Backstory: US Marines 'Invade' the Pop Tucci Diner ; A US Marine Unit Trains in Three North Carolina Towns to Prepare for Civil Affairs Duty in Iraq

Article excerpt

After a frigid night camped under pine trees at an airfield, the convoy of 20 US Marines rolled into this sleepy town just as businesses were opening. The rumble of their Humvees unnerved some local residents. Even more jarring was the sight of the soldiers leaping from their vehicles with weapons.

In the parking lot of the Zion Lodge, a marine scanned the quiet street from behind a .50-caliber machine gun. One elderly man seemed shaken at the sight of marines striding into the Realo drugstore.

Yet this was no hostile invasion. As final preparation for a one- year deployment in Iraq, a US Marine unit recently brought the war home to tiny Trenton, N.C. (pop. 240), and the nearby coastal towns of Pollocksville and Maysville with a three-day training exercise. It was camouflage meets denim, Kevlar helmets meet Tar Heel caps, war-gaming meets the Pop Tucci diner.

It was also significant. The 5th Battalion, 10th Marine Regiment is unusual - the first active-duty unit in the Marine Corps to retrain for civil affairs work in Iraq. That means the 250 soldiers in the group will be departing from their frontline combat role to help Iraqis rebuild their cities and neighborhoods.

The 5/10's six-month retraining has included study of Arabic and the Iraqi culture. The unit will be important in determining whether the US's latest - and perhaps final - initiative in Iraq works. Under the new command of Gen. David Petraeus, US forces in Iraq will be trying to secure, hold, and then help stabilize and reconstruct embattled neighborhoods. Units like the 5/10 will be instrumental in gaining the confidence of local residents and acting as intermediaries between combat troops and civilians, particularly as the US tries to shift more security and reconstruction functions to the Iraqis.

"Our mission is to bridge the gap between a local population and the local military command, to say, 'Hey, sir, if you want to blow up that water tower, you can do it, but you're going to leave X amount of people without water," said Capt. Jim Burgess, who is leading a team of 10 marines and a Navy corpsman in the exercise here. "There are some civil issues you need to take into consideration."

The transition isn't easy for marines, who are trained to kill the enemy rather than engage in the softer skills of negotiation - say, quizzing local residents about their sewer system. "Some of these marines would rather be out on an artillery range pulling a lanyard, so it's important to get them out of their comfort zones preparing for this mission," said Maj. Andrew Dietz, who commanded one of the three training detachments.

***

While the soldiers were learning new skills, local residents were discovering a few things about Marine training and the rigors of war. The troops were generally greeted as heroes after the initial shock of seeing marines standing guard by doorways and patrolling downtown sidewalks with their M-16s, which weren't loaded.

"We're talking to town leaders to find out what they do and engaging in foot patrols to get to know the locals," said Captain Burgess. "Some are looking at us like, 'Hey, what are you guys doing here?' "

Later that morning, Glen Spivey sat down with a second civil affairs team at Pop Tucci's restaurant. "You get such a mix of emotions when you see them," said waitress Marti Rouse. "The first time they walked in it sort of took us all back, then we got used to having them all here. You're proud of them, and then you worry about where they're going, and now I'm sorry to see them go."

A woman having an early lunch exchanged a knowing glance with her friends as she changed seats for a better view of the men in uniform. "Don't you feel safe?" she asked.

Mr. Spivey explained the mechanics of the town sewer system, which he directs, and the volunteer fire department, which he has belonged to for 46 years. …