LET'S LOCK AND LOAD NOW

BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH

Shooting first and straight while on a battlefield or a security detail is a matter of life or death. That's why weapons training normally gets the highest priority in the U.S. military.

If you're slow on the draw, you're dead, and your side loses.

Just ask the Marine guard in Lebanon in 1983 who didn't shoot fast enough when a kamikaze driver rammed his terror truck through the gate. It took the leatherneck one full second to chamber a round, another second to flip his weapon off safety and fire. By that time, the truck had smacked into the Marine billet he was securing and exploded. The Rules of Engagement forbade this expert rifleman from being locked and loaded even though his unit was on high alert for just such an attack. And those two seconds he lost arming his weapon cost 241 American lives.

Lesson learned: An unloaded weapon is useless. A lesson we've unfortunately learned and relearned the hard way over and over again.

Recently, the Navy dedicated a memorial to the sailors who were aboard the USS Cole when it was savaged last year by a terrorist attack in the port of Aden. But even though the members of the security detail on the Cole were at their posts on high alert -- in an extremely dangerous port where they'd already been warned that a terrorist attack was highly probable -- not one of their weapons had a round in the chamber. The security detail gave the small craft that almost sank the Cole and killed 17 sailors a big, friendly America wave, and the terrorists waved back -- just before they rammed their human torpedo into the ship. Again, the Rules of Engagement stated no weapons would have a round in the chamber.

Not having a magazine in a weapon, even for a crackerjack marksman, adds at least two more seconds before he or she can get off a round. Four seconds is more than enough time to drive a 10,000-gallon gas tanker into a nuclear reactor, a high school, a chemical plant or some other tempting target.

Yet today, at virtually every U.S. military installation around the globe -- and now at most of our airports, which are secured by the Army National Guard -- the guys and gals manning the security details at exterior gates and other critical or sensitive areas, including ammo dumps and armories, are as impotent as the Marines were in Lebanon or the sailors in Yemen. They don't have a round in the chamber, and in most cases, they don't even have a magazine in their weapons. Yet America is at war, and we know that thousands of fanatics are out there ready to strike.

When I was 15-year-old soldier in Italy right after World War II, I "walked my post in a military manner" with a loaded M-1 rifle. My sergeant, captain, colonel and general trusted me, along with thousands of other young soldiers, not to shoot myself or anyone else who didn't deserve shooting.

But somewhere along the way that trust disappeared. In today's military, a leader makes one mistake and he or she is toast. So the brass do the big CYA thing to ensure that they don't get burned. As a result, uniformed MBA-types have made micromanagement a General Order. In a military where a soldier gets busted for drunken driving and his captain is threatened with relief, imagine what an accidental rifle discharge would bring.

Last week in Germany, where some guards were ordered to tape their rifles' magazine wells for safety, four-star Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs actually charged his colonels with checking on the guards and reporting back to him. A job the corporal of the guard used to do when careers weren't at stake.

The other key factor in the mix is that the troops -- less the Marine Corps and special units such as the Rangers -- haven't been getting the training time they need on the firing range to be fully competent with their individual weapons. Even though there are millions of bucks for higher headquarters' simulation war-game playing for military planners and the brass, nowhere near enough money has been allocated for putting holes in targets.

Will it take another USS Cole disaster before we allow the troops to lock and load?

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(c) 2001 David H. Hackworth
Distributed by King Features Syndicate Inc.