42nd MP Brigade returns at long last

The 42nd Military Police Brigade headquarters returned Friday from a 15-month deployment running the United States’ largest detention center in Iraq, but its long-lasting effect on the country’s security could take years to assess.

The unit headed a task force that ran an array of quality-of-life programs aimed at ensuring that detainees wouldn’t leave lockup and rejoin the insurgency.

During the months the unit was deployed, it offered detainees agricultural and vocational training along with moderate Islamic teaching and regular visits from family members.

“It’s been a rewarding mission, but a difficult one,” Col. David Glaser told the crowd of several hundred at Soldiers Field House at a homecoming ceremony that included balloons, homemade signs, cake and plenty of teary-eyed family members.

About 75 members of the brigade’s headquarters returned from the 15-month deployment, its second to Iraq. The unit was one of the last at Fort Lewis that deployed that long. Beginning in August 2008, most units were deployed for a year.

“Those last three months got tough,” said Sgt. Henry Cooper of Tumwater, who held his three children. “We saw units coming and going and we stayed there. But man, it just feels good to be here now.”

The 42nd Brigade took over operations at Camp Bucca, the main internment facility for the U.S. military in Iraq. The base sits just outside Umm Qasr, a port city on Iraq’s thin strip of coastline in the southeast.

The base, about 800 miles from the Kuwaiti border, is a maze of tents, buildings and concertina wire. Generators hum all day to keep the cell areas floodlit. Guards sit high in towers and keep watch on the detainees.

Task Force Bucca, which the 42nd Brigade operated, was responsible for the custody and care of up to 22,000 soldiers. About 5,000 detainees remained in custody when the unit departed – many were released or transferred to the Iraqi government.

All detainees are expected to be out of U.S. custody by 2010.

“We’re confident the right people were released and the right people were convicted,” Glaser said. “And we released them in a way that cut their motivation to cause problems in the future.”

The Theater Internment Facility Reconciliation Center provided vocational training, religious support and social support to the detainees. Classes included topics on agriculture, sewing and carpentry.

The idea is to allow the detainees to find stable jobs and prevent them to returning to the insurgency. The efforts are a shift in practice from the first years of the Iraq War.