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For Marines in L.A., It’s a Battle With Boredom

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lance Cpl. Mark Hale gripped his M-16 rifle, 60-round ammunition magazine locked in place, and peered into the unyielding midnight. The young U.S. Marine’s mission was simple: to protect his territory against hostilities.

It’s a scene Americans have seen many times before. Hale might have been hunkered down on the sands of Saudi Arabia or the shores of Tripoli. But he wasn’t.

Instead, the blond Marine and his buddy, Lance Cpl. Joseph Rhode, stood guarding the flank of a Vons supermarket at Avalon and El Segundo boulevards, just outside Compton. The enemy, if that’s what you call it, was nowhere to be seen, and Hale was not a happy Leatherneck.

“My plans for the weekend definitely did not include standing in front of a Vons with an M-16 fully loaded,” Hale muttered, mustering half a grin. “I was going to go to the beach. Instead I’ve got blisters on my feet. Story of my life.”

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So it went over the weekend, as 1,400 Camp Pendleton Marines waded into the chaos that has wrenched the Southland since a jury returned not-guilty verdicts against four police officers charged with assaulting Rodney G. King.

It was a historic moment--the first time in two decades that U.S. troops descended on an American city to quell domestic violence.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the riot. By the time the Marines landed in southern Los Angeles County, the civil strife had all but disappeared. This was a mission seemingly melded with the classic military motto: Hurry up and wait.

And wait.

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Yet it wasn’t all tedium. Any time a Marine straps on a canteen belt, shoulders a rifle and heads off into that uncharted territory somewhere between anxiety and fear, there’s a tale or two.

Consider the deeds of young men like Cpl. Ronald Kelley. The 23-year-old Marine was slated to bid farewell to the corps last Friday, but wanted to stick with his unit and head into Los Angeles County because of nagging worries that violence could spread to his hometown of Rosemead.

Then there’s the simple gesture of a Latina who greeted the Marines with fresh tacos when they arrived to set up base at the Compton National Guard Armory, as well as the shy smiles of a few children who tossed bubble gum to the troops.

And there are the tangled experiences of Hale, Rhode and the rest the 10-soldier detachment that fanned out early Sunday around a deserted strip mall, walking sentry beside boarded-up storefronts, smelling the stench of a burned-out complex across the street and wrestling with the uneasy experience of hitting a beachhead in their homeland.

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“It’s a terrible situation,” 1st Lt. Lance Blyth said. “I’m dreadfully sorry to be here. People may some day put this down as a changing point in history. I hope not. But here we are.”

It was a fitting conclusion to an already difficult week for Hale, Rhode and others in their 100-person infantry group, India Company. The outfit had undertaken a series of training exercises that allowed only four or five hours of sleep a night. They had gathered at 5:30 a.m. Friday for regimental formation, but expected to get off about noon to start the weekend.

Instead the orders came down: President Bush wanted them to head north to help squash the violence gripping Los Angeles.

They all had seen the television footage of looting and burning, but few really believed they’d be called in. After all, the National Guard was in Los Angeles and the police seemed to be getting the upper hand.

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But off they went, forming a mile-long caravan on Interstate 5. They were trailed by Highway Patrol escorts as they headed for the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station. Along the way, civilians honked their car horns, gave the thumbs-up and flashed the peace sign.

At Tustin, the designated staging area, the big wait began. The troops gathered inside a cavernous blimp hangar, brushing up on crowd control techniques such as the “riot stomp,” an aptly named formation in which a phalanx of baton-wielding Marines marches ominously forward.

Squad leaders gathered their troops and delivered briefings. One topic perked everyone’s ears--news about Los Angeles County’s two warring gangs, the Crips and Bloods. Word was the two had agreed to a truce so they could team up against law enforcement. There were reports of police uniforms being stolen by gang-bangers and of a large quantity of ammunition for AK-47 assault rifles being purchased in Bakersfield.

Talk spread quickly among the grunts. Some figured Marines could become targets. Pfc. Jamel Brooks, who grew up in South Los Angeles, was concerned gang members might try to “pick off” one of the military men “just for that glory to say I shot a Marine.”

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After 22 hours inside the hangar, the summons came. It was time to head north. The Marines threw on backpacks and ammo belts. Another convoy formed, snaking up the freeway to the National Guard Armory in Compton. As it moved, the chain of trucks and Humvees glittered like a string of diamonds on the pavement, as the sun reflected off the plexiglass on each Marine’s helmet.

Leaving Orange County, the Marines drew shouts of encouragement from Orange County residents who watched them pass. One young boy held up a flag.

The greeting in Compton wasn’t nearly so hospitable. “It went from waves to fingers,” Lance Cpl. Jeremy Riles noted later with a laugh. “It went from two fingers to one.”

