Making U.S. policy work on mean streets of Iraq

Training aims to help young troops make life-and-death decisions

December 27, 2006|By David Wood | David Wood,SUN REPORTER

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C.-- --Oblivious to the Washington debate over what to do with Iraq, a clutch of Marines in damp flak vests and helmets kneel in the chilly dark, headlamps shining on notebooks where they are carefully printing K-Roc's instructions for their next mission.

Like most of his squad, K-Roc, the slender Lance Cpl. Adam Koczrowski, is barely out of his teens. He and many of his guys are veterans of one or two tours in Iraq where their unit, Charlie Company, has lost 22 dead. They got back from Iraq in May, and they're about ready to go again.

With no hand in its making, they nonetheless are stuck with taking whatever new strategy emerges and making it work in the gritty, murderous landscape of Iraq. That's a tall order. Neat solutions to Iraq have so far eluded Washington's senior policymakers, still struggling to sort out Iraq's complexities and corruptions, its shifting sectarian allegiances and mindless violence.

These Marines and tens of thousands of other U.S. troops about to rotate into Iraq will have to figure it out on the street, making near-instantaneous decisions that carry deadly consequences. "Stand by to take casualties and be confused," K-Roc says sardonically as dawn breaks on another long training day.

His squad of seven men - it is supposed to have 12 - will travel through a mock Iraqi city here, a dread zone of concrete rubble, narrow streets and burned-out cars. Instructors will try to rattle the Marines with deafening explosions simulating roadside bombs, snipers firing blanks and insurgents firing simulated rocket-propelled grenades that are launched out of dark alleys with unnerving abruptness.

Treating the severely wounded and evacuating the dead are major preoccupations.

Iraqi men with hooded eyes watch from the shadows. They are suicide bombers or occasional snipers - or just jobless and hopeless. At least they convincingly play those roles as part of a contingent of several dozen Iraqis hired from Michigan for the training here.

But this is no simple point-and-shoot game. Based on hard-won experience in Iraq, the Marine Corps has escalated its training from simple weapons drills to more complex urban scenarios where Marines interact with the residents and must make judgments about how much force to use in tense situations - just like local police officers. This eerie replication of Iraq's mean streets was built specifically to train all deploying Marines. Some of the Iraqis they encounter here are friendly innocents. Some are angry but harmless. Some play the roles of Iraqi soldiers or police assigned to work with the Marines. They are armed, not necessarily trusted. Others play killers.

Over and over, K-Roc's men work through "escalation of force" drills. Confronting an angry crowd, you might raise your weapon after repeated warnings, but better if you use the interpreter to pull aside two of the leaders and ask, "Hey, what's bugging you guys, and how can we help?"

"You have to think through the second- and third-order consequences, like what if they don't stop, what if this, what if that," says Lt. Patrick Lukanich, K-Roc's stern platoon leader, who is trying to cram as much experience into his men as possible before they arrive on the streets of Ramadi. "I heard a couple of you saying I am what-iffing you to death. Well, OK, let's do it here, not when we get over there," Lukanich lectures.

"Over there" is on everyone's mind. Pausing to consider how to phrase his hopes for the next few months, K-Roc ejects a stream of tobacco juice. "Get home safe, with no casualties in my squad or my platoon," he says.

His squad has just spent a pleasant hour in a cafe set up here by the Michigan Iraqis. They've played dominoes with robed Iraqi men, joked and flirted with giggling Iraqi girls at tables heaped with flat bread and fragrant stew, even danced wildly to Iraqi music. It's part of learning that not all Iraqis, as one officer says, "are out to kill us."

Now they've hoisted on 50 pounds of body armor, weapons, ammunition and other gear, and are plodding up a street with nerves jangling, spread out in formation so a single grenade round won't kill more than one of them.

"I am scared to go, but so is everybody," says Lance Cpl. Steven Levine, a 19-year-old squad radio operator from Northeast Baltimore. "You've just got to trust your unit."

Here comes a car careening around a corner, and Marines have about five seconds to determine whether it is a suicide bomber or a family on the way to market. If they judge wrong, their squad might be blown to smithereens, or an innocent family could be shredded by automatic rifle fire and the Marines brought up on charges of killing civilians.

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