Officer uses lessons learned as Marine
By JOE GORMAN Tribune Chronicle

Editor's note: This is the first story in a weekly series published each Monday between Memorial Day and Veterans Day honoring local veterans.

WARREN - Police Sgt. Martin Gargas says the military fulfilled one promise they made when joining up, but he got more than he bargained for when he started.

Gargas, who retired after 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve as a first sergeant and has been a Warren police officer for almost 20 years, said he wanted to travel when he joined the service and he was promised he would get to. That promise, he said, was fulfilled.

But it was the legendary Marine Corps boot camp that was more than he bargained for, even though the North Bloomfield native said he knew it would be tough when he joined right out of high school.

''I knew it would be challenging,'' Gargas said recently outside the police station as he finished up his shift for the day. ''There's a lot of games the drill instructors can play in boot camp, and I got to play them all.''

But he said the tough beginning was perfect for preparing him for a six month stint in Iraq during the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He served as first sergeant in an military police company that was stationed in Dayton and attached to the 1st Marine Division.

In war and in police work, confusion and stress is often the norm. And if there is one thing a Marine Corps drill instructor excels at, it is putting young recruits into confusing, stressful situations, Gargas said.

''Marine Corps drill instructors are renowned for putting you into stressful situations,'' Gargas said. ''It was extreme preparation for everything else that happened to me the rest of my career.''

Before he served in the MP company, Gargas was a company gunnery sergeant at the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve unit based at the airbase in Vienna. He said he loved his time and the people he served with there.

Gargas' unit arrived in Iraq about nine or 10 days after the invasion in 2003, he said, and while there was some action, the resistance was not as organized as it became in the later days of the war and occupation.

''Hectic and confusing,'' he described his time in Iraq. ''It was a fast moving war.''

As first sergeant, Gargas was a conduit between the officers in his company and the enlisted men. He said one of his priorities was to check on the welfare of his men, which included making sure they got regular mail, had no problems with their pay and had a chance to clean up or blow off steam.

Once, he even helped to arrange the rigging of showers using garbage cans and containers to give his Marines the chance to get clean at least every other day, which did wonders for morale in the dusty desert.

Equally as important was making sure the men knew the mission, their responsibilities and the responsibilities of the unit and the overall situation. He credited other noncommissioned officers in his company for their help.

''That's a daily job,'' Gargas said.

His unit's top priority while in the war zone was escorting convoys and guarding prisoners of war, who were mostly a motley lot made up of mercenaries from the Middle East.

''They were docile,'' Gargas said. ''There were no escape attempts on our watch.''

As for the people, he said they appreciated the help from the Americans but the impression he got was that once their help was no longer necessary, they wanted them to leave.

''They wanted us there, but they made it clear they wanted us to go once they were ready to do it by themselves,'' Gargas said. ''That's what this whole thing was all about was allowing them to control their own destiny.''

His time in he Marines helps him immensely on the streets as a police officer, Gargas said.

''You go into confusing, loud situations and you need to keep your cool,'' Gargas said of police work. ''It helps you to keep your cool and maintain your will.''