JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. - A trip into town to pick up medicine led to a group of Army Reserve Soldiers breaking up a robbery in December.
The six Soldiers, members of the 372nd Military Police Company, based in Cumberland, Maryland, were almost at the end of their two-week annual training at Joint Base McGuire-Dix, Lakehurst, New Jersey, when they stopped at the CVS in nearby Pemberton Township the morning of Dec. 12.
Sgt. Eric Blake, an MP who serves as a law enforcement officer with Maryland's Anne Arundel County Police Department in his civilian career, went in to get ibuprofen. Cpl. Aaron Dabney, a law enforcement officer with the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, joined him.
The two men went into the store wearing their Army uniforms and when they left, they came across something unusual: a young man wearing a bandana over his face with a plastic bag in one hand and a 10-inch knife in the other. Both men's instincts kicked in.
"We both said, 'Did you see that?'" Blake said. "We both had our hands on our hips where our pistols would be. Next thing I know, I've got my left hand on my pocket to get my phone."
Dabney, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, said the masked man must have had tunnel vision, fully focused on what he was going in to do.
"I was in shock that it would be that blatant," he said. "It was like something you see in a movie where someone just walks in with a bandana on his face and a knife in his hand."
The moves Blake and Dabney made were the beginning of a mental checklist police officers use in situations like this, he said. Although neither man was armed, they weren't without tools, and Blake was determined to use them to stop something bad from happening.
"You always have a tool, and that tool's your mind," Blake said. "If you work your mind and know what you need to do, you can make it through anything."
Blake told Dabney, an internment and resettlement specialist in the Army Reserve, to tell the four Soldiers in their van what was going on, and he immediately dialed 911. The dispatcher put him in touch with the Pemberton Township Police Department as the other Soldiers left the van to help.
Sgt. Regginald Brown, an MP, said he didn't believe Dabney right away.
"When Corporal Dabney first came out and said that, I thought he was joking, so I looked at him and laughed," said the Clifton, New Jersey, credit union manager. "Then he turned and ran toward the CVS, and I knew he wasn't kidding."
Brown left the van with two other MPs, Sgt. Jonah Rock and Sgt. Kori Leopoldo. The three men followed as backup for Blake and Dabney while Sgt. Sean McCarthy, a signal support systems specialist who was acting as the driver, followed in the van.
By that point, the young man had left the CVS and was fleeing. Dabney followed closely, yelling details to Blake, who relayed them to Pemberton police officers. They followed him down an alley, where he first shed his jacket, and then dropped the knife and the bag, which was full of money taken from the store. Although he knew the knife had been dropped, Dabney remained cautious, because "if somebody has one weapon on them, they probably have another."
"I heard the metal-on-metal ping of him throwing the knife against the dumpster and knew he wasn't armed with the knife anymore. I picked up speed, but kept my distance. I don't like playing with people with knives," Dabney said.
As Rock, a native of Hagerstown, Maryland, and Leopoldo, who lives in California, secured the evidence, Dabney and Blake continued their pursuit, with Brown just behind them. The suspect ran into a crowded intersection, with traffic coming from two ways. The cars "parted like the Red Sea," Dabney said, when confronted with the scene of a suspect fleeing uniformed Soldiers.
The young man made it across the street, but gave up when he turned around and saw Blake, who's 5'10" and 210 pounds, and Dabney, 6'1" and 200 pounds, closing on him.
"When the suspect crossed the street and turned around, he realized it was Soldiers chasing him and the look on his face ..." Blake said. "You've got two big guys chasing you in uniform and you're not on a military base or overseas. He literally turned around and his eyes were almost out of his head. 'I'm done. I'm done. I'm done,' he said."
Dabney ensured the suspect wasn't carrying a second weapon. Blake made sure the suspect, who they later found out had an outstanding warrant for a similar crime, was okay as they waited for Pemberton police to arrive.
Both Soldiers attributed their success to working together as Reserve Soldiers for the past two years but Dabney still said it was remarkable, especially given both have only worked as civilian law enforcement officers for about a year.
"It worked very seamlessly without a whole lot of training together," he said. "Most police officers work with a partner for years and know how to complement each other. We don't have that built up, but in that situation, we were able to just do it."
Pemberton police were immediately appreciative, as were the employees and customers of the CVS.
Although the Soldiers were away from the installation, and the two police officers were off duty, they said they were doing what's expected of them. Blake said the suspect's actions showed a lack of respect.
"Don't disrespect my uniform, or someone in the store who has a family," he said. "In my mind, it's not going to happen. If I can stop it, I'm going to stop it. I've never been that type of person; if I can make a change, I'm going to do it."
Dabney echoed those sentiments.
"If there's a situation where I can provide my skills, that's what I'm going to do," Dabney said. "If he's going to walk past two Soldiers in uniform, than he's blatant enough to do anything inside that store."
Blake said other people in that situation may have made a different decision, but he knew the skills he and Dabney have compiled in the Army Reserve and in their civilian careers meant they could make a difference.
His training allowed him to stay calm and share all the information that was needed.
"A civilian without the training we've had on the military side and the law enforcement side is not going to know what to do. If you don't describe things correctly, a road can be miles long and no one will know where you are," he said. "You also have to know how to maintain your adrenaline. If you can't keep calm and work under pressure, you're not going to succeed in doing what we did that day. He could have cut or killed somebody, and if we'd just panicked, he could have been gone."
Both Blake and Dabney were grateful for the support they got from their fellow MPs who, while trained in combat support roles, aren't well versed in civilian law enforcement.
"To see these guys get out of the van and do what they did instinctively was great," Blake said. "Sergeant Rock and Sergeant Leopoldo chased and stood with the evidence without touching it. They didn't ruin the evidence. They made sure it was secure and showed it to the police."
McCarthy, a graduate student at the University of Maryland who lives in Martinsburg, West Virginia, was the only member of the group not affiliated with law enforcement.
"They showed great instincts to help the public," he said. "I was just happy to help. From start to finish, it was really quick. It was a great team effort."
After the Soldiers returned from their unexpected adventure, members of the 372nd MP Company started calling them the Stupendous Six. 1st Sgt. Terry Boag, the unit's top enlisted Soldier, said their teamwork was great, especially given that the unit is currently made up of MPs from across the 200th Military Police Command as it prepares for an upcoming deployment.
"They're a top-notch group of Soldiers. It's amazing how they've come together this fast and were able to work as a team to do what they did."