AIMING FOR SAUDI ARABIA Fort Meade troops test new pistol


When the firing was over, the life-size, gray-green silhouettes of human torsos lined up at a Fort Meade firing range were thoroughly riddled -- more so than in previous target practices, some soldiers said, because their new weapons were lighter and more accurate.

The 209th Military Police Company, an active duty unit at Fort Meade, began a qualifying test yesterday to use the new 9-millimeter Beretta semi-automatic pistol before shipping out soon, at some undisclosed date, to Saudi Arabia.

The company is one of several units throughout the American military to switch from the Colt .45 pistol, which the Army has used since 1911 and last reordered in great quantities in 1945.

The 9-millimeter pistol, made by the Beretta Corp. of Accokeek in Prince George's County, is gentler on the recoil and about 3 ounces lighter than the .45. And the new weapon's magazine can be loaded with 15 rounds, compared with five in the Colt .45.

Members of the military police unit were finding that out for themselves as they made the air crackle and the sand fly from the buffer dunes backing the firing range. They fired from prone, kneeling and standing positions, with and then without one hand supporting the other. They fired from as far as 35 meters and as close as 15 meters -- 50 rounds in all. To pass the test, they needed to land at least 35 of those rounds within the targets.

"The 9 millimeters are great, sir. They're a lot easier than the .45," said Sgt. Russell Bloomfield, who had just whistled 45 of 50 shots through his target. That was five to eight rounds better than his earlier scores with the Colt .45, he said.

Already, the Army has shipped his unit's tents and vehicles to Saudia Arabia, Bloomfield said, but he's not nervous about going yet. "I don't think the reality of it has sunk in just yet," he said.

The job of Bloomfield's unit is to protect supply lines, set up roadblocks and generally provide law enforcement behind the front lines. They carry the pistol mainly for personal protection at close range, rather than the Army's M-16 assault rifle.

The company has seen action as recently as the invasion of Panama last December.

Capt. Jacqueline Cumbo, the company commander, said the soldiers performed several missions in Panama, including a "snatch team" evacuation of the Panama Canal commissioner and his family. The MPs escorted the family from its home to safety as infantry units attacked a nearby police station, she said.

Beyond the possibilities of guarding cargo ports and military bases, Cumbo was circumspect about the looming mission in Saudi Arabia. She said the company had been fully briefed about Saudi culture and the restrictions it places on women in public. But as "ambassadors" for the United States, "we just have to abide by their customs."

Her unit is authorized to include as many as 146 soldiers. Cumbo said 15 are women, but she didn't expect Saudi customs to impede any of them in doing their duty.

While some soldiers were excited about going to the Persian Gulf, others, like Sgt. Bryan Linkoski, who pumped 44 of 50 rounds into his target, were stoic about the mission. "Just doing my job," said Linkoski, who will leave behind a wife and a daughter.

"I just hope it isn't too long over there," he said. "What can you do about it?"

Sgt. David Vitrano said he was "sort of looking forward to it," if only so he could say he had visited Saudi Arabia. But also, he said, "it's just part of our mission to defend the country, its allies and make sure the oil gets through."

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