Many troops didn’t stick around the Compton armory long. Riles, Hale, Rhode and the rest of their squad piled into a truck commanded by Sgt. Robert Doss, 24, who served during the late 1980s as a Marine Corps honor guard at the White House.

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Half a dozen trucks from India Company headed out at dusk. The throaty rumble of diesel engines cut into the evening quiet as residents began to disappear from the streets, heeding the 7 p.m. curfew.

On board Doss’ truck, the Marines cocked their M-16s and pointed them out into the night. Some stood and braced themselves against the metal hoops arching up from the truck bed like the ribs of a Conestoga covered wagon.

This was no drill. Jaws tensed. The truck trundled past fading houses, drooping picket fences and peeling cinder-block walls. A group of children playing ball in the fading light squealed and waved their hands. A few Marines allowed a smile.

At a nearby sheriff’s station, the men dropped off their backpacks. Some chowed down on their MREs--meals ready to eat. Then it was back up into the truck and off about 9:30 p.m. As the vehicles rolled out, the men jostled and joked.

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Lance Cpl. David Mihalczo would have none of the frivolity.

“This is when the fun stops!” he yelled.

Lance Cpl. Ron Brown, meanwhile, had begun to feel the effects of sleep deprivation. He took a foil pack of instant coffee, ripped it open and dumped the stuff in his mouth, finishing it off with a slug of water from his canteen. He crouched down in the truck bed and hoisted his rifle.

“Coffee is starting to kick in,” he yelled over the roar of the wind. “Let’s do it!”

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Toward the front, a Marine pulled out a camera, pointed it at his pals and recorded a memory.

The next half an hour was spent ferrying various groups to drop-off spots: The Carson Mall, a grocery store, a street corner where shops are smeared with black spray paint proclaiming “Black Owned” to ward off looters.

Finally, the truck deposited Doss and his group at the Vons strip mall.

It is a surreal scene. Plywood covered the windows on most of the shops. A clothing store’s racks had been ransacked; little is left except a jumble of flotsam on the floor. In front of the grocery store the cement walkway was smeared with a mix of grease and oil and booze from bottles dropped during a looting spree Wednesday night and Thursday.

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The troops spread out around the perimeter of the building. As they settled in, a heavyset woman with thin legs in black stretch pants jumped from a truck and began striding toward the contingent.

Mihalczo ordered her to stop.

“Go get your boss!” the woman yelled. “I don’t want to get shot!”

As the Marines waited for one of the sergeants to arrive, the woman waved a cigarette and continued to talk: “Man, you know what? It doesn’t have to be like this. You know the damn jury (in the King trial) lied!”

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When the woman said she had hoped to make a transaction at a check-cashing business closed since the riots, the Marines asked her to leave. The woman walked off, muttering.

Later, Mihalczo and Lance Cpl. Robert Olvera, 21, climbed a ladder and positioned themselves on one side of the sprawling roof of the strip mall. On the other edge were Riles and Lance Cpl. Wendell Draper, a 21-year-old native of Arkansas.

It is Draper’s first visit to Los Angeles County, even though he has been at Camp Pendleton for two years. He said he didn’t want to come back. Indeed, Draper talked longingly about getting out of the Marines in a few years and starting his own welding business back in his hometown.

“I thought it was going to be fun out here tonight,” Draper said, giving a quick, staccato laugh. “I thought we’d have a little crowd control. It gets a little boring sitting on top of a building doing nothing.”

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Riles is chain-smoking cigarettes to stay awake, lighting one with another.

“We seen about this much action,” he said, spreading his fingers a finger’s width. “We got here a little too little and a little too late.”

The night dragged on--1 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m. Nothing much happened. A dog with frayed white fur loped by. Mihalczo reported seeing a man running by a fence near the back. Police cars roared up and down the boulevards.

Down in the parking lot, Staff Sgt. John Quinlan was talking about “power naps.” Close your eyes for 15 seconds. That qualifies as a power nap.

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Sgt. Doss, meanwhile, surveyed the scene in the parking lot.

“I expected it to be slow like this,” he said. “Kuwait was just like this. It’s always the hurry-up-and-wait deal. . . . I figured it had pretty much calmed down. That’s actually better, although you always hope for some action.”

Brown said he was surprised that gang members hadn’t tested the Marines.

“I really expected them to be hard-headed and throw a challenge at us,” he said. “It’s probably good no one came out. We’d have to get down and dirty.”

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As the minutes ticked by, the Marines began to get antsy. At 4:30 a.m. a young woman walked by howling.

“Can I have a ride?” she screamed into the night. “Anyone have a cigarette?”

The Marines watched her, but didn’t make a move as she walked off.

A bit after 5 a.m., the relief squad arrived. Hale and Rhode debated what should come first, breakfast or bed.

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“If they don’t have any food ready, I’m heading straight in,” Hale said.

“Forget (the food),” Rhodes said as he tugged at his camouflage fatigues. “I’m going to dive in (bed) just like this.”


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