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thedrifter
11-23-05, 06:33 PM
Doing his duty
BY ELLIS NEEL STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER/WRITER
November 23, 2005

A sense of duty and a vague promise of opportunity led a local youth to the Marines, law enforcement, Iraq and back.

War is a harsh environment. It takes you away from everything you know. Trained in the art of war, you take only a part of your life experiences with you when called. You're drawn down to a vestige of who you once were, albeit a very dangerous piece of yourself -- the will and the ability to survive.

"Being there becomes your life. That's all you do," noted Mike Lawrence

The 28-year-old, a husband and father of three boys, is a 1995 graduate of Alamogordo High School. He just got back from Iraq after a seven-month tour.

Lawrence served in the Marine Corps Reserves for nearly eight years. He joined up a few years after high school. He said he needed the challenge.

After three months in boot camp in San Diego, he had a new and dangerous trade.

"I enjoyed it," Lawrence said. "It wasn't bad. It was a lot of hard work. I had a good time while I was there."

With his Marine Corps training behind him, Lawrence went to work at White Sands Forest Products -- the sawmill west of the railroad tracks. He worked there from 1998 to 2000 operating machinery. He was working full time and going to college full time, and after two years he wanted to get away from that.

Looking for a career and something to build on, Lawrence decided to become a cop.

"The sawmill was tough and I had a kid on the way," he said.

He had a friend who worked at the Alamogordo Department of Public Safety, Al Marchand, who had suggested law enforcement as a career. Marchand spent 21 years with ADPS and had recently retired as a sergeant.

"He talked to me about it," Lawrence said. "I got into it and really enjoyed it."

Marchand was a flight attendant who died on United Airlines Flight 175, a Boeing 767 bound from Boston to Los Angeles. It was the second hijacked aircraft to strike the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Lawrence's unit was not called up after the terrorist attacks, and he remained on active reserves with the USMC.

He is one of 60 Marines in the Delta Battery, Second Battalion, 14th Marines. He's an E-5, a sergeant. Delta Battery was attached to the Second MP Battalion, which was sent to Iraq.

He could have gotten out of the active reserves more than two years ago and skipped the dusty seven-month deployment, but decided to stay in it "because the whole Sept. 11 thing and knowing some of the people who were victims of that."

He wanted to go, and took no time in answering the question when posed to him.

"I felt I had an obligation and a duty to stay in because there was really good potential my unit would be getting activated to go over there," he said. "I come from a long line of military. I guess it's what you need to do. I'm an American. I live here. I should at least do my part."

His grandfathers on both sides served in the Air Force. His father served in the Air Force, and his brother is in the Army.

Delta Battery was finally called up and Lawrence was shipped overseas to Iraq. He worked at the ar-Ramadi Detention Facility, approximately 80 miles west of Baghdad, and served as Sgt. of the Guard.

"I also functioned as the watch commander," he added.

The sergeant of the guard runs the shift -- takes care of the processing of detainees. The watch commander oversees everybody in the facility on the whole shift.

"Lots of paperwork," Lawrence observed.

For most of his tour, Lawrence watched over, transported and processed Iraqi detainees.

"It's basically like here, working for the police department," he said.

But some things were different.

"The Iraqi detainees hate you," he said. "They do everything they can to get you to cross the line."

Lawrence got to ar-Ramadi right after the Abu Ghraib scandal hit the press.

Everything a light tan. Dusty. Dirt everywhere. Living in bombed out barracks. No windows. Pockmarked walls.

The highest number of detainees the facility held at one time was 389; the average number was anywhere from 175 to 200, Lawrence added.

"It's long, 12 hours a day, six days a week. It was monotonous," Lawrence said. "Doing the same thing every day. Taking them back and forth for their interviews. Processing detainees in and out, transfers to Abu Ghraib."

The Abu Ghraib facility is between ar-Ramadi and Baghdad, about 50 miles away.

Dangerous work.

He's a brown belt in the Marine Corps martial arts program and for the last two months of his tour he taught martial arts.

He said he didn't get scared until he got "short" -- it was nearly time for him to come home.

He said it wasn't so much a fear as it was an alertness which gripped his body, an awareness of every little sound, every noise.

"Right before we came back (a new guy to the facility) got hit by an incoming rocket and was killed immediately," Lawrence said. "It was in an area we used to walk in all the time. That kind of brought it home."

The whole time he was in Iraq, there were 170 rocket impacts on the base.

"But everybody in our unit from El Paso all came back," he said.

He thought about home a lot, and with telecommunications making the world a smaller place, he was able to keep up to date on his family.

He has a wife, LeAnna, and three sons, Jacob, Matthew and Gabriel.

"I called home every night, couple of minutes each night. It kind of keeps you in touch," he said. "My youngest boy, when I left, was barely crawling, and by the time I got back he was walking and starting to talk."

Lawrence and his wife will celebrate their seventh wedding anniversary on Dec. 12.

He will be deactivated from the Reserves on Jan. 3.

Ellie