08-14-04, 10:55 AM
Issue Date: August 16, 2004
Embassy duty is no skate job, leathernecks say
Unique assignmentís draw may grow with latest changes to tour lengths
By Gordon Lubold
Times staff writer
BAGHDAD ó Of the four special duty assignments available to Marines, the Marine Security Guards on duty here say theirs is the best thing going.
Sure, it may get a bad rap from some Marines, but the MSG leathernecks have their own opinions on why that may be.
ďPersonally, I think itís envy,Ē said Gunnery Sgt. Lance Chwan, MSG detachment commander here. ďSome Marines think itís just opening doors, but itís a lot of knowledge, a lot of tasks, and a lot of responsibilities.Ē
The other special duty assignments ó recruiter, drill instructor and Marine combat instructor ó have their own core of loyal fans, as does MSG duty. Now, the Corps is making changes intended to spark even more interest in becoming an ďambassador in blue.Ē
Guards used to do tours at two duty stations over the course of a three-year MSG assignment, with one typically being a ďcomfortĒ station ó say Paris or London ó and another being a hardship tour, such as in African or Middle Eastern countries.
But now guards will do three duty stations in three years, a move officials hope will keep Marines more vigilant as they stand their embassy posts and give them a more rounded experience as they move from one embassy to another.
Officials with the Marine Security Guard Battalion, Quantico, Va., announced the changes earlier this year. Officials are making the changes, in part, to generate more interest in the program. Marines who havenít been on embassy duty sometimes dismiss them as ďbutton-pushing door openersĒ whose only job is to smile at the brass and the other VIPs, virtual diplomatic lapdogs.
Thatís a charge that makes Chwanís blood boil. He said his Marines know the infantry, know the skills and can be relied upon to guard classified data, react when things go south and still look good enough to shake the hand of people like Secretary of State Colin Powell, who dropped by recently during a surprise visit to Baghdad.
It can also mean a speedier promotion. Successful completion of a tour as a Marine Security Guard can help you write your own ticket, embassy guards say.
Sgt. Nicholas Simmons, a grunt who was stationed at the embassy in Monrovia, Liberia, when the United States evacuated American personnel last year, said embassy duty beat being a grunt stuck in some nasty place. Not only are promotion opportunities a good thing, but itís a chance to take greater responsibility, work independently and be more exposed to different cultures than a Marine might be on a foreign liberty-port stop. .
ďThe fleet canít always go your way, but the MSG program is good to go,Ē said Simmons. ďEven in Monrovia.Ē
It is excellent duty and MCI courses keep you informed in your field. I had three diiferant duty stations in three years and that system worked very well and that was forty years ago .
08-16-04, 06:20 PM
Issue Date: August 16, 2004
On guard in the green zone
U.S. Embassy Baghdad is the world‚Äôs strangest ‚ÄĒ and most dangerous ‚ÄĒ guard post
By Gordon Lubold
Times staff writer
BAGHDAD ‚ÄĒ At the makeshift U.S. Embassy here, the cold beer and lonely women would make for a virtual paradise for any Marine on combat duty. But a group of Marine Security Guards stationed here can have none of it.
The sprawling grounds of the Presidential Palace, the former headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority and now home to the embassy and hundreds of government and military offices, offers a unique kind of war-zone hospitality.
Hunkered down inside concrete and sand barriers and iron gates, as insurgents lob mortars and sling rocket-propelled grenades outside, an incongruous mix of armed private security guards, civilian contractors, State Department personnel and military officials fill the hallways during long workdays.
But at night, they chill by the edge of an almost heart-shaped pool. Lounge chairs dot a small courtyard nearby, and deejays are hired on some of the bigger party nights. Beer and bottled vodka drinks are available at the pool house, and consenting adults can make time in a small concrete bunker nestled into a grove of date palms and shrubs.
Thigh holsters with 9mm pistols slipped inside are as much a status symbol as they are a self-defense measure while poolside.
It‚Äôs the abandon of Fort Lauderdale during spring break, the self-importance of Washington at any time, and the gunslinger attitude of the Old West all wrapped into one.
