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Iraq

Policing the peace is just part of war

By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2003


FORT STEWART, Ga. -- The day after a euphoric crowd cheered a toppling statue of Saddam Hussein, soldiers from two Army Reserve units based in Tampa gathered in concrete-block barracks for a sobering briefing about explosives.

Not one of these men and women in fatigues looked euphoric. Their faces showed only concentration, the kind that comes from hearing someone explain how not to die.

An explosives expert set Russian and Italian land mines onto the concrete floor Thursday and said they were "probably going to start sprouting up like weeds." Then he held up a particularly nasty device called a submunition, which the soldiers might find stuck in the desert. "It wants to kill you and it wants to kill you bad," he warned.

Baghdad has fallen and some have all but declared victory in Iraq. But soldiers from the Tampa Bay area with the 317th Military Police Battalion and the 810th Military Police Company know their war has not ended.

They left homes in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and other Florida counties about three weeks ago and have trained continuously at this southern Georgia military base. Now they're waiting for their part in the war to begin.

With looting and chaos in Baghdad streets, the need for law and order becomes clearer every day. The 317th is a military police battalion, so law and order is part of its job.

"We have the hardest part coming up. We're doing peacekeeping," said Spc. Royale Heart, 21, of Palm Harbor, who left her criminology studies at the University of South Florida when she was called to active duty last month. "That's going to be the hardest part of the war. Fighting it, it's over, but still you have the retaliators still there."

Three MP companies make up the 317th, including roughly 180 soldiers in the 810th MP Co. and about 70 in the battalion's headquarters detachment.

When not on reserve duty, many work as police officers and in other law enforcement jobs. But that doesn't mean they're about to step in to become Baghdad's police force.

For one thing, the units still are awaiting deployment orders and don't even know for sure what country they'll be sent to.

These soldiers also are trained as combat MPs, whose duties extend beyond traditional police roles, including jobs as route reconnaissance, protecting supply lines, guarding prisoners of war, base security and others.

Since coming to Fort Stewart last month, all the soldiers have completed training in how to wear chemical suits, give first aid and identify tanks and explosives.

Now all are waiting to learn what their mission will be. Most assume it will be somewhere in the Middle East.

Sgt. 1st Class Brian Crawford of Plant City has been pondering the possibilities. Crawford, 36, is an active duty noncommissioned officer assigned to this reserve unit, who has spent 18 years in the military without being deployed into a combat zone. Now he faces the responsibility of deciding how the battalion's MPs should be deployed.

"There's a lot of questions you ask yourself. Am I truly ready to go?" Crawford said. "You worry about making a mistake and if that mistake is going to cost somebody their life."

As soldiers whose mission is laying down security, the enemy they mention most often is not Iraqis, but complacency.

"My worst fear is a buddy of mine going out on a mission and getting blown up or getting shot, getting hurt ... including myself. Just getting complacent," said Heart, a graduate of Palm Harbor University High School.

For Sgt. 1st Class Clifford Holder, the explosives training provided a vivid reminder of the need to be alert. He thought back to his service in Bosnia in the 1990s, when a fellow soldier drove over a land mine. It took off the soldier's leg and looked like a blow-torch had cut off the front of his Humvee.

"It can hurt quite a few people," said Holder, 39, of Wesley Chapel.

These MPs could wind up working check points near American bases of operation, and everyone is aware of the suicide bombers who have targeted them. An explosives expert from Fort Benning, Ga., who gave his name only as Sgt. Lewis, was not encouraging on the subject.

"If a suicide bomber's going to get you, he's going to get you, I hate to say it."

He reminded them to be vigilant about looking for anything in a vehicle or on a person's body that doesn't look right. Then he gave them pointers in spite of his comments. An example: If a car looks suspicious, move other soldiers out of the way and make the driver -- not a soldier -- open the hood and trunk for inspection.

How do you deal with the danger?

"I'm trained to not really think about fear. Just trust in your training and you'll be all right," said Sgt. Forrest Fogarty, 28, of Tampa.

At the moment, the MPs are in a kind of limbo. Their main training is complete. Now they need orders to go overseas. Fogarty said that after sitting in a noisy chow hall watching images of the Hussein statue falling in Baghdad this week, "everyone was kind of wishing we were over there."

Fogarty included. Before joining the reserves he served in the 3rd Infantry Division. Based at Fort Stewart, it led the Army intoIraq, suffering many casualties.

"I'm missing it," he said. He misses his family, too, but he wishes his current mission would get started. After all, he said, "we didn't come over here to hang out at Fort Stewart."

Not everyone is as eager to go as Fogarty.

Spc. Andres Reyes of Tampa may miss the birth of his first child.

Reyes, 24, who works as a claims processor for an insurance agency, said his wife has had a difficult pregnancy, she is raising another son and a niece, and she needs him. He would like to be discharged. "That's my biggest hope."

Sgt. Kris Virga, 24, of Holiday left behind a pregnant wife, too.

"It's hard knowing my firstborn, I'm not going to be there physically," said Virga, a graduate of Ridgewood High School and St. Leo University who is a loss prevention agent for a department store. "But there's others that have done it before me. We're both strong people."

With the end of the war looming, some family members might think the job of the 317th and 810th may be over.

Spc. Dallas Walters, 30, who works in network engineering and lives in Wesley Chapel, has warned his family not to get their hopes up.

"I already prepped my family, saying 'Look, I don't care when the war ends, that doesn't mean anything to us, we're going in there,"' Walters said.

His 5-year-old daughter has a hard time understanding just how long his service could be -- up to a year.

But he added: "To be honest, she handles it a lot better than me and mom do."

-- Curtis Krueger can be reached at krueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

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