The prisoner abuse scandal has so tarnished the US Army’s 800th Military Police Brigade that soldiers recommended for an Army Bronze Star medal have been dropped from the list, the brigade’s commander says.
“The vast majority of fine, outstanding soldiers in the brigade are paying dearly,” Brig Gen Janis Karpinski said.
After the Army started its investigation into abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib jail, “many, many” of the soldiers’ recommendations for the Army medal were downgraded, said Karpinski, whose 2,800-member brigade operated 12 US prisons and detention camps across Iraq, including the sprawling Abu Ghraib facility west of Baghdad.
The Bronze Star denotes heroism, outstanding achievement or meritorious service.
An Army report into the abuses at the prison, written by Maj Gen Antonio Taguba, faulted Karpinski and other commanders in the brigade and its subordinate battalions, saying leaders paid too little attention to the prison’s day-to-day operations. Previous abuses of prisoners or lapses at the prison went unpunished or unheeded, the report found.
Karpinski’s subordinates at Abu Ghraib at times disregarded her commands, and did not enforce codes on wearing uniforms and saluting superiors, which added to the lax standards that prevailed at the prison, said one member of the 800th MP Brigade.
The soldier also said commanders in the field routinely ignored Karpinski’s orders, saying they did not have to listen to her because she was a woman.
Now, that soldier said his own Bronze Star commendation was quashed after the investigation started.
“I was supposed to get one and so were others. (The recommendations) were downgraded and subsequently kicked out,” he said.
“There’s a stigma of belonging to the 800th. You don’t deserve any medals. Everybody thinks it’s the 800th that’s guilty of these crimes, when it’s a subordinate unit.”
Some of those turned down for the medals will not even get the Army’s consolation prize, the simple Army Commendation Medal, the soldier says.
The seven soldiers facing criminal charges in the abuse case, including those posing with naked prisoners, are members of the Army’s 372nd Military Police Company, based near Cumberland, Maryland. The 372nd is one of more than a dozen companies within the 800th MP Brigade. All are Army Reservists, most of whom returned to civilian life in January in the United States.
Karpinski said the decision to cancel Bronze Star awards was yet another blow to an already demoralised brigade, which was stretched thin across Iraq while handling some of the Army’s toughest tasks.
“This will contribute in a large way to the morale of the soldiers who placed their lives on the line every day and survived, despite often seemingly insurmountable obstacles and challenges,” she said.
The general, who works as a business consultant in civilian life, said low morale inside the brigade and at Abu Ghraib was no secret. Soldiers “spoke openly about their concerns” to visiting members of Congress and other high-level visitors. Those included occupation chief Paul Bremer, the former top United Nations envoy to Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in a bombing last August, and US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
The vast majority of the soldiers in the 800th MP Brigade and its subordinate units served without incident in Iraq. Taguba’s report reserves special commendations for two battalions within the 800th that operated well, “with little or no guidance from the 800th MP Brigade”.
Taguba found the 744th MP Battalion and its commander Lt Col Dennis McGlone smoothly ran the prison that holds the top figures of Saddam Hussein’s regime - including perhaps the deposed leader himself. The 530th MP Battalion under Lt Col Stephen Novotny also did a good job operating the detention camp north east of Baghdad holding some 2,000 members of the Mujahedeen Khalq, an Iranian guerrilla group opposed to Tehran’s clerical regime.
Tucked at the end of the report is praise for two individual soldiers and a sailor for either halting abuse at Abu Ghraib or refusing to participate.