Protest ops squad ready to be Kunsan's wall
TAEGU, South Korea — There had been no violence so far, so the Kunsan Air Base protest squad just stayed behind the wall, out of view of the South Korean protestors who were shouting for the U.S. military to go home.
About 90 minutes into the demonstration last fall, Staff Sgt. Brian Dwyer spotted smoke and flames rising from a house right outside the base gates.
The blue-clad Korean National Police handled the fire and the crowd. They guarded the base’s outer perimeter.
“They actually burnt down a person’s home outside,” said Dwyer, an instructor with the 8th Security Forces Squadron at Kunsan. “Violence was quite possible and could have escalated more.”
Had the demonstrators tried to force their way inside the base, Kunsan’s protest operations squad — made up of Air Force police officers who come up on the protest ops roster on a rotating basis — would have dashed from their staging place and formed a line against intruders.
“They would set up in a line to act as a wall,” said Tech. Sgt. Kent Nichols, sergeant-in-charge of Kunsan’s protest operations squad. “Getting past the KNP here? Not likely.”
But, he added, if protesters “found a place that wasn’t secured … then I would call my squad into place and they would act as a barrier.” And an apprehension team would have been ready to seize and handcuff intruders.
The squad is nothing new at Kunsan, but base defense at U.S. installations in South Korea has taken on fresh importance in the face of anti-U.S. protests over the past year. South Korean protesters have illegally entered U.S. installations across the peninsula, including Yongsan Garrison, headquarters for U.S. Forces Korea, and Camp Red Cloud, headquarters for the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division.
Over their green camouflage battle dress uniforms, squad members wear a black riot helmet with clear face guard, bullet-proof “second-chance vest,” black elbow pads and shin guards, and gloves, Nichols said. They’re also equipped with shields and yard-long batons.
Each officer receives riot-control training before pulling duty with the squad.
A major point the training stresses is the need for squad members to keep formation and move as one.
“The line always stays in one straight line, the left side never gets ahead of the right and the right never gets ahead of the left — they move as one,” said Airman 1st Class Christopher Clawson.
“The whole point of the protest line is to become a wall,” Dwyer said. “They’re there to block the protesters from gaining access. So there’s a certain way they march, we train ’em that way. If someone throws a firebomb or rocks at them, they have to have good command and control,” he said.
“You’re going to have people yelling, screaming, blaring loud music,” Dwyer said. “If somebody hears a command, everybody on the line repeats it as loud as they can. If somebody yells ‘Incoming!’ because there’s a Molotov cocktail tossed in on them, you have to make sure you repeat that as loud as you can … to make sure that everybody does the proper technique, or else the line is broken and everybody risks injury.”
“You’re never on your own, it’s always a team thing,” said Senior Airman Daniel Browne. “With protest ops, it’s all basically teamwork. Squad leader reports what’s going on and he wants everyone in the line to repeat it, because if everyone in the line doesn’t repeat it, it probably can’t be heard all the way down.”
“The shield goes in your left hand at all times,” Clawson said. “It’s always in front of your face. Whenever you have on your helmet, your facemask is always down, in case anything goes over the top of your shield and hits you. You keep your baton in your right hand, so protesters can’t grab it and use it against you.”
The squad is kept out of sight unless the protesters try to breach the perimeter.
“I do not put them in public view unless they’re absolutely needed,” Nichols said. “We want to keep the protesters as calm as possible. If they see a force of … security personnel, there’s a tendency they could escalate and get violent and we don’t want that to happen.
“The main purpose of the protest ops squad is defensive in nature,” he said. “The benefit to the base is obvious. Because if this program wasn’t set up and in place and a protest … did get out of hand, we’d have people who really weren’t sure of what to do.
“And you can see the potential for damage to property, and injuries,” Nichols said. “With the program in place, people actually know what to do, have an idea of what to expect, and they know how to respond to it and defend against it.”