Lawyer schools troops on rules of engagement
April 19, 2003
BASHUR AIRFIELD, Iraq — A young boy holding a small box emerges from a crowd lining a busy village street.
Despite warnings in the local language to stop, the boy continues to approach your Humvee. It appears he’s trying to give you the package or to place it inside the vehicle.
What do you do?
Or what about a man who slips through the concertina wire, grabs an M-16 and departs? You first spot him running on the other side of the perimeter fence, his backside facing you. The barrel of the gun is pointed down in a nonthreatening position.
What do you do? What is the proper — and legal — course of action?
Cradling a rules-of-engagement book in his right hand, Capt. Oren Leff is running these and other scenarios past a pair of young Air Force cops manning a bunker just off the runway at Bashur airfield in northern Iraq. He wants them to imagine such events unfolding and to sensitize them to what may loom ahead on their next shift or the one after that.
“You are not at peacetime,” Leff reminds Senior Airman Danielle Spencer and Airman 1st Class Phillip Polite. “You are in a combat zone. There are people here who want to kill you.”
Twice a week, the 31-year-old lawyer from Longmeadow, Mass., makes the rounds of the defensive fighting positions encircling the airfield. Airmen assigned to the 786th Security Forces Squadron, which is attached to the 86th Expeditionary Contingency Response Group, man the posts on a rotating basis.
While Iraqi Kurdish soldiers — allies of the United States — guard the primary gates, air base security ultimately rests with the young men and women of the 786th SFS, which consists of airmen from RAF Mildenhall, England, and Spangdahlem and Ramstein air bases in Germany.
Aside from visiting the outposts, Leff, with the assistance of paralegal Staff Sgt. Tobi Erskine, drafts wills, handles military justice issues and advises the commander on contract, acquisition and international matters.
But the bi-weekly tours afford Leff the opportunity to leave the paperwork behind and challenge and educate young airmen about the rules of engagement from a legal standpoint.
With concerns about suicide bombers, it’s imperative, he says, to get base defenders thinking about the whole gamut of possibilities. After all, they represent the last line of defense. That applies to defenders at any installation, whether they are deployed to Afghanistan or Kosovo, or back at their home station.
Often, he adds, making the right decision comes down to accurately perceiving what constitutes a hostile act and what doesn’t. Sometimes it’s black and white; sometimes there are gray areas.
“Nobody else is going to make that decision for you. I’m sleeping over there,” he tells Spencer and Polite, pointing to the camp. “It’s your decision.”
On this day, Spencer, 22, and Polite, 21, are nearly acing their oral exam.
When Leff poses the following scenario, there is little hesitation by them or another pair of airmen who preceded them.
Here’s the situation: You’re on guard duty at a main gate. A truck suddenly crashes through the barricades a short distance ahead of you and shows no sign of slowing down.
“What do you do?” Leff asks the previous tandem, Senior Airman Stephanie Occhipinti, 23, and Airman 1st Class Ed Crofoot, 20.
“You shoot him, sir,” Occhipinti responds.
Military officials here and elsewhere are loath to divulge their rules of engagement. For this story, all of the answers, save for Occhipinti’s correct response, are being withheld at the request of the Air Force for force protection purposes.
Leff says the above scenario underscores a troop’s inherent right of self-defense, as well as those whose back he’s covering. The key is “hostile intent,” and a truck barreling through a barricade constitutes a hostile act, similar to unprovoked gunfire.
“You guys probably have the most difficult job out here,” Leff says as Occhipinti and Crofoot stand alongside their sandbag post. “You have to defend yourself and the rest of us. We depend on you.”
The rules of war are changing, Leff notes.
In World War II, troops had a much easier time identifying combatants and noncombatants. Today, with suicide bombers of all types, a troop doesn’t know if an elderly man or a pregnant woman — as was the case March 29 south of Baghdad — is a threat or not.
“It’s a scary thought,” Occhipinti says of the dilemma to shoot or hold fire against an unconventional foe, “but it’s our job.”
Kevin Dougherty is embedded with the Air Force at Bashur airfield in northern Iraq.