View Full Version : Be sharp, stay alive

03-23-06, 07:01 AM
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
COLUMN: Bill Nemitz

Be sharp, stay alive

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. - This was just great.

The 1st Platoon from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 25th Marines had just started its VCP (vehicle checkpoint) test - one of its last before it heads this week for the real war in Iraq.

The first vehicle, occupied by two Iraqi role-players, wound its way around the concertina wire toward the heavily guarded search area a few hundred yards away. Waiting there, his M-16 in one hand and a portable radio in the other, lead searcher Cpl. Lucas Reardon needed a quick rundown on the approaching vehicle from the Marines who had just waved it through.

But his hand-held radio was dead.

"Damn!" Reardon said, trying in vain to slap the radio back to life. Looking around at any Marine within earshot, he asked, "Any of you guys have any fresh batteries?"

Yes, Reardon had checked the radio the night before - and it had worked just fine. But now, a military twist on Murphy's Law had kicked in: The moment you most need it, your "COM," or communications, will inevitably go on the fritz.

Reardon jammed the radio into the pocket of his desert camouflage fatigues and picked up a mirror attached to a long metal pole - used to look underneath a vehicle. The fresh batteries would have to wait. Like it or not, the checkpoint was open for business.

"Good morning, sir!" Reardon called to the man behind the wheel, who acted as if he understood nothing the young corporal said. "Please pull over right here . . . no sir, right here. . . . OK, please stop and turn off the car and step out here with me."

The man complied. So did the woman seated next to him. Two Marines led them away to search them for weapons or bombs, while Reardon carefully went up one side of the vehicle and down the other in search of anything suspicious. Nothing.

So far, it all seemed very routine.

But in Iraq these days, as the 1st Platoon soon would learn, it's the routine that can get you killed.

For the 200 Marine reservists in Topsham-based Alpha Company, including 48 from Maine, training on this sprawling base in the middle of California's Mojave Desert the last three months has been a nonstop study in details.

Details about how to knock on an Iraqi family's door and ask if you can search the house for weapons. Details on how to use an Abrams tank for cover as you walk down a city street trying to draw sniper fire - and thus locate the snipers. And on this day, details on how to set up a roadblock and search both a vehicle and its occupants - without getting yourself blown up in the process.

In classes the day before, Marine instructors who have been to Iraq warned the 1st Platoon that insurgents will jury-rig their cars to run off plastic jugs of gasoline in the back seat, while the real gas tank contains a bomb and a radio-controlled detonator.

They explained how plastic C-4 explosives can be hidden inside the door panels or the windshield washer reservoir, how tires can be filled with propane instead of air, how any stray wires - and the average Iraqi vehicle has many - should be approached with extreme caution.

The Alpha Company Marines, notebooks in hand, learned to establish a "brevity code" - a single word like "firecracker" used to alert one another to an imminent danger and calmly back away from a vehicle before the insurgents sense their alarm and blow it up.

They learned the art of the "brushoff" - using free food, clothing, school supplies or whatever else might be available to placate Iraqis whose cars are inadvertently damaged during a search.

Cpl. Derek Norton, who lectured Alpha Company for almost an hour on the finer points of surviving a vehicle checkpoint, said the most important lesson for the Marine to learn now, while there's still time, is the danger of complacency. Iraq's ever-evolving insurgency, he said, has become adept at striking the moment U.S. troops let their guard down.

"We can't actually get into the mind-set of the insurgents," Norton conceded, "but this is the best training this country has to offer."

The first vehicle passed its inspection by the 1st Platoon without incident - notwithstanding the female Iraqi role-player who did her best to rattle the young Marines with her non-stop Arabic diatribe against all things American.

Then things got interesting.

First, a BOLO - be on the lookout - went out for a small red sedan believed to be carrying bomb-making materials and a high-profile insurgent. Moments later, a vehicle matching that description pulled up to the checkpoint's first barrier and, without warning, exploded.

Had it been real, an Iraqi translator and at least one Marine would have been killed. But that was just the beginning.

An old, dilapidated Chevrolet suddenly appeared on the dirt road leading up to the checkpoint. Pausing briefly for the Marine "greeter," the driver then took off through the serpentine "deceleration zone" and made a beeline toward Reardon and the other Marines in the search area.

The Marines opened fire with blanks. On a signal from an instructor, the driver coasted to a stop 100 yards from the Marines. With a loud "boom," the trunk lid blew open.

