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This likely remains the most ridiculous military exercise I ever participated in during my four years with Uncle Sam. It was dumb from the get-go, run by total incompetence of command, and in one situation was a threat to Air Force assets and the personal safety of flight crews. As you may already know, I was an Air Force Security Police Specialist (SP) and this was in 1974 while I was stationed at Grissom AFB in Indiana (now reduced to a joint air reserve station status). At the time the airbase was assigned the Strategic Air Command role of supporting the alert launch status of KC-135 air refueling tanker aircraft. While they were not bombers or carrying nukes they were critical as they had secret orders to rendezvous at certain locations on the globe to refuel our nuclear-laden bombers in flight toward their assigned targets. Interestingly, my story here has nothing to do with that.
We reported to work for our duty shifts at a one-story building called, CSC (Central Security Control). It housed our immediate command structure up to the squadron commander (a captain), administration, and the radio dispatcher. Inside there was a large room for training and meeting purposes. One day they asked for a number of “volunteers” to go through some base-level riot control exercise. I think we were promised an extra day off or something as an inducement. Whatever it was I signed up for it.
Wait, you say! Why would an active duty military installation need to have riot control exercises when the military is prevented by law under the Posse Commitatus Act (no active military can be used against the civilian population unless directed by the President of the U.S. and only if that meets the elements of the Insurrection Act)? Well, riot control training had been part of SP training since the middle 1960’s as preparedness to the growing civilian racial struggle spreading to military installations. Yes.. riot control was intended for deployment ON base, and not in the civilian world off base. In fact, a number of military installations did have increasing racial tensions but obviously because of the small military communities living on base and the tighter controls for proper conduct among military personnel there were no “riots”. Also… the civilian riots in major cities at the time, whether anti-war or racial, did give heightened attention toward military riot control preparedness in the event the President had to invoke his powers under the Insurrection Act (the only time that ever occurred was the 1992 Los Angeles Riots… some 18 years after my service). So by and large we all considered riot control exercises/training as just busy work with little or no substance or consequence… and looking back on my four years of service, I was involved in some level of riot control training only three times, totaling just a few hours, so it obviously wasn’t the military’s priority either.
What did riot control training encompass? Well, here’s the interesting aspect to it all. Imagine going back to the Napoleonic way the military fought battles in the Revolution or even the Civil War. Armies fought face-to-face, in long lines. Troops moved to the orders given by officers waving their swords in the air. Based on those commands the lines of troops moved left, right, forward, marching fast, slow, stopping to fire on command, or a full run. The enemy in turn reacted accordingly by standing to fight or running away in chaos and confusion. The same follows in riot control. Those lines of cops have to be directed to move in cadence and together by an officer who interprets the threat of the crowd of demonstrators ahead of them. If the cops are armed with weapons or batons they have to have them ready for orders from the commanding officer… and then everyone pulls them out together. By comparison, you might remember those old black & white photos of the civil rights demonstrators in the Southern cities of the 60’s… police just wildly running into them and clubbing the demonstrators at random to disperse them, exercising no discipline (much less compassion) whatsoever. By the early 70’s crowd dispersal had evolved… a little.
The early mindset in riot control in those days was that the crowd had to disperse in order for the police to regain safe control of the public. It was considered that by the time police were brought into crowd control that damage and destruction to public property was being accomplished by levels of anarchists and persons intent on mass hysteria, chaos, and disrupting authority. It was thought that a show of force by police would be part of the response effect, and certainly would be intimidating without having to use weapons or chemicals or batons and causing injury. That’s why police used to dress up to look threatening to the crowds.. carried rifles (not loaded), sometimes fixed bayonets.. and holding them in aggressive stances to look mean and threatening. Even movements were scripted to look intimidating.
One such command was the “stomp & drag”. We held our M-16’s pointed out in front of us, the muzzle pointed slightly up over the crowd, then on command we’d stomp hard forward with our right foot and let our left foot slide back up to meet the right foot.. and repeating that in cadence… the long line advancing slowly and relentlessly. On a city street that was quite an intimidating sight and sound… a wall of military-looking guys marching toward you, rifles pointing at you in a bayonet-thrusting stance, with a sound like goose-stepping storm troopers. A bit disconcerting to a first-time demonstrator.
