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To Protect And Serve

They’re called the “dirty dozen,” but they’re being sent to Iraq to make sure that enemy prisoner of war camps are run cleanly in accordance with international law and that abuse scandals such as the widely publicized ordeal at Abu Ghraib in 2003 don’t happen again.

Eleven Army National Guard soldiers and one medical officer who will be assigned later make up the elite team that accepted deployment orders Thursday during a ceremony at the Las Vegas Readiness Center.

When their plane leaves early this morning to take them to their short training stint at Fort Dix, N.J., before heading to the war zone for a yearlong tour, they will be among 300 Nevada citizen-soldiers serving active duty in the nation’s war on terrorism.

“Our main mission is to be the standard-bearers for the military police detention operations, to ensure that humanitarian law is being followed for the well-being and care of prisoners from legal to health, comfort and religious freedoms that they should enjoy while in U.S. custody,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Mark, commander of the team.

He said the unit, officially known as the 140th Military Police Brigade Liaison Detachment, will be “the eyes and ears of the military police corps.”

The team’s job is not to conduct interrogations or get involved in “hot and heavy police operations.”

Instead, he said, “we protect that brigade commander and make sure he’s not hung out to dry or she’s hung out to dry.

“We don’t kick down doors. We don’t interrogate prisoners,” said the 44-year-old former Las Vegas resident who now lives in Gardnerville.

“We will be involved in ensuring that those that are kicking down the doors are safeguarding the prisoners and treating them with respect and dignity.”

The Nevada team will replace an out-of-state National Guard unit. Their deployment, Mark said, is not a latent reaction to the prisoner abuse and sexual humiliation scandal at Abu Ghraib that led to convictions of some members of a Maryland-based Army Reserve unit.

“Our unit was stood up more for the protection of those that are in custody than for the protection of senior officials in the United States,” Mark said after the ceremony.

“It wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction. There was always a need to have people out there. … It was another way of putting people in responsible roles to go out there and do their jobs and ensure those things are not happening,” he said.

A key player in that effort will be Master Sgt. Ron Morse of Las Vegas.

“We’re not going to do that again,” Morse said with his family standing nearby, including 9-year-old daughter Rylee, who had a worried look on her face.

With the enemy prisoner and civilian detainee count in the tens of thousands, the task of finding any violations among prison guards might be akin to finding a needle in a haystack, but Morse, 45, doesn’t think that will be the case.

“Normally stuff like that is not going to be too hard to find,” he said.

His job will include inspecting military police operations, training MPs and tracking custody of prisoners.

Another member of the detachment, Maj. Troy Armstrong, who commanded Nevada’s 72nd Military Police Company overseas in 2003, will be returning to familiar ground. After the invasion, the 72nd set up operations at Abu Ghraib, before the scandal occurred.

Armstrong, a 39-year-old Clark County family services manager, said he’s “looking forward to going back to see what we’ve accomplished in the last five years.”

“Obviously Abu Ghraib and the environment are two different things,” he said. “You had what had happened at the prison, and then you had the fact that the detention operation was just getting started at the tail end of the ground war.

“I just expect to see much better conditions and facilities all around for soldiers and prisoners,” Armstrong said, adding that he’s also “looking forward to seeing how their criminal justice system is working.”

The tough part, he said, is leaving his family again.

“I wouldn’t ask to go. I wouldn’t step out the door and wave a flag and say, ‘Hey, take me.’ But I wear the uniform, and the bottom line is when they call, it’s my duty to respond,” he said. “My family understands that. It is going to be tough.”

Capt. Patrick Walsh, an assistant U.S. attorney from Las Vegas, will be on his first deployment to Iraq. His job will be to provide legal advice to his commander.

His knowledge of the Geneva Convention, the Uniform Code of Military Justice and federal laws will come into play when prison inspections are conducted.

“I think that when we get there, we’ll find that people are doing a great job,” said Walsh, 35, after his young daughter and son climbed down from playing on a Humvee parked inside the readiness center.

He said his thoughts were focused on three things: “I’m thinking about how much I’ll miss my family and that I want to do a good job and come home,” he said.

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0308.

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