Marine platoon 'rescues' Hebron Exercise: A military invasion of Hebron results in a successful training mission and good will among residents.

September 05, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

HEBRON -- A platoon of Marines took over this small Wicomico County farming community Thursday morning. No shots were fired (at least not real ones), no one was killed, no one injured.

The townspeople -- all 675 of them, it seemed -- practically rejoiced at the simulated military rescue mission that concluded yesterday when transport helicopters swooped down on Goose Green Farm and hauled the troops back to their base in Quantico, Va.

The 54 lieutenants, all within a few weeks of being stationed as infantry platoon leaders at Marine depots around the world, spent the better part of Thursday patrolling this small town about 10 miles outside Salisbury.

As written in the script, Hebron was standing in for a small town in Bosnia or Somalia or anywhere else the Marines might be sent for limited military or humanitarian missions.

According to the scenario written by military instructors, the officers were ordered to protect the town from a small band of insurgents who had assassinated the minister of agriculture.

After setting up a command post in Town Hall, Marines carrying M-16s scattered in small groups all over town, occasionally searching a vacant building for weapons, looking for insurgents (played by instructors in civilian clothes) and interacting with the residents.

Designed to provide a more realistic setting for the advanced stages of the Marines' training in urban warfare, the Hebron exercise couldn't have gone better, said Marines and residents.

"It has been so much fun," said M. Janet Schlesinger, Hebron's town manager. "They've been so polite, I can hardly stand it. It's been a great experience. The kids have followed them around on bicycles. The old folks came out and pulled up lawn chairs."

Military objectives were clearly met, too, said instructors who set up the exercise.

"The whole idea was to put the lieutenants in an uncertain, unpredictable situation, a totally unfamiliar location where there are civilians and combatants, and you don't always know who's who," said Capt. Charles Black Jr., an instructor at Quantico.

It is Black who has the Hebron connections. About 10 years ago, his father, Charles Black Sr., bought the farm that provided a helicopter landing site yesterday.

"I came up with the idea of doing this, and we made a presentation to the Town Council," Captain Black said. "Everybody seemed to think it would work."

Well, not everybody.

All week, the Wicomico County sheriff's office got e-mail criticizing the operation or speculating that the whole thing was a dress rehearsal for a grab for power by the federal government. Others thought it was a practice run for disarming the population. Anonymous calls were made to the town office.

One man drove from Alabama in a camouflage-painted car to see what was going on.

"Yeah, there are all kinds of nuts on the Internet with something to say about this," said town Councilwoman Doris Hall. "Those weirdos, they're the ones who scare you."

A few critics have complained that the exercise was costing the town somehow. "Not a penny," Schlesinger said. Others wondered how much the Pentagon had paid. "Not a penny," Schlesinger said.

For Lt. David Winnacker of Berkeley, Calif., chatting yesterday with neighborhood children who donned child-size camouflage uniforms and tramped around town behind the trainees, the experience was one of the most effective parts of his training.

"It's one thing to train in a military setting, where everything is static, but this is something else," Winnacker said. "This causes you to think outside the box, to think what this type of situation will be like."

As the young officers gathered outside Town Hall yesterday, Col. Robert E. Lee, commanding officer of the infantry training program at Quantico, reminded the troops that they had scored significant public relations gains, as well.

"You are their Marine Corps when they see you out in their community," Lee said. "People can see you're there for them. People can see you're not just a bunch of knuckle-draggers."

The Hebron exercise was a first for the Marines, but with the success of this week's operation, the corps may be trying it again in Hebron or elsewhere, Black said.

That news sits well with town officials. Hall and Schlesinger said they would welcome the Marines back anytime.

Pub Date: 9/05/98

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