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When MPs' Push Becomes a Charge

A proud Pennsylvania area is dismayed but standing behind four of its sons and daughters accused of abusing Iraqi POWs.

August 18, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

ASHLEY, Pa. — Last year at this time, the four Army reservists were civilians, leading middle-class lives in the coal-laced hills of Pennsylvania they had always called home. Two were preparing for college, one was a state trooper who spent the summer running a camp for kids, a fourth had served in Bosnia-Herzegovina and was a prison corrections officer.

Today, 6,000 miles away and on active duty, the four are at the center of a controversy that has shaken this old mining town, where their 320th Reserve Military Police Battalion is based: They have been charged with mistreating and beating Iraqi prisoners of war -- charges that could lead to courts-martial and prison.

They have been transferred from Iraq to a U.S. base in Kuwait, where instead of guarding Iraqi POWs their duties consist of cleaning toilets and collecting trash while awaiting the outcome of a military investigation, their families say.

The reservists say they used only the force necessary to defend themselves against violent prisoners at a POW facility near Umm al Qasr in southern Iraq.

"My daughter's reaction has been disbelief," said Carol Graff, the mother of Master Sgt. Lisa Girman. "She told me on the phone, 'I can't believe this happened. It's like a nightmare.' "

News of the charges jarred the 2,800 residents of Ashley, where patriotism is a code of life and Main Street is festooned with banners proclaiming, "Ashley Honors Our Armed Forces." Most were quick to absolve the four soldiers -- all of whom are from northeastern Pennsylvania -- of blame. Many, including Luzerne County Sheriff Barry Stankos, who called Girman a "quality, levelheaded" law enforcement officer, said they would attend a rally scheduled for Saturday at the courthouse in Wilkes-Barre to support the soldiers.

"Except for maybe some lady in a sewing circle, you're not going to find much sympathy for Iraqis around here when it comes to this issue," said Jim Merrill, 42, who sat drinking a beer at the American Legion. From the jukebox boomed the Vietnam War-era song "Ballad of the Green Berets."

"I don't believe the charges -- American soldiers don't beat up on prisoners for entertainment," said Tommy Schwartz, 61, the local legion commander. His post has 700 members, begins every meeting with a tribute to America's POWs and MIAs and each year holds a ceremony to honor Ashley's lone resident killed more than a generation ago in Vietnam.


Reservists Identified

The U.S. military has not released the names of the soldiers or given details about the incident that led to the charges. But the soldiers' families, who have contacted their congressmen for help and are organizing public support, identified the reservists as:

* Girman, 35, a Pennsylvania state trooper for 14 years who last summer ran a police-sponsored camp for kids. She is a veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and was injured in that war by Iraqi POWs in a prison riot. She is part of a family drawn closer together when her brother died of a brain tumor at age 21 in 1987.

* Staff Sgt. Scott McKenzie, 38, a lieutenant in a "boot-camp" prison run by the Pennsylvania Corrections Department. He volunteered for and served in Bosnia, receiving the Army Commendation and the NATO medals. He is active with the Boy Scouts and, said his mother, Caroline Lachemayer of Fort Myers, Fla., never had a black mark in 18 years of active and reserve military duty.

* Sgt. Shawna Edmondson, 24, a public safety officer at the University of Scranton, where she was also studying criminal justice for a bachelor's degree. She joined the reserves in 1999, her mother, Linda Edmondson, said, because she wanted to serve her country and thought the experience would help her pursue a career in law enforcement. She has taken antidepressant prescription drugs as a result of the abuse charges, her mother said.

* Spec. Tim Canjar, 21, a 2000 graduate of a Catholic high school near Wilkes-Barre. He joined the reserves after his father talked him out of enlisting in the Army. He enrolled in college courses at Pennsylvania State University just before his unit was mobilized for duty in Iraq in February. "I know my son and he's not capable of doing something like this," said his father, Jim.

On May 12, the four Pennsylvania MPs were on duty when 44 POWs, some of them wounded and on crutches, arrived at Camp Bucca under U.S. guard. They included nine Syrians, two Iraqi policemen, a Baath Party general and an Iraqi who had been interrogated in connection with the execution of an American POW.

"When the convoy got to Bucca and unloaded the prisoners from the bus, some started to resist," McKenzie wrote in an e-mail to his congressman May 17. He went on to say that "some of my MPs" were assaulted: One POW kicked Girman; another grabbed Canjar, a former high school wrestler, by the wrist. It was necessary, he wrote, to use "foot sweeps" and tackles to bring some of the POWs to the ground.

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