Golden State Guard protects line in Najaf

17 Jul 2003 | Army Sgt. Mike Sweet

In this province of nearly 1 million people, a platoon of military police from the California National Guard is the thin green line protecting law and order.

Taking from the police phrase "the Thin Blue Line", which denotes the final barrier between order and chaos, the 1st Platoon, 870th Military Police Company, based in Pittsburgh, Calif., is the military police unit now supporting the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in stabilizing An Najaf.

The unit had pretty big boots to fill when the arrived in An Najaf on early in July, according to Army Staff Sgt. Martin Antone, a public safety advisor for the governate support team who works as a liaison between the Marines and the community. 

"Before (the 870th) got here, we had two other military police companies that had been here" said Antone, who uses his civilian job experience as a detective sergeant for a police department in Oneida, Wis. to advise and help train the An Najaf police. "These guys are doing an amazing job."

The platoon of soldiers replaced an active-duty Army MP company, which was reassigned to an area near Baghdad.

The Golden State Guardsmen has been involved in all police matters in the province, according to 1st Lt. Michael A. Drayton, 1st Platoon platoon leader, who works as a fraud investigator for an insurance company in his civilian job.  Besides working with the local police department, unit members have helped arrest dangerous criminals during raids and have worked closely with the Marines providing local security.

A former Marine and veteran from the first Gulf War and Afghanistan, Drayton is intensely proud of his soldiers' motivation.

"When we got here they had only two people in the (Najaf) jail," said Drayton, who lives in Los Alamotios, Calif.  "Right now it is almost filled to capacity."  

He said that to ensure blanket police coverage on the streets of Najaf, his soldiers are working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. As all police officers, they never know what the next mission will bring.

With only a handful of gas stations in a city with nearly a million people, motorists' patience runs thin when gas lines snake around the block, taking up two lanes of traffic.  The 870th works with the local police to keep the lines orderly and moving. 

Part of the process includes a brief lesson in human rights and introduces some Iraqis to the notion of everybody is equal and no one is privileged enough to skip to the front of the long line.

"We turn everybody away," said Army Spc. Timothy D. Noble, a military policeman from Concord Calif., as he describes how the MPs deal with fuel interlopers.  "We turn cops away, ambulances away.  Everybody has to wait."

One of Najaf's finest did not seem to get the word that the days when the old regime's henchmen got to go to the front of the line was over.

While in uniform, a police officer drove his personal little red motorcycle in through the exit and snuck into an open gas pump.  Army Staff Sgt. Mathew J. Passino, a squad leader for 1st Platoon, was not amused. The Livermore, Calif. resident sprinted to the noncompliant officer and with the aid of his interpreter, demanded that he go to the end of the line as everyone else.

"I work very closely with the chief of police and he has given us the authority to discipline the police officers," Drayton said. "We can fire a police officer on the spot if I feel it is necessary." 

Most of the confrontations do not end this way.  With some of the MPs standing watch over the lines of cars while keeping an eye on their fellow soldiers, a few inside the gas station work with local police to keep the lines of cars moving.

They direct cars to the next free gas pump, and make sure nobody blocks the entrance or exit.  Passino's exuberance is picked up throughout the gas station as he shouts "move, move; next car move."

Patrons and gas attendants begin to mimic his words to others at the station and erupt in laughter when a customer is caught trying to sneak in or take too much time to drive up to the next free pump.

With the lines moving in an orderly fashion, the MPs load up in their armored Humvees and start looking for people selling fuel on the black market.  Men carrying olive oil cans of diesel or driving donkey carts full of kerosene prey on motorists desperate to avoid the long lines.

"The problem is that these people tap into the pipelines and steal the fuel," said Antone, a resident of Green Bay, Wis.  "Not only is it dangerous, but you cannot imagine the amount of environmental damage they do."

The team of MPs swoop down on an unsuspecting black marketer who was pumping gas from the back of his pick-up truck using old steal drums full of diesel.

After they confiscated his truck and his entire load of fuel, the MPs tell the man that if he wants his truck back he will have to go to the local police station and talk to the chief. 

"All of this fuel will either be used for police cars or we'll give it to the hospital for their ambulances," Passino said.

The unit not only deals with economic fraud but since the local police still do not have a lot of confidence, they ask the Guardsmen to go with them on as many runs as possible. 

"They are a little scared, still," said Army Sgt. Alfredo F. Gonzales, who is a supervisor for the Concord, Calif. post office.  "I don't blame them.  We have flak jackets and roll up on a scene with a Humvee with a machine gun on top.  We do not get too many people who want to resist us."  

The unit's aggressiveness has become almost legendary among the local police.  Shortly before the Golden State Guardsmen arrived in Najaf, several police officers where murdered. The unit's first priority was to conduct raids to go after the suspects.

"We like working with the Americans," said Najaf police Capt. Hydar Rohen, a nine-year veteran of the Iraqi Army who was hired recently by the Najaf Police Department.  "They are ready to do anything for us."

By the end of July, the 988th Military Police Company, an Army unit based at Fort Benning, Ga., joined the "First Team," Marines in Najaf, and the platoon of National Guardsmen were then relieved of this mission and allowed to rejoin the rest of there company in Karbala, north of Najaf. 

In recognizing the unit, the Marine commander in Najaf awarded the Navy Achievement medal to Drayton before he took his troops north.

"These guys did the job of a MP company with just a platoon," said Lt. Col. Christopher C. Conlin, Battalion Command for the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment.  They did it professionally and with just the right amount force to get the job done."