Md. guardsmen uneasy patrolling camp in desert with their guns unloaded

December 28, 1990|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Correspondent

EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- Maryland National Guardsmen -- many of whom carry guns in their jobs back home -- must patrol the perimeter of their desert camp here without bullets in their rifles.

Instead, the guardsmen have been told to carry the ammunition for their M-16 rifles in pouches clipped to their belts, according to orders from the base commander.

Soldiers say it takes between three and five seconds to load an M-16. As a result, many of these "citizen soldiers" -- members of the 400th Military Police Battalion stationed here as part of Operation Desert Shield -- say they feel unprotected in the face of a possible terrorist attack.

"They hit and run. They don't wait for you to load up," said Spc. Michael Adams, a 31-year-old truck driver from Denton who served in an anti-terrorist unit while in the Air Force.

But the commander of the battalion, Lt. Col. Cotton W. S. Bowen, said the decision to have the guardsmen patrol without live ammunition in their weapons was motivated primarily by concerns over the safety of the soldiers.

"I have to look at the safety aspects," said the colonel. "The thought of 700 men and women running around with a potentially loaded weapon is more of a risk factor than the threat conditions."

The 400th, which is based at Fort Meade, arrived in Saudi Arabia Dec. 9 and began working at its desert base here around Dec. 14. At first, under orders from the battalion commander, ammunition for the 200 Maryland guardsmen and the other reservists who manned security could not even be carried on their belts, but was rather kept within close reach in a sealed ammunition canister.

It took a week for the commanders of the five companies in the bat

talion to convince their superior, Colonel Bowen, to allow soldiers on guard duty to carry ammunition clipped to their belts, said Capt. Anthony A. Powell, the commander of the Towson-based 290th Military Police Company.

"Our main concern was that the soldiers on the perimeter didn't have ammo," said Captain Powell, 29, who is from Gaithersburg. "We fought that issue, and we won."

That victory hasn't kept some guardsmen from complaining privately or protesting silently.

On Christmas Day, as the 290th's morning formation ended, Pvt. James "Danny" Johnson, an electrician from Hollywood, Md., sat on a footlocker, his rifle resting alongside him. A Cracker Jack box -- with the words "Toy Surprise Inside" printed on it -- was jammed into the space that usually holds a magazine of ammunition.

The distribution and use of ammunition are matters decided by a battalion commander and can vary from unit to unit. The location of a company, its role and the danger associated with its mission play into that decision.

In the case of the camp housing the Marylanders in Saudi Arabia, "There's no immediate threat," Colonel Bowen said. For those soldiers on guard duty who do perceive an immediate threat, Colonel Bowen added, they are "at liberty to pull out ammunition."

In Washington, a Pentagon spokesman said the question of whether sentries should carry loaded rifles was decided by the commander in the field. But, he said, it is "pretty standard" for sentries not to have a magazine in their rifles unless the situation is particularly dangerous.

"Unless there is some reason to have the magazine in the rifle, for safety-first reasons they don't do it," the spokesman said.

The policy has caused controversy previously. In the aftermath of the 1983 terrorist bombing of a Marine camp in Beirut, Lebanon, a House

Armed Services Committee investigation found that Marine sentries at that time were not carrying loaded rifles and therefore "had no opportunity to fire" at the truck carrying the bomb that took 231 lives.

In Saudi Arabia, the Maryland guardsmen are based across a road from a small town. The camp is in sight of a heavily traveled highway.

"Anybody could sit up there with any kind of . . . high-powered rifle and take us all out," said Sgt. Graham B. Sylvester, 35, of Randallstown as he motioned toward the sand dunes that slope down from the highway to the camp.

Sergeant Sylvester, a Baltimore police officer, said he was concerned about terrorist activity. "We're in a host city, but there are still Iraqi sympathizers," he said.

Also coloring the controversy over ammunition is the fact that many of

the battalion's members are police or correctional officers who deal with firearms in their work. There are also those who have served in the armed forces, including stints during the Vietnam War. But then there are others who have fired weapons only in guard training exercises.

The approach to the camp is a short, bumpy stretch of sandy, hairpin turns framed by stacks of tires. But when Spc. Bridget Novak looks out from the guard post here, she imagines the road that led to the Marine encampment in Beirut.

The camp is "right off the road," said Specialist Novak, a secretary from Westminster who served two years in the Army before joining the National Guard.

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