Keeper of North Gate secures post
By Spc. Kathryn Spurrell
81st BCT PAO
On a sweltering desert day on the last checkpoint at the North Gate, Spc. Mirtha Peralta, a soldier from Company B of the 181st Support Battalion scrutinizes the identification cards of local nationals who must be searched and screened by both Iraqi Civil Defense Corps personnel and U.S. Soldiers before being allowed entry into LSA Anaconda.
Peralta, from El Centro, Calif., worked with the California Counter-Drug Taskforce before she deployed. She said that her civilian job gave her skills in dealing with people trying to cross borders - experience that makes her more effective at the final checkpoint here.
Many of the people Peralta checks are permanent workers, almost exclusively male, who enter LSA Anaconda daily. Some men are professional employees, like plumbers or electricians, while others operate the post exchange and dining facilities. Each category of worker wears a colored badge that indicates his status and expedites the screening process. Soldiers or personnel from Anaconda's contracting companies escort the workers through the checkpoints.
However, many of the local nationals who attempt to pass through Peralta's checkpoint are men who have neither badge nor escort. They are unaffiliated with LSA Anaconda contracting companies but are looking for temporary employment doing painting or construction jobs on post.
The workers wait in a holding area behind a line drawn on the ground as Peralta verifies ID cards. She is adamant about ensuring that her line is respected. One man tests Peralta, he inches across the line, and watches her reaction.
"No, no, get back," she says firmly. He smirked for a moment but then stepped back behind the line.
Time goes by fast for Peralta, who screens between 1,200 and 1,500 entrants each day. As the single-file line of workers move through her checkpoint, Peralta validates each and every ID card. If there is any question or doubt about someone's documents, Peralta does not allow the individual entry.
"Peralta makes people take off their hats and hold the IDs next to their faces so she can make sure their [images are similar]," said Pfc. Daniel Simmons.
Peralta said that when she first arrived here, she didn't know what to expect. She coped with the unknown by putting up a strong front and not allowing herself to seem vulnerable.
"It was kind of hard the first day or two but they all know that she's in charge," said Lt. Col. George Abbott, 181st Sup. Bn. commander.
Her biggest challenge on duty is her gender. According to Peralta, many of the entrants are unwilling to listen to her because she's female.
"I understand that their culture is different but I expect them to understand that this is an American installation," Peralta said.
She is unwavering in her strong stance.
During her first month at the gate, Peralta confiscated a large bag full of fake IDs. Some of the men tried to fake official seals by drawing them on with ink pens, she said. Others replaced their adult photos with baby photos.
"If I can't recognize someone from the picture or if something else is wrong, he's not getting in," said Peralta.
Workers sometimes try to gain access to the post with damaged ID cards. If Peralta recognizes them, she may let them in but first cuts a slash in their ID cards and instructs them to get a new one. If they try to enter post a second time with the same damaged ID cards, Peralta turns them away.
According to Peralta, the most unpleasant part of her job is maintaining a strong front.
"I can't trust anyone; I can't ever let my guard down," Peralta said. "I can never relax or let them see my weak side."
She later proved her point as a boy in his early teens attempted to enter with an ID card that had obviously been altered.
"No, no, you have to go back," she said firmly, ignoring the protests of the boy and the older Iraqi man who had accompanied him.
When the boy did not move, she took his arm and steered him resolutely back toward another guarded holding area.
"Get a new ID," she ordered the boy before she turned back to her post. The waiting men grumbled among themselves but seemed to respect her authority.
Peralta said at times she felt bad about refusing to let people enter.
"I can tell that some of them really need work but I can't let them in if their IDs aren't good," she said. "They know the procedure."
"Maybe they've been using that same ID all their lives and I'm just the first one to stop them. It's not fun but sometimes I have to practice what's called 'the power of the pistol, '" Peralta said.
She might wield firearms but she treats the entering workers with respect. According to Peralta, she and her fellow gate guards succeed at their posts because they are able to be both strong and humane.
"We're strict and we don't soften up but we still treat them like people," she said.
The language barrier has not posed much of a problem for Peralta. "I've tried to learn key phrases like good, sit down, and stay back," said Peralta. "I really don't know [enough], though."
Her interaction with the people suggests that she has learned much more than a few key phrases. She scatters Arabic words freely throughout her conversations with the local nationals and gives all commands in English and Arabic.
As Peralta screened the local national PX workers, manager and escort Shirley Schuldt watched approvingly.
"Peralta does such a good job," said Schuldt. "We are grateful."
Spc. Mirtha Peralta scrutinized the identification cards of local nationals while on duty at the North Gate of LSA Anaconda, Iraq.