On with my war story. Normal training typically included an officer shouting commands and us troopers learning to move together in a line and in step to the various line movements. There were usually no more than maybe 15 or 20 of us in a line; it’s not like we had an entire platoon when we did these things. Sometimes it would be a role play thing.. buddy cops would dress as civilians and be the screaming “demonstrators” ahead of our line to somehow provide some level of realism to the exercise.
In this exercise my volunteer group (there were two groups) was to report to the meeting room dressed in civilian clothes. We were handed each a large plastic lawn-type garbage bag and a ream of copy machine paper (still called “typing paper” in those ancient days). Then we were told to crumple into a ball one sheet of paper and put the crumpled balls of paper into the plastic bags. These were to be our “rocks”. Rocks?
When we finished filling our bags of “rocks” the Sergeant began briefing us.
“Ok, listen up you guys.”, he said.. sitting on the desk in the front of the room.
“This exercise is a two phase exercise. This is a base exercise… meaning it will involve two different locations on base and evaluate how quickly base personnel responds to you rioters in calling us SP’s. You guys are the rioters. Phase one… you will all report to the large parking lot behind the headquarters building. Leave your “rocks” here for now.. that’s phase two.”
“What do we do there, Sarge?”, someone quipped up, looking confused.
“You will move as a group so as to look threatening to people. You will not touch or damage vehicles or property. If you see personnel coming in and out of the building you are expected to create a disruption by yelling at them BUT.. you are NOT to use swear words. You do not tell the officers or the base commander if you see him, or anyone else ‘Fuck you asshole.’ Or ‘Go eat shit!’ You may use language and derogatory phrases that are NOT racial. ‘Your mother wears combat boots!’ would be more like what you might say.”
Grins came across our faces. Then came the obvious barrage of example terms we’d like to say versus what we can say and not get arrested.
“Can I say ‘Bite me!’, Sarge?”
“What about ‘Suck off!’?” (that one was approved)
Anyway, we were really getting into this. The problem is there were only about 10 of us. Hardly an intimidating group; a pretty small riot. Not being able to swear and curse (and hurl feces) like real rioters would be a disadvantage here also.
Now, the idea here is that one of our sergeants would be off to the side evaluating responses and our performance to make sure we didn’t get too carried away. He also had a stop watch and walkie talkie to time how long before someone inside the building would call the SP’s. Once the call would come in then the second group of volunteers, dressed in duty uniform, would arrive dressed to face a bunch of “rioters”, us, they had to disperse. “Riot dress” meant a military helmet with face guard and an unloaded M-16 rifle (no Kevlar-anything in those days, and certainly no gas masks as the SP’s did not have any chemical dispersing agents like tear gas in the armory. Although we did have an M29 81mm mortar and a tripod-mounted M1919 30 cal. machine gun… both no one knew how to operate… in the event the base would come under attack…. um, in rural Indiana).
Phase One –
Well, we drove as a group in an SP van to base HQ and got out in the back parking lot. We were all a bit skittish at first. I mean, we were being asked to do something we’d normally go to Leavenworth for, or at least a dishonorable discharge. We felt a bit stupid. Then we saw our first “victim”. A lieutenant coming down from the second floor stairs.
“Hey, scumbag!”, one of my buddies yelled at him.
I yelled out rather timidly, “Um.. your mother wears army boots… uh.. sir.”, making sure I didn’t break my military bearing with an officer.
The other guys laughed. That got us into gear.
Someone else parked their car and was heading into the building.. we moved as a group to her… she was a two stripe WAF. Thinking, “Careful.. no sex stuff.” I yelled at her, “Your car sucks!” The other guys just looked at me in confusion. “Well.. hey.. this not swearing thing is a real handicap here.” The girl just smiled and went into the building.
“We gotta step this up here”, I thought.
It was the end of the day so more personnel were leaving the building. “Hey scumbucket!” “You jerk!!” “You putz!” “You look like an idiot!” The phrases all started becoming more routine to us now. I saw a guy I knew from aircraft maintenance; he saw me and walked over.
“Hey, Burk.. what are you guys doing here?”, looking confused but smiling. I told him he can’t talk to us because we were on a secret mission as rioters. “Hey, can you go inside and call this in so we can get outta here?”, I asked him. He just laughed and drove off.
