updated 6/12/2007 8:38:46 PM ET 2007-06-13T00:38:46

A top U.S. Army investigator has apologized to New Mexico National Guard soldiers who were ordered to strip to their gym shorts and were searched for gang tattoos while they were on duty in Kuwait.

No tattoos were found on the 58 members of Task Force Cobra, made up of soldiers from Guard units around New Mexico. Task Force Cobra was sent to the Middle East in November 2005 to provide security for military convoys in Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. Its soldiers returned home last November and the unit has since been disbanded.

Task force members and the commander of the New Mexico National Guard, Brig. Gen. Kenny C. Montoya, have alleged the unit was targeted because of its large number of Hispanic soldiers.

In a letter Thursday, Brig. Gen. Rodney L. Johnson apologized "for the manner in which this investigation was conducted and the loss of trust that has resulted."

Johnson, provost marshal general of the Army and commander of the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, said he knew the investigation had been "gravely mishandled" when he read in a newspaper that the May 2006 search led one task force member to say he "didn't feel like an American today."

"Although the search was lawful, it is also critical that my agents ensure that all soldiers are treated appropriately and respectfully," he said. "I sincerely regret that we failed to do so in this case and want to assure you that we have learned from this experience."

Sgt. 1st Class Frank Ramirez, a member of Task Force Cobra, said the apology was appropriate and welcome, the Albuquerque Journal reported Tuesday.

"I'm proud to be a part of an organization that can do that. ... They could have swept it under the rug and let it go," said Ramirez, a National Guard member for 19 years.

Prompted by rumor of gang activity
The search was prompted by an unsubstantiated allegation from a soldier in another unit who complained about gang activity among soldiers in Kuwait.

An Army investigation conducted shortly after the tattoo check concluded that the search was lawful and authorized, and that a special agent of the Criminal Investigation Command acted appropriately. An internal inquiry by the command also cleared the agent of wrongdoing.

However, Montoya said in a June 1 letter to Gen. Peter Schoomaker in the office of the Army chief of staff that the unit "was racially targeted and illegally searched for body tattoos just because the unit consists of a large number of Hispanic-surnamed soldiers."

The state's congressional delegation asked the acting secretary of the Army, Pete Geren, to investigate the claims of racism. In a joint statement Monday, the delegation said Johnson's apology was a welcome first step.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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