Reporter briefly swaps pen for assault rifle

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Clark County SWAT team swamped

I closed my eyes. I exhaled, opened them and looked coolly through the sights at my target. I pulled the trigger. And then I started screaming.

My experience as a five-minute member of the Southwest Washington SWAT team started with having one of their fully-packed flak vests placed over my head.

Gas mask? Check. Flash grenade? Check. Plastic wrist ties? Check. Armored plates tucked under the Kevlar? Yep. All told, a SWAT officer’s gear that he must wear on calls weighs in the range of 60 pounds.

As I trudged in the rain over a hill to my firing range, I knew what it felt like to be a contestant on one of those weight loss shows who during a race has to carry the weight he lost. It also didn’t shock me to learn that the SWAT members must undergo frequent physical fitness evaluations.

Clark County sheriff’s Detective Pete Muller, a SWAT team element leader, placed a Colt M4 Commando — to me, a very large gun — in my mitts, but only after running me through safety basics and the proper way to stand. About 20 feet in front of me, an outline of a body, framed by two nefarious-looking faces (including one guy with a mullet), waited for me.

I set my feet. Muller set the assault rifle to semiautomatic, the setting the SWAT team members use for maximum control of their shots. I nailed the target in the neck. Dreams of abandoning my notepad to hunt down evildoers, in the fashion of Bruce Willis in “Die Hard,” flitted through my mind. Never mind I’ve only fired a Glock armed with air cartridges a few times, and a target-shooting rifle once. I was clearly a natural.

Then, Muller reloaded the clip and set the Colt to automatic. This was the Rambo-type stuff. This was gonna be great.

With Muller lightly bracing my back to make sure the rapid fire wouldn’t send me reeling backward, I pulled the trigger. Thirty rounds flew into the target area in what I swear was less than 30 seconds. I could vaguely hear the sound of my own “ahhhhhhh!!!” above the report.

Then it was over.

I gave that paper outline’s right shoulder — and I think part of the dirt around it — the business. I stepped away shaking, but totally excited.

Using a weapon calls to mind just how quickly shots can be fired in tight situations. Experience and good training are key to making sure situations similar to those the SWAT team faces — potentially more than 50 this year alone — don’t go from bad to tragic.

Maybe I’ll stick to the confines of the newspaper biz. Besides, didn’t someone say the pen was mightier than the sword?