After a while we began to wonder if anyone had called CSC. Finally after 45 minutes, the sergeant/referee came over and called this phase of the exercise finished; no one called the cops. Strangely we felt we didn’t do our job effectively… in spite of the fact we had low numbers, couldn’t swear, and even in civilian clothes we looked like a college glee club. Fortunately we were not being judged for our ability to be G-rated rioters.
Phase Two –
Our little group of rioters drove back to CSC and we picked up our bags of “rocks” and proceeded over to a location on the parking tarmac, near a large hangar.
The Sarge said, “Ok… you guys start throwing your “rocks” at people and vehicles that go by.” I quipped up, “You mean we throw these paper wads at them as if they were rocks? Right out here on the flight line?” I was noting the slight breeze, and there were less base personnel here to “taunt” because this location on the flightline was a bit remote and less traveled. I was also concerned about our “rock” throwing accuracy given tossing paper wads have an effective range at a full strength toss of about 4 feet. But I was only a three striper at that time; well below the pay grades of those making the tough and informed decision to have this exercise. So I didn’t question my orders. Besides, my three stripes made me an NCO… non-commissioned officer, so I was expected to press the others forward and lead by example. Yeah.
The sarge said yes. “Use your verbiage you used at HQ.”, he said. “This time we will not only measure the time before someone calls you guys in to CSC but also the response time of the other group in riot gear, their arrival on the scene here, and how they follow commands to disperse you.”
Again, we looked confused at each other, but opened our rock bags and started throwing around the paper wads at the occasional flight line vehicle passing by. I was thinking how this looked to some guy a half mile away in the control tower staring at us with binoculars. I thought to myself, “This won’t take long.”
One buddy looked at me and said under his breath, “These lifers are fucked up, man.” “I know.”, I said.
(“Lifers” was a term to describe people making a career in the military, versus one-term enlistees like most of us. Lifers were in charge, had the authority, and dreamed up war games just to keep us busy. Military life was important to them, while transitional to us enlistees. We wanted out and they wanted in… yada, yada)
Vehicles drove by.. drivers waved… pedestrian personnel confused or smiling as they walked by.
It didn’t take long before the paper wads started blowing around in the breeze. Now if you been around jet engines you know that they tend to suck air in.. and foreign objects on a runway can be sucked up and ruin an engine and/or endanger the occupants. We were intentionally throwing around light paper wads and they were blowing around the flight line. We just shook our heads. Still, no one called CSC.
Suddenly along comes an FOD vehicle.. think of it as a big vacuum cleaner.. or a Zamboni for the runway. Its only job is to go up and down the runway sucking up foreign objects for disposal (hence, FOD; objects such as small parts left by maintenance, bits of tires, organic debris from high winds, etc.). Someone somewhere at the base ops control tower didn’t bother to call the cops to arrest the idiots on the far end of the flight line throwing paper and endangering aircraft, they just sent over an FOD to clean up the paper. That’s the military for ya.
Somewhat frustrated, the sarge said that they were going to “simulate” someone calling the cops.. and the riot police were going to come and do their thing with us hurling paper rocks at them. Well, we were all out of “rocks”. So we ran around the flight line trying to grab them before the FOD truck got them all. I again thought how we looked to the guy in the control tower with the binoculars.
Finally the “riot police” group came. They had about 15 of them. So we stood in front of them to give them a target to stomp & drag toward, all the while hurling what was left of the paper rocks and our G rated taunting. The whole thing was a Keystone Cops event. We saw our buddies laughing behind their face masks, we laughed back. Their stomp & drag was so far out of cadence to the officer’s commands (I dare say some of that was intentional; Ghandi had it right using passive resistance). It made Pvt. Gomer Pyle’s buddies look like a precision marching unit by comparison. The lieutenant finally called a halt to it all and we all went back to CSC to dress down the equipment and go home.
To this day I have no idea what the official report was, if there was any, regarding the exercise.
I would like to say that our Lieutenant was transferred to a radar post in Nome, Alaska…
I’d also like to say that our Sergeant was forced out of the military an opened a chain of 7 Eleven’s in Orange County….
I’d also like to say I was recognized for my outstanding contribution to Operation Riot Control, awarded the President’s Medal of Freedom, and promoted up two ranks…
But, alas, none of that it true. It was just another day in the military.
Your parents’ tax dollars at work.
I am reminded of an old military bromide…
We are the unwilling
Led by the unqualified
To do the unnecessary
For the ungrateful.