Toy Soldiers

Be all that you can be — in war games with almost-real assault weapons

The Wolverines arrive in time to hear Col. Strelnikov, played by portly 35-year-old Lakeland resident Matt Espina, giving a spiel in a feigned Eastern-bloc accent about how the civilians are going to "feel the wrath of Mother Russia." The rebel kids shout "Wolverines!" and spray the invaders with pellets. They free the civilians in the nick of time.

A subsequent Wolverine maneuver, however, flops completely. The young men are poised to ambush the Russian troops, whom they expect to come at them down a trail flanked by spiny plants and cacti. But the Russians don't take the easy route. They plunge straight through the prickly vegetation and catch the civilian fighters from behind.

"We're surrounded!" a Wolverine shouts. Zip-zeep-zing! The vegetation is dense, and now the troops are mixed. There's mass confusion. Zip-zeep-zing! Who is friendly? Who is the enemy? The players ask "Wolverine?" or "American?" before opening fire. The Russians mow down the rebels.

Ralph Cantillo, AKA Fuzzy (center), and  fellow Fuego crew members scan for enemy combatants during "The Fight for Freedom."
Amy Guthrie
Ralph Cantillo, AKA Fuzzy (center), and  fellow Fuego crew members scan for enemy combatants during "The Fight for Freedom."
Hurry, soldier; somewhere down this creepy passageway is a hostage who needs to be rescued!
The Crimson Shadows
Hurry, soldier; somewhere down this creepy passageway is a hostage who needs to be rescued!


Click here to view photo outtakes.

"I get no rush from videogames anymore," says Jarret Mock, a 20-year-old from Fort Myers. "We're not shooting aliens out here — these are real people who can think."

Mock says he once got so carried away playing on this field in Lake Wales that he crossed the hillside boundary and ended up standing next to State Road 60 with his machine gun in the air; drivers passing by had looks of horror on their faces.

As the sun sets, the Wolverines "execute" a Russian soldier and then take potshots at him as he lies on the ground. The all-American guys eventually win back their town because, hey, that's the way it should be in patriot games, right? Actually, about a dozen of the Communist troops had left early, taking their skills and topnotch firearms with them.

What, exactly, is inspiring all these young men to pour so much effort into intricate fake battles? Harvey Mansfield, a professor of government at Harvard and author of the 2006 book Manliness, ventures a guess. "This looks to me like another instance of unemployed manliness," he says in an email to New Times. "These young men ought to be in the military, where they can tote real guns in public for a purpose. Instead they play like kids pretending to be men."

At least a half-dozen young men on the Lake Wales field are military-bound, either through direct enlistment or Reserve Officers' Training Corps programs that funnel them through college before thrusting them into the armed forces. Eighteen-year-old Ryan Barr of Port St. Lucie is one of them. Today, he is a Russian soldier; come March, he expects to be in Iraq with the U.S. Army.

When asked whether he wants to go to Iraq, Barr seems uncertain. Pressed about his decision to join the military, though, he offers a convincing reason: He has longed to be in the Army ever since he played with his first G.I. Joe doll. A boyhood fondness for these toy figurines seems to be a common thread among many airsoft fans.

For some, the action figures were like father figures.

Friends and acquaintances of Christopher Penley say that he was a quiet kid who kept to himself and that his loner ways drew ridicule. They witnessed other students tease and push him around in the hallways. He seemed depressed. He talked of blowing up his school and of ending his own life.

At 15, Penley should have been in high school. Instead, he was a student at Milwee Middle School in Longwood, a town of 14,000 inhabitants 15 miles north of Orlando. He had a round face, short strawberry-blond hair, and lots of freckles.

One Friday in early 2006, Penley brought what looked like a 9-millimeter Beretta to school. He waved it in class. Another student tussled with him for control of the weapon. Teachers say they saw Penley aim the weapon at his own neck as he fled to a bathroom.

A police negotiator tried to cajole him into putting the weapon down; outside the bathroom, a police sharpshooter took aim at the 15-year-old's forehead. Beyond the marksman were classrooms full of students. After 20 minutes facing off with the police, Penley raised the handgun with both hands and pointed it in the direction of the marksman; the marksman fired a single, lethal bullet just above Penley's left eye.

The "Beretta" in Christopher Penley's hands was an airsoft pistol.

"When a law enforcement officer has a gun pointed at them, they're trained to respond in a certain manner," says the Florida Police Chiefs Association's Mercer.

"That could be devastating not only to the victim's family but to the officer as well. They're out there to serve and protect our citizens, and their life is going to be devastated at the thought of, in the aftermath, finding out it was a hoax gun. But how would they ever know that? Because some of these guns require close inspection to determine if they're hoax or not."

On January 30, 2007, the North Miami Beach Police Department got a report that a young man was pacing NE 154th Street, threatening to kill himself. Cops didn't know that 18-year-old Ricardo Vazquez was off his depression meds and that the chrome-colored handgun he was fiddling with was a toy replica. Police cars rushed to the scene. The three officers closest to Vazquez pleaded with him to put the gun down.

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