shortly before the scandal broke, many of the soldiers had already been transferred to Kuwait and had told their families they would be home soon, Comer said. Family members were planning the welcome-home party, ordering flags and food, when orders came that extended the tour again. So the soldiers turned around and headed back into Iraq, where they helped secure convoys across the country.
"It's easy to lead when you're surrounded by great soldiers," Reese said in his speech last night. "The 372nd should hold your heads high, because you are certainly that."