The gang that could shoot fairly straight: Sorvillo (left) and Carleton (second from left) hang with their platoon after a morning of M-16 training
Kirk Nielsen

Armed Farces

Seven teenage boys fall on their bellies and press M-16 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. Weapons still pointed downrange, each boy quickly inserts another magazine and whacks it with the butt of his hand to properly secure it.

These fourteen- to eighteen-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 seventeen-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," says Carleton, who plans to join the navy. "My ex-girlfriend is going into the Marines."

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 back-up soldiers. 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!"


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 front. "This is just like going on a picnic."

During 45 minutes of instruction, teens and adults glance excitedly at a rack of M-16s 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 tenderfeet practice aiming an M-16, 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 fifteen-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.

Soon it is time for a unit composed of the seven teenagers and three reservists to march to the range. As instructed they have deployed foam cylinders into their ears to prevent injuries that could result in hearing loss. The sergeants order them to load five rounds into a magazine. "You will not touch your weapon!" hollers a sergeant. He then commands the group to assume the prone position on a blue foam mat. "Students, prepare your weapons!" he continues. Finally the long-awaited moment of truth arrives: "Fire at will!" he shouts.

Amid the hellish cacophony, the Marines watch their disciples like hawks, occasionally counseling them like mother hens. The apprentices have five minutes to fire five rounds from the prone position.

"Cease fire!" screams the sergeant after the time has expired. The sharpshooters eject their magazines, flick on their safeties, and lay down their rifles, barrels pointed downrange. They repeat the drill, this time with just 70 seconds to fire five times. "Now, students, get up and walk to your target!" yells the sergeant after issuing another cease-fire.

Standing in front of his target, A.J. Sorvillo is mystified. This is the second time Sorvillo, a wry, articulate sixteen-year-old from Fort Lauderdale, has shot an M-16. Some of his rounds hit the target, but others did not. Where did they go? he wonders. "You did pretty good," he compliments a colleague, pointing at an array of bullet holes. Sorvillo hopes to be a Seabee after college. "I like to build things," he says.

As they walk back toward their guns, some of the junior marksmen wander. "Stay in your goddamn lane!" one of the sergeants roars.

The shooters spend the next 45 minutes firing from three other positions: sitting, kneeling, and standing, which tends to be the least accurate posture. Then the picnic ends.

Clutching their eight-by-ten-inch target sheets, the sharpshooters head inside the air-conditioned building to tot up their scores. They lean and sit on long stainless steel tables in a storage room. Score 140 points and you qualify as a marksman.

"You qual?" one young man asks his neighbor.

"Yep," replies his buddy proudly.

Carleton qual-ed. He obliterated most of the black bull's-eye. Others were less successful. Sorvillo racked up 43; he offers a dose of realism. "Forget about the score," he cracks to his comrades, displaying his barely bullet-riddled target in front of his chest. "He's still dead."


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