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Spc. John Banta, left, uses a dental tool to find hidden dirt on the bolt of M249 squad automatic weapon Monday at Rhine Ordinance Barracks in Kaiserslauten, Germany. His platoon is heading to northern Iraq with a task force from the 1st Infantry Division.

Spc. John Banta, left, uses a dental tool to find hidden dirt on the bolt of M249 squad automatic weapon Monday at Rhine Ordinance Barracks in Kaiserslauten, Germany. His platoon is heading to northern Iraq with a task force from the 1st Infantry Division. (Rick Scavetta / S&S)

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — As combat winds down in Iraq and postwar lawlessness and looting spread, U.S. troops are seeing their mission change.

Now, instead of fighting to defeat an enemy, the military is working to create stability and foster democracy, leaders have said.

For members of the 3rd Platoon, 554th Military Police Company based in Stuttgart, Germany, downshifting from combat operations into a lower gear won’t be that difficult.

“We realize things are changing quickly in the theater,” said 1st Lt. Austin Akers, leader of the 3rd Platoon, nicknamed the Bull Dawgs. “A transition to peacekeeping could be something we’re called to do.”

Akers, 24, of Gainesville, Fla., told his troops to prepare for combat as they deploy to northern Iraq in support of Task Force 1-63, a 300-man air-deployable unit that is part of U.S. Army Europe’s Immediate Ready Force.

“This was an out-of-the-blue thing, but we were prepared,” Akers said. “Typically we don’t deploy, but we always train for it.”

For months, Akers’ platoon prepared to support military operations in Turkey. Even though the United States could not persuade Turkey to allow troops there, most of the platoon’s gear, including its shotguns, was shipped to Turkey without them.

The task force — centered around the Vilseck, Germany-based 1st Battalion, 63rd Armored Regiment — is scheduled to leave by early Thursday to bolster the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which jumped into Iraq on March 29. The 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, and the 201st Forward Support Battalion, also from Vilseck, round out the task force.

The 554th falls under the 95th Military Police battalion and normally deploys to help with peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo. But when task force planners realized they were short on military police, they tapped the company.

Last Monday, Pfc. Krystal Darcey, 20, of Reno, Nev., was off duty and on her way to the store when her sergeant told to pack her gear.

“We had alerts before, so I didn’t think it was serious,” Darcey said. “I guess it was.”

The 21 military police officers and one mechanic got the word on April 7, packed their gear and shipped out the following day. In typical hurry-up-and-wait fashion, the Army ordered the platoon to Rhine Ordinance Barracks, where it waited more than a week for a flight.

“I kind of expected this,” said Spc. John Banta, scraping dirt from his weapon with a dental tool. “It’s just the way the Army is.”

The extra time offered Banta a chance to explore the parts of his M249 machine gun, he said.

“I’ve found different nooks and crannies to clean,” Banta said. “That’s going to help in Iraq with all the sand there.”

A shift toward missions other than war should come easier for military police, who can fall back on specialized training in lethal use of force.

The platoon has non-lethal options. Riot batons and tear gas canisters are part of their basic gear, Akers said.

By nature, MPs understand when to use their weapons to kill, probably more than the average soldier, added Sgt. Brian Healy, an former infantryman who recently transferred to the MP corps.

“Bigger forces can bypass the lower level threats; that’s where we as MPs come in,” Healy said.

Before serving with the Bull Dawgs, Healy, 24, of Fairfax, Va., was assigned to the Old Guard burial team at Arlington National Cemetery. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Healy helped secure the Pentagon and later buried military victims. Deploying to Iraq brings to mind the suffering and pain brought upon the families of those who died, he said.

“For me, it’s a little payback for what I saw,” Healy said.

Capt. Mirko Crnkovich, commander of the 554th, believes his troops are looking forward to the assignment.

“This is a great opportunity for ... soldiers to gain experience in a combat-support role, especially with an armored task force,” he said.

“After this deployment, they’ll call themselves the Desert Dawgs.”


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