Backstory: US Marines 'invade' the Pop Tucci diner
A US Marine unit trains in three North Carolina towns to prepare for civil affairs duty in Iraq.
By Bill Sasser | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor


After a frigid night camped under pine trees at an airfield, the convoy of 20 US Marines rolled into this sleepy town just as businesses were opening. The rumble of their Humvees unnerved some local residents. Even more jarring was the sight of the soldiers leaping from their vehicles with weapons.

In the parking lot of the Zion Lodge, a marine scanned the quiet street from behind a .50-caliber machine gun. One elderly man seemed shaken at the sight of marines striding into the Realo drugstore.

Yet this was no hostile invasion. As final preparation for a one-year deployment in Iraq, a US Marine unit recently brought the war home to tiny Trenton, N.C. (pop. 240), and the nearby coastal towns of Pollocksville and Maysville with a three-day training exercise. It was camouflage meets denim, Kevlar helmets meet Tar Heel caps, war-gaming meets the Pop Tucci diner.

It was also significant. The 5th Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment is unusual – the first active-duty unit in the Marine Corps to retrain for civil affairs work in Iraq. That means the 250 soldiers in the group will be departing from their frontline combat role to help Iraqis rebuild their cities and neighborhoods.

The 5/10's six-month retraining has included study of Arabic and the Iraqi culture. The unit will be important in determining whether the US's latest – and perhaps final – initiative in Iraq works. Under the new command of Gen. David Petraeus, US forces in Iraq will be trying to secure, hold, and then help stabilize and reconstruct embattled neighborhoods. Units like the 5/10 will be instrumental in gaining the confidence of local residents and acting as intermediaries between combat troops and civilians, particularly as the US tries to shift more security and reconstruction functions to the Iraqis.

"Our mission is to bridge the gap between a local population and the local military command, to say, 'Hey, sir, if you want to blow up that water tower, you can do it, but you're going to leave X amount of people without water," said Capt. Jim Burgess, who is leading a team of 10 marines and a Navy corpsman in the exercise here. "There are some civil issues you need to take into consideration."

The transition isn't easy for marines, who are trained to kill the enemy rather than engage in the softer skills of negotiation – say, quizzing local residents about their sewer system. "Some of these marines would rather be out on an artillery range pulling a lanyard, so it's important to get them out of their comfort zones preparing for this mission," said Maj. Andrew Dietz, who commanded one of the three training detachments.


While the soldiers were learning new skills, local residents were discovering a few things about Marine training and the rigors of war. The troops were generally greeted as heroes after the initial shock of seeing marines standing guard by doorways and patrolling downtown sidewalks with their M-16s, which weren't loaded.

"We're talking to town leaders to find out what they do and engaging in foot patrols to get to know the locals," said Captain Burgess. "Some are looking at us like, 'Hey, what are you guys doing here?' "

Later that morning, Glen Spivey sat down with a second civil affairs team at Pop Tucci's restaurant. "You get such a mix of emotions when you see them," said waitress Marti Rouse. "The first time they walked in it sort of took us all back, then we got used to having them all here. You're proud of them, and then you worry about where they're going, and now I'm sorry to see them go."

A woman having an early lunch exchanged a knowing glance with her friends as she changed seats for a better view of the men in uniform. "Don't you feel safe?" she asked.

Mr. Spivey explained the mechanics of the town sewer system, which he directs, and the volunteer fire department, which he has belonged to for 46 years. "I was glad to do anything I could to help them prepare for the job they have ahead," said Spivey, who is also commander of the local American Legion post. "I was impressed with the way they rolled in and did these interviews and tried to learn how the systems work."

Maj. Leland Suttee, commander of one of the detachments, said the transition to civil affairs has come with growing pains. "Every marine is trained as a rifleman first, and it's easy for us in an artillery unit to be good at that," he said. "It's easy to go kick down a door, and marines love that, so this is actually much harder for them."

While there's a huge difference between Al Anbar Province and Jones County, N.C., the goal of the exercise was to show marines what a well-run, fully functioning local government looks like. "They will know what the goal is when they go into Fallujah or Ramadi," Major Suttee said. "In Ramadi, we have a burgeoning city government. We need to be able to go in and show them how to take funding from the provincial government, prioritize projects, get contractors to start rebuilding their cities, and get businesses running again."

One morning, 1st Lt. Steven Aguilera and his civil affairs team rolled into Maysville, where they secured the Maysville Milling Co. and interviewed manager James Harper about the business. Mr. Harper, whose father served in the Marine Corps in Korea and for two tours in Vietnam, was born in 1950 at Camp Lejeune, where the 5/10, part of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, is stationed.

Harper's son is also a marine and served during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. "I don't advise any parent watching CNN when their kid is over there, because it will drive you mad," said Harper, an Army veteran himself. "I don't know about this war. This one is hard to figure out, and it would be really hard to have to bury one of your own for it."

Harper explained the basics of operating a mill and some of the social ills of seemingly idyllic Jones County. "We've got a crack epidemic here," he said, pointing to a neighborhood across US Highway 17. "On the weekends during the summer, you can see them set up outside selling it. They have guys riding on bicycles selling it."


Along the tree-lined streets of Trenton, another Marine patrol stopped to introduce themselves to residents and ask who they were, what they do, and what problems they have in town. They passed the Jones County courthouse without a glance at the two war memorials out front, one for a Navy seaman who was killed during World War II, another for Michael Harris Jr., an Army sergeant who died in Saudi Arabia in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm.

Turning down a side street, the patrol parted for a passing pickup truck, apparently driven by another veteran who had emblazoned "68 Viet Nam Vet 69" on the back of his cab. "Check that," one Marine commented.

A moment later, they chatted with a resident walking to her mailbox. "Civil affairs is like customer service – you're out shaking hands, you're trying to be nice to people, and the customer is always right," said Cpl. Jason Talbot.

By lunchtime on the final day of the exercise, most of the marines had exited Trenton. Paula Tucci, who runs Pop Tucci's with her husband, had collected signatures from the arines on a "Pop Tucci's" T-shirt. She pinned the memento on the wall by the front counter.

"It's been a trip having them here this week," she said. "Even though I don't know them, I'm sorry to see them leave."

At Jones Middle School, a civil affairs team engaged dozens of students with an outdoor display of Marine equipment. LCpl. Joel Vannatta reached down to shake the hand of an awed sixth-grader. "When I first joined the Marines, I knew that going to Iraq was a good possibility," said Corporal Vannatta of Jacksonville, Fla. "I would have been disappointed if I had spent four years in the Marines without going. I want to do something with all this training I have."