Day three: A lesson on deadly force

Sunday, September 11, 2005
During a briefing for National Guardsmen Saturday at Belle Chasse Naval Air Station near New Orleans, Lt. Col. Thomas Huber, an Air Force judge advocate general, used an M-16 rifle to explain the acceptable use of force. Huber said that, while better than it had been, the situation in New Orleans was still dangerous. (DON FRAZIER ~

BELLE CHASSE NAVAL AIR STATION, La. -- For the 12 months that Sgt. 1st Class Randy Seabaugh was in the heated Iraqi war zone, he was never forced to fire a single shot at another human being.

He certainly doesn't want to start now.

Because he's in hurricane-battered Louisiana. Because it would be a shot at a fellow American and not at an Iraqi enemy.

Because he's here to help.

But Seabaugh, and the other troops of the National Guard's 1140th Engineer Battalion, got a refresher course on the use of force Saturday, a day before they entered New Orleans, a place described as desperate and potentially packed with armed scavengers, vigilantes and other outlaws who may be hellbent on doing them harm.

"I'd hate to go a whole year in Iraq without making a single shot only to have to come home and shoot at a fellow American," said Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau resident and Guard communications section chief. "But you always have to be prepared. We don't know what we're going to find out there."

Most of the day Saturday was spent getting vehicles fueled, equipment packed and scouting out a potential site in New Orleans where the 1140th and its other attached units would likely set up base. Military officials believe that the makeshift unit will set up camp at the Alario Event Center before hitting the streets of New Orleans today.

While nothing is set in stone, military officials speculated that they would be removing debris, doing some scouting and security operations as well as distributing relief goods, such as food and water, to the American refugees who have lost so much at the hands of Hurricane Katrina.

'Keep your head up'

But perhaps the best information the unit got Saturday was the message from Lt. Col. Thomas Huber, a judge advocate general in the U.S. Air Force. Huber told the seated sea of soldiers that things have gotten better in New Orleans in the last 72 hours.

"When I first got here a week ago, they were shooting at helicopters, shooting at ambulances, shooting at people," he said. "It's not as bad now."

But he cautioned them there this is still an element in the town that has lost everything that wants to strike back -- at anything.

"Remember," he said. "This is urban combat. That's the worst kind of combat. There could be snipers, there could be people hiding in buildings. You never know. So keep your head up and eyes open."

With the troops struggling to find shade on a deserted runway that has been home for the last 24 hours, Huber warned them that use of force, by any means, is a serious situation.

"We're not here to kill people," Huber said, as several Black Hawk helicopters roared overhead. "These are our fellow Americans. We're here to improve their lives, not make 'em worse."

Huber, basically a military lawyer, said the only ones who could be killed were those who were murderers, rapists, arsonists, robbers or looters -- and only then if the soldier's life, the life of another citizen or the life of a fellow soldier were in serious danger.

He told the troops that they were there as an extension of law enforcement. And like with police officers, there is a big difference between physical force and deadly force.

Deadly force would be attacking someone or using the M-16 rifles or bayonet in a manner that would seriously injure another person in a way that would threaten their lives. He said that deadly force should never be used to protect property.

"If they set your Hummer on fire, let it burn," he said. "If they knock out your radio system, tough luck. But that's not a reason to shoot at someone."

Disarming the situation

There are other ways to disarm a situation, he said. People can be detained, told to stop doing what they are doing or taken into custody until the authorities can be notified.

Soldiers, who were issued 150 rounds each of live ammunition, should also be careful that their weapons are never taken from them. If a weapon is grabbed from a soldier, he said, then the suspect should be told to put it down.

Still, don't shoot at them, Huber said, as long as the weapon is pointed downward. If the suspect raises it in a manner that suggests he or she is going to shoot, then the soldier is authorized to shoot.

"Do what you got to do," he said. "Use deadly force to protect your brother who is down. You can do whatever it takes to protect yourselves. But remember, killing somebody is a serious responsibility. You'd rather have it on your conscience that you had to detain somebody than if you had to kill someone."

He said some alternatives to shooting include wrestling people to the ground or striking them into submission. He reminded them he's still talking about criminal elements -- not regular citizens.

"These are people who have lost everything," Huber said. "We're not taking anything from them except their gratitude. They're counting on us to come through for them. They've been through a hell of an ordeal."

It was a message that weighed heavily on some of the troops, who got a mental image of the city they were about to go into.

Sgt. Joseph Pal is a soldier from Oklahoma who is attached to the 1140th. He said use of force is something they train for all the time.

"It's weird," he said. "We train for something all the time hoping we never have to do it."

Still, he said, he recognizes it could be inevitable.

"It may come up," he said. "If something bad happens, we want to be ready."

335-6611, extension 137

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