Full Metal Junket

How one intrepid reporter spent a weekend of military training with some youngsters and came back a soldier. Sort of.

Seven teenage boys fall on their bellies and press M16 semiautomatic rifles tightly against their shoulders. Wearing black boots, fatigues, and caps, they squeeze the triggers five times, the air erupting with eardrum-splitting explosions. Hot brass bullet casings scatter in all directions. The smell of smoke and gun lubricant mixes with the muggy heat and fills their nostrils. Their stomachs flutter as adrenaline pumps. After shooting five rounds, each teen presses a little metallic button above the trigger area. Empty aluminum magazines fall to the ground, making tinny clinks as they hit the concrete. Weapon still pointed downrange, each boy quickly inserts another magazine and whacks it with the butt of his hand to properly secure it.

These 14- to 18-year-olds received combat training on a recent weekend as part of Operation Sharp Wedge, an exercise aimed at preparing naval reservists to fight "in time of national emergency." They are the fruits of Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) penetration into an arena typically controlled by skateboarders and video-game freaks. Times have changed since radicals (and wealthy parents) chased ROTC recruiters from the nation's schools. If these kids are any indication, camouflage is back. Matt Carleton, a lanky, muscular 17-year-old from Fort Lauderdale with blond bangs and a mischievous grin, says his classmates at Stranahan High think his military status is "cool." Then he adds, "In my dad's era, it wasn't cool.

"Most of my friends are going into the military," continues Carleton, who plans to join the Navy. "My ex-girlfriend is going into the Marines."

The gang that could shoot fairly straight: Sorvillo (left) and Carleton (second from left) hang with their platoon after a morning of M16 training
Kirk Nielsen
The gang that could shoot fairly straight: Sorvillo (left) and Carleton (second from left) hang with their platoon after a morning of M16 training

Not to worry though. Adults are still running this country's armed forces. Reservists from U.S. Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Fourteen, who are also known as Seabees, organized Operation Sharp Wedge. It is part of the military's perennial effort to keep a supply of backup troops. The Seabees were formed in early 1942 shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and they have followed grunts from the U.S. Marine Corps (a branch of the Navy) on many an amphibious assault, including the one on Normandy Beach. "It's all about readiness," says Petty Ofcr. Martin Stunger, a customs licensing specialist, who orchestrated the training weekend.

The day starts as a convoy of several dozen civilian cars and pickup trucks snakes slowly across Homestead Air Reserve Base on a hot and humid Saturday morning. Two detachments -- 0814, based in Hialeah, and 0514, headquartered in West Palm Beach -- are taking part. Most of the 150 soldiers are discharged Navy veterans. The teens are all high schoolers from Broward. Some are sons of military men, others just think training with reservists is cool.

The vehicles cross an airstrip where five fighter jets are parked and arrive at a one-story, beige office building. Sitting on a lawn between the building and a shooting range, the teens blend in with their elders and listen as three U.S. Marine sergeants take turns barking out the fundamentals of marksmanship.

Among the main points:

"Treat every weapon as if it were loaded!"

"Keep weapon on 'safe' until you are ready to fire!"

"At no time will you slam the butt of the rifle on the ground if you're mad!"

"SAFETY IS PARAMOUNT!"

Using an unloaded weapon, the sergeants demonstrate how to insert a magazine, aim, and pull a trigger. "Get as comfortable as possible," says one sarge, lying on his stomach. "This is just like going on a picnic."

During 45 minutes of instruction, teens and adults glance excitedly at a rack of M16s on the grass nearby. They are more than eager to shoot one of the black-and-silver rifles. After all, the chance to "qual" with such a powerful weapon under the auspices of the U.S. armed forces comes but once a year. Finally the sergeants command a unit of ten soldiers to the shooting range. They will be the first to experience the thrill of firing 40 rounds of ammunition into an eight-by-ten-inch target that is 25 yards away.

But not so fast. The sergeants order all the teens and any adult who has never fired this particular rifle to a classroom inside the air-conditioned building for another hour of training. One by one the tenderfoots practice aiming an M16, training its tiny circular sight on any available object: the telephone on the wall, the phone jack, the corner of the podium.

Outside, gunshots are erupting, but inside it is time for lunch. Teens and greenhorn reservists trickle into a small lunchroom and tear open the brown plastic MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), which they received that morning. Inside are smaller brown packets of crackers, cheese, peanut butter, pound cake, and cookies. Each MRE also holds a main course ranging from chicken and rice to beef stew to the dreaded ham omelet. Soldiers marvel as their dishes heat up frighteningly fast in a plastic pouch containing a chemical powder that boils with the addition of an ounce or two of water.

"They make good bombs," observes Michael McGibbon, a stocky, redheaded 15-year-old with a friendly demeanor. "Just add gasoline," he says before exiting the lunchroom. The remark prompts groans from a few of the reservists. McGibbon attends Piper High School in Fort Lauderdale. His father, a Seabee, turned him on to military life.

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