Danger `second nature' to Md. civilian soldiers

Life has flip-flopped for Maryland National Guardsmen sent to Afghanistan. With their extended duty, home is now part time.

March 21, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - The August night when three Maryland National Guard military police units arrived in Afghanistan, several rockets shrieked into the neighborhood near their Kabul base.

The MPs raced through their mazelike compound, not far from the U.S. Embassy. They sealed the gates, conducted a hurried headcount and checked for damage. The missiles went wide, but the assault made a big impression on the Guardsmen.

"That night was completely chaotic," recalled Spc. Michael Morehouse, 26, a Baltimore native who lives in Bowie, as he sat in the scraggly shade of a tree a few days ago. "We thought: `Oh, we're not in the States anymore.'"

Last weekend, when missiles were fired toward the Presidential Palace, the MPs knew exactly what to do. "Now, it's second nature," Morehouse said.

Life for these part-time soldiers, who in quieter times could expect two weeks of training a year, has been turned upside down. It's their civilian life that seems to be a part-time thing now. And because they stand near the shadowy front line of a hard-to-define war, each day they face a mixture of tedium and tension.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the 290th MP Company, based in Parkville; the 200th, based in Salisbury; and the 115th, based in both locations, were activated and told to report for duty at the Pentagon.

For weeks, the Maryland-based military police - many of them police officers in civilian life - helped FBI investigators hunt for evidence and retrieve human remains there, and they stood guard as construction workers rebuilt the shattered structure.

In June, the three units were called up for deployment to Afghanistan. They arrived in early August, the night of the rocket attacks.

Since then, more rockets, a suicide bombing and other blasts have hit Kabul. Scores of Afghans and foreigners have died across the country in a resurgence of violence blamed on al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Most of the MPs work at the Combined Forces Command Afghanistan, headquarters of Lt. Gen. David Barnow, who directs the 13,500 U.S.-led coalition troops in Afghanistan.

The MPs are in charge of sentry posts spaced along the walls of the sprawling complex. They patrol its perimeter in Humvees and stand guard at the gates. The work might not be exciting. But if foes of the coalition decide to attack in the Afghan capital, the Combined Forces Command would make a tempting target.

Capt. Robert Estes, a police officer from suburban Richmond, Va., commands the Maryland MP units. He praised his men for their hard work and professionalism. But no matter how vigilant, he acknowledged, they can't guarantee that they will thwart every attack, especially by suicide bombers. "There's just no way to protect against it," he said.

The headquarters compound consists of several square blocks of a residential section of downtown Kabul, where the streets have been blocked off. Outside, it looks like a fortress. Masonry walls are protected by huge, sand-filled boxes. On top of the walls, the military has placed corrugated metal sheets, presumably to keep snipers from peering inside. And the perimeter is ringed with razor wire to stop people from climbing in.

The interior is a small city-within-a-city, much of it off limits to civilians. Streets are lined with two-story masonry villas - converted to military uses - and courtyards landscaped with grass, geraniums and pomegranate trees.

The compound swarms with heavily armed men and women. Visitors are escorted everywhere by rifle-carrying guards. Journalists are required to sign pledges not to disclose details of the compound's defenses.

Wearing full body armor and carrying his assault rifle, Staff Sgt. Ronald Vega, 48, of Parkville - a big, broad-shouldered man with a gentle manner - strolled through the headquarters compound on a recent night, moving from sentry post to sentry post. It was his job this evening to keep moving among the posts, making sure that each one was ready to respond to any assault.

The New York native spent 10 years on the Baltimore police force, then joined the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission police in 1990.

After Sept. 11, Vega worked at the Pentagon hunting for victims and their personal effects as part of a mortuary unit. In the weeks after the attack, he watched from a distance as honor guards performed a half-dozen burials a day at Arlington National Cemetery across the road. "It's something you'll never forget."

Compassion for Afghans

Like most Americans, he said, he wanted to "get even" for the attacks. But he has nothing but compassion, it seems, for the plight of most Afghans.

Outside the compound walls, widows in grimy burqas, the head-to-toe veils once required by the Taliban, beg for enough money to eat. Toddlers sit and splash in gutters with their orange-tinted hair, a symptom of malnutrition. Children fight over scraps from garbage heaps.

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