Simultaneously, three "insurgents" appeared behind the search area on a sand berm that ran around the nearby village. They sprinted across the sand and tumbleweed toward the 1st Platoon, firing blanks from AK-47s with every step.

Cpl. John Derosby of Burnham, one of a half-dozen Marines assigned to cover the checkpoint's outer perimeter, dropped to the sand and returned fire. So did Marines to his right and left. One insurgent went down, while the other two dived for cover.

"Communicate! Communicate!" hollered Sgt. Donald Lutz, another trainer, as the Marines took turns covering one another and running toward the insurgents. "You need to talk to each other!"

Within five minutes, all three insurgents were "dead." Derosby approached them slowly while another Marine covered him.

What do you do now?" Lutz asked.

"A dead check, sir," replied Derosby, referring to the procedure by which Marines confirm that an insurgent has been killed and then strip him of cell phones, papers and anything else of potential intelligence value.

"And how are you going to do your dead check?" persisted Lutz.

"With a notional (make-believe) kick in the (groin), sir," Derosby said. The oft-used technique quickly reveals whether an insurgent is truly dead or just playing possum.

"No, wait," said Lutz, striding forward. "Let me show you how to do a dead check in Iraq."

Grabbing Derosby's M-16 rifle, Lutz pointed the barrel at the Iraqi's chest. "Bang! Bang!" he shouted, then handed the rifle back to Derosby. "That's how you do a dead check in Iraq."

Derosby nodded. "Bang! Bang!" he repeated.

It wasn't over. Lutz showed Derosby how to lie down next to the dead insurgent, pull him close in a macabre embrace, and roll him onto his side so another Marine could look beneath the body for a live grenade or some other booby trap.

"Use him as your shield," Lutz explained. "That way, if anything goes off, it hits him before it hits you."

Derosby performed the "bomb roll" on the first insurgent, then the second, then the third. When he was finished, the three actors opened their eyes, got up, waved farewell and walked back into the village.

Did the idea of pumping two bullets into a corpse and then lying down and embracing it bother the 21-year-old corporal?

"Not really," Derosby replied matter-of-factly. "As long as I'm still alive."

The multi-layered mock assault over, the 1st Platoon walked through evacuating its wounded - two ambulatory, two urgent - and methodically broke down the checkpoint.

Sometime this week, they will fly halfway around the world to a base near Fallujah, where they'll spend the next seven months patrolling crowded streets, hunting down insurgents and running checkpoints just like this one - only with real Iraqis and, inevitably, real bullets and bombs.

Standing off to the side as the 1st Platoon headed back to its camp, Aile Alhile, 37, smiled in greeting at whomever crossed his path. He was the guy behind the wheel when Cpl. Reardon's radio went dead - and he thought Reardon did a pretty good job handling the situation.

Alhile, one of more than 200 Iraqi role-players who arrive here in a caravan of white buses each morning before dawn and don't leave until dusk, came to this country in 1994 and worked as a mechanic until he heard about this opportunity. The money is at least as good as what he made in his garage, he said, although he doesn't work with the Marines to get rich.

"First, I want to support these guys because they're helping us in Iraq," Alhile said.

More importantly, he continued, he's doing this for his father, mother, brother, sister and other relatives who still live in Baghdad.

"If I help these Marines understand the Iraqi culture," he said, "I'll be helping my people over there."

Back at their camp, the 1st Platoon gathered in the twilight to review what worked - and what didn't - during their vehicle checkpoint.

They talked about the little things - dispensing with the sunglasses when stopping a vehicle so the driver can see your eyes, positioning your M-16 during a pat-down search so the barrel doesn't get jammed into the dirt.

And, with their departure date looming ever closer, they talked about the big things. Things such as confidence, courage and, above all, caution.

"Over there, there won't be any coyotes (instructors) briefing us," Cpl. Adam Deem, one of 68 Marines attached to Alpha Company from a reserve unit in Pennsylvania, told his comrades. "It's going to be the real deal. It's not going to be a controlled environment. It's on every one of you guys."

Then Sgt. Dan Healey of Shrewsbury, Mass., stepped forward.

"We've been over it and over it again," Healey said, sounding more like a high school coach in a locker room than a platoon sergeant heading into battle. "They tell us we're fighting a thinking enemy, a smart enemy, right?"

All around him, heads nodded.

"Well," Healey demanded, "what the (expletive) are we?"

Only time will tell.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: