Scrappers at MCAGCC 29 Palms

I had a random memory float into my mind the other day about a training area safety brief I had one time while on active duty in the US Marines.

It was common, if not mandatory, that everyone received a safety brief before departing for major training operations and even some weekend or holiday liberty. Someone, usually one of the battalion command officers or perhaps someone from regiment would conduct the briefing.

The training safety briefs would usually include topics about firearm use and safety, hydration, what to do if you get lost and separated from your unit, how not to get lost or separated from your unit, and it would include a high level overview of what the training mission was all about and some of its main objectives. Then there was the part about scrappers.

Scrappers are civilians who sneak onto the military base to collect steel and other recyclable material to bring to a recycling center and get some money. The material often came from exploded ordinance like artillery shells, bombs dropped from jets and rockets launched from helicopters as well as mortars and TOW missiles or shells from tanks.

MCAGCC (Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center) is 932 square miles of installation. It’s far too large to put up a fence and a sign saying keep out or to have regular and effective patrols to guard against intruders. The majority of the base is just open desert area while a very small, town-sized, area is called Mainside where everyone lives, plays, shops and works. This area is patrolled by the MP’s or military police just like a regular town is patrolled by civilian police. I believe there are some signs in a few places around the perimeter of the base indicating that it is a military installation and trespassing is illegal, but they’re hardly effective and probably only serve to be a technicality for legal reasons, like the warning not to use a hair dryer in the bathtub. So there is no real way to prevent people from entering the training area of the base.

I suppose the only deterrent for someone who is thinking of coming onto the base would be the off chance of getting shot, having a bomb or artillery land on them accidentally (and yes, I mean accidentally in this instance).

Sometimes the ordinance found out on the desert floor of the training area remained unexploded either because the detonator failed to trip or the ordinance was a dud. Part of our safety briefs also included unexploded ordinance. If we happened to come upon a shell that had not exploded we were to quickly move away from it and notify our chain of command. Someone would then mark it’s location and put a flag near it and EOD would be notified. EOD is Explosive Ordinance Disposal. It was their job to go out to the unexploded ordinance and blow it up in a safe manner.

I recall when Super Bowl XXXII in 1998 was played in San Diego, California. Local officials had asked the Marine Corps to provide additional security at the stadium to supplement local law enforcement efforts. Marines from MCAGCC and Camp Pendleton were selected for the detail and were given civilian attire to use during the game. I was not one of those Marines.

Rather, I was selected for an exercise on base, TrashEx, or Trash Exercise. So while some of my friends were providing undercover security at the Super Bowl and meeting celebrities, I was out combing the desert floor for trash to pick up.

We ain’t found shit!

It was a week long event and every morning we had to meet up at the 7th Marines Regiment headquarters to be trucked out to some random place in the training area and walk along picking up any trash we found. Once again a daily safety brief was given which included what to do if you came across any unexploded ordinance. We did in fact find some from time to time and we marked them with flags and noted their locations so that EOD could come back through and dispose of them. We even found a TOW missile one day which was kind of exciting because that is something you don’t usually see laying around on the ground. Usually it would be artillery shells or small MK82 (500lb bombs) that we’d find. It was a pretty boring week with a lot of walking around picking up random garbage and even some TOW missile wire which was very thin and deceptively strong. If you weren’t careful you could seriously injure yourself with it.

Now the part of the story that actually came to my mind recently involves probably one of the very first training safety brief’s I ever had as a young PFC. I recall it was late one evening and we were to assemble on the soccer fields a block or two away from the barracks for the brief. The usual stuff was said about safety, hydration, getting lost etc. Then the officer giving the brief added a bit about encountering scrappers. We were told that if we spot a scrapper in the training area to notify our chain of command and/or the base MP’s. The MP’s would be dispatched to investigate the trespassing civilians. We were told not to approach them and to simply call it in. If we were to approach them, the officer said, it could lead to a violent encounter where the scrapper was probably more heavily armed than we were. Yes, you read that right; we were told the civilian scrapper might have outgunned us, the US Marines. That is neither a lie, nor an exaggeration on my part, he actually said that.

I remember hearing that as a young 19 year old PFC, fresh into the Marine Corps being told that I might be outgunned by a civilian trespassing on our military installation. I looked down at the name tapes on my uniform to make sure it said US Marines on it, and it did.

While I don’t doubt that some of those scrappers might have had a pistol or two, maybe a shotgun in their truck or car, but to be told that the Marines might be outgunned was absurd. I’m thinking we have M16’s, M203 grenade launchers, mortars, artillery, attack helicopters, fighter jets, tanks, LAV’s, snipers, machine guns and all sorts of armament. How could we possibly be outgunned by one or two civilians in a pickup truck trying to steal metal for money? I don’t know, but that’s a true story and I nor anyone I knew ever came across any scrappers.

Looking back on the story I can understand better now why we were not to approach them and let the MP’s deal with them. I think it was less to do with “being outgunned” per se, and possibly more to do with legal issues if a gun fight were to ensue.

I’m not a lawyer by any means, but I now know having worked in public safety and very closely with law enforcement that there are issues between military and civilian encounters. If we were to actually shoot or kill a civilian on our base for simply stealing scrap metal that would be a very bad thing for us. Would it have been worth injuring or killing someone over the scrap metal, no it wouldn’t. It would be, among other things, very bad PR for the Marine Corps and they take that stuff very seriously. We don’t want stupid mistakes marring the image of the Corps.

It would be a different situation if a civilian were attempting to gain access to secure facilities on military installations that house sensitive information or weapons such as nuclear devices. To my knowledge we didn’t have anything like that at MCAGCC or in the open desert of its training area. So the use of lethal force would not be something that you could justify and that I think is what the real intent of not approaching scrappers was about in those safety briefs.

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