In the midst of this strange scene stand 12 Marine Security Guards who provide security for the embassy and are focused on the mission despite temptations of liberty weekend-style partying inside and the danger of mortars and rocket-propelled grenades outside.
All the more reason why the MSG detachment commander, Gunnery Sgt. Lance Chwan, enforces a no-fraternization and no-alcohol policy; this mission is probably the most dangerous and high profile of any MSG Marines have handled.
‚ÄúHere, there‚Äôs no relaxing, no letting down your guard at all,‚ÄĚ said Chwan, who is on his fifth tour as an MSG detachment commander.
It‚Äôs a job for which most volunteered. But few were prepared to stand guard in an environment like this, where VIPs from Washington mix with amateur folk musicians, armed civilian contractors with a telltale cowboy swagger and what one Marine called ‚Äúmore brass than you can shake a stick at.‚ÄĚ
One of the more colorful and outgoing members of the detachment is Sgt. Nicholas Simmons, 24. A veteran Marine Security Guard with one embassy evacuation under his belt, Simmons said embassy duty in Baghdad is definitely a little different.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs like ‚ÄėThe Island of Dr. Moreau,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ said Simmons, referring to the 1977 science fiction-horror film, remade in 1996, in which a scientist turns animals into humans. ‚ÄúNothing is ordinary.‚ÄĚ
Small team, big mission
The U.S. Embassy itself has stood vacant since 1990, when the United States severed ties with Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
With the June 28 transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government, the United States a day later reopened its embassy in temporary headquarters inside the north wing of the Presidential Palace.
As the security situation improves, State Department employees, a handful of military personnel, U.S. ambassador to Iraq John D. Negroponte, and the MSG detachment will move there. But that may be years off.
For now, the Marines are making do with what they‚Äôve got. Beyond providing internal security here, manning posts and checking identification badges, they‚Äôre also conducting reaction drills and learning every square inch of this cavernous palace that includes dozens of underground tunnels.
The Marines are also on the lookout for weapons that are left behind in bathrooms and in offices all too frequently by armed civilians. They also monitor offices to ensure classified information isn‚Äôt left out by mistake.
It‚Äôs a big job for a 14-man detachment, which includes Chwan, another staff noncommissioned officer and 12 Marines who the gunny likes to call the ‚Äúdirty dozen.‚ÄĚ He expects the detachment will grow in the coming months.
Eventually, the number of MSG leathernecks here may dwarf the two biggest MSG detachments, in Cairo and Moscow, which each have more than two dozen Marines on staff.
The grounds of the compound are guarded by a company of Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team leathernecks from Norfolk, Va. As the compound‚Äôs first line of defense, they have the most dangerous Marine mission here. But the Marine Security Guards endure similar dangers, since attacks could hit anywhere.
Since July, the area in and around the compound has seen more than 700 attacks, including car bombs, rockets, mortars, improvised explosives and small-arms fire. In the parking lot outside the palace‚Äôs front entrance, Chevrolet Suburbans and Toyota Land Cruisers riddled with bullet holes from small-arms fire point up the danger lurking outside. But it‚Äôs perilous even inside the compound; an Army officer was recently stabbed in the face when an Iraqi scrambled in over the wire and attacked him. Mortar rounds can, and do, still land in the compound.
‚ÄúIf this were any other embassy, it would be closed,‚ÄĚ said Col. Dennis Sabal, commander of Multi National Forces Iraq, a command that oversees the facilities here.
Cpl. Carlos Silva, 22, from Laredo, Texas, knows this all too well. A few weeks ago when he was standing guard near one entrance, Silva said, he heard the enemy open fire.
‚ÄúI had just been here five or six days, and I hear all these explosions,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúI was freaking out.‚ÄĚ Now, he said, he‚Äôs used to hearing small-arms fire and mortar explosions inside and outside the gate almost every day.
At ‚ÄėPost 1‚Äô
It‚Äôs not just the danger and odd mix of people that makes duty here unique for these guards. It‚Äôs also probably the most expeditionary embassy around. There is no personal chef, no driver ‚ÄĒ indeed, no ‚ÄúMarine House‚ÄĚ at all. Those luxuries, standard amenities for Marine guards on embassy duty, won‚Äôt be available until the embassy moves to its permanent facility.
And the mainstay of MSG duty, the high-tech control room surrounded by ballistic glass known as ‚ÄúPost 1,‚ÄĚ doesn‚Äôt yet exist here. Normally, one or two embassy guards sit inside this small room, watching surveillance cameras, pushing buttons to unlock doors and monitoring communications within the compound. But Post 1 in Baghdad is little more than a plywood podium that sits at the entrance to the north wing deep in the bowels of the palace.
‚ÄúHere, there is no past, so we‚Äôre making our own past,‚ÄĚ said Sgt. Kurt Ramsey, 24, from Denton, Texas. ‚ÄúEverything you do here is brand new.‚ÄĚ
A normal embassy would include a core staff of a few hundred State Department personnel and a few military officers, all of whom know the role of the Marine embassy guard. But with such a range of people here, not everyone appreciates being told ‚ÄúNo‚ÄĚ by a fresh-faced junior Marine.
When a senior military officer recently approached Ramsey as the Marine stood duty, the officer didn‚Äôt have his identification badge. He wanted to get into the controlled area anyway. No can do, Ramsey said.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm telling this colonel who‚Äôs probably been in the military longer than I‚Äôve been alive what he can and can‚Äôt do,‚ÄĚ said Ramsey, with a hint of pride in his voice.
There are more guns here than anyone has seen before. Members of private security firms are armed to the gills. One contractor called these contractors ‚Äúthe Docker tactical team‚ÄĚ after the type of trousers they wear.
‚ÄúEverybody walks around like cowboys,‚ÄĚ said Staff Sgt. Joshua MacGillivray, 23, who pinned on his first rocker just a few weeks ago.
‚ÄúYou have everyone walking around with guns and they think they can do whatever they want,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúThey think they‚Äôre special because they‚Äôre carrying.‚ÄĚ
That makes the job all the more interesting at Post 1.
It‚Äôs not a push-button world when all you have is a plywood podium to check visitors and employees in and out. Guards like Silva stand at the post, intently monitoring the myriad color-coded identification badges. For now, red, blue and yellow badges will get someone into the north wing, although when all of the State Department offices are up and running, a top-secret clearance will be necessary to access that area, a former ballroom with marble walls and chandeliers.
‚ÄúWhen you have to stop someone, you have to stop them, you have to get in their face,‚ÄĚ Silva said.
08-16-04, 06:20 PM
Testing their mettle
Every few days, Chwan runs his men through different reaction drills, in which his Marines respond to a notional crisis: an intruder inside the controlled area of the embassy, or a hostage situation. Chwan takes his Marines through each scenario, adding new challenges to heighten the realism. The Marines already know much of the inside of the building and use code names to refer to each area on personal radios with built-in microphones, a rig not unlike those used by the Secret Service or the CIA.
But the more practice, the better. Chwan suited his men up in full battle gear and told them there was an intruder in one of the diplomatic offices upstairs. The gunny watched for them to take a point at the right time, switch from one weapon to another when it‚Äôs necessary and pay attention to where their weapon muzzles were pointed.
He helped the men choreograph each move as they stepped through the rooms looking for the ‚Äúintruder.‚ÄĚ The men lined up to form a stack team and moved out, following each other closely through the darkened offices before fanning out to find the intruder ‚ÄĒ in this case a visitor hiding behind a desk.
‚ÄúThey know exactly where to go, what they‚Äôre doing,‚ÄĚ Chwan said as he watched another stack team move down a marble stairway onto the embassy‚Äôs main floor.
The exercises are done at night to avoid scaring the State Department employees who work there, but they‚Äôll typically run into someone who is angered by their late-night exercises.
‚ÄúIt doesn‚Äôt go over too well with the people who work late,‚ÄĚ said Chwan, acknowledging that security comes before diplomacy. ‚ÄúI apologize the next day.‚ÄĚ