American mercenaries, few in number, have made more news in the past few months than they have in many years. Last week a US District Court in New Orleans convicted two American mercenaries for attempting to overthrow the tiny Caribbean island nation of Dominica. Earlier, seven other mercenaries pleaded guilty to the charge. A 10 th member of the mercenary team was acquitted.
In March, 12 other men, most of them Americans, were arrested for trespassing in a rural area of northern Florida while on a mercenary training exercise.
In April, the assistant leader of the 12 mercenary trainees, Robert Lisenby, of Troy, N.C., was arrested again -- this time in Miami for carrying explosives in a car. His target is not yet proven.
The leader of the mercenary trainees arrested in Florida, Franklin Joseph Camper of suburban Birmingham, Ala., was with Mr. Lisenby at the time of the arrest in Miami. But Mr. Camper was freed. He later told the Monitor he intended to go ahead with another mercenary training session.
Mercenary training in the United States?
To most Americans this is something unfamiliar, something that sounds illegal. If you can be arrested for carrying out what the training is aimed at, isn't the training, by definition, illegal?
The answer, according to federal agents, is no.
Although there are federal laws against plotting aggression against a nation friendly to the US and laws against use of certain firearms, training to be a mercenary is not, by itself, illegal. An agent of the federal Bureau of Alcohol , Tobacco, and Firearms in Birmingham says Camper even reports the weapons he is using. Camper says he uses replicas where the actual weapon would be illegal.
But what does mercenary training involve, and who shows up for it?
To find out, this reporter recently stuffed his backpack and climbed, at night, to the top of a wooded hillside in an isolated area near Fort Payne, Ala. , to visit Camper's Mercenary School in session.
What I found was a program of lectures on a variety of subjects -- guns, first aid, gassing -- and various guerrilla maneuvers, including night "ambushes."
Unlilke some of the paramilitary groups the Monitor reported on earlier this year, the mercenary school was a two-week, in- the-woods exercise, not just a one-day outing.
The 20 participants ranged from a few who seemed serious about becoming mercenaries to the majority, who seemed glad to get away from the hectic office routines and into the woods for some excitement.
"People come out of here with confidence," says Camper, who strides about the makeshift camp wearing a "MERC SCHOOL" T-shirt.
They also come out more familiar with ways of killing people.
"I'd say 95 percent of these [mercenary trainees] are never gonna pick up a gun again," says Richard (Sandy) Debski, a Vietnam veteran who Camper has appointed No. 1 assistant for the two-week school here.
But a few, like Lamar Chastain of Tampa, Fla., who makes his living painting pinstripes on automobiles, say they do want to hire out overseas -- for the money.
"Here I am not accomplishing anything for mankind," he said, as we sat in the shade one day, waiting for Camper to begin a lecture on the Soviet-made AK-47 rifle. He said he got "all fired up" when he learned about the four American nuns killed in El Salvador.
"This may really sound weird," he said, pausing. "But i really believe the Lord wants me to [fight overseas]. I hope I never have to shoot anybody."
What he'd like to do, in effect, is commute -- spending "four or five months out of the year" as a mercenary in El Salvador or perhaps Africa "on the side against communism." He would like to save enough money to start his own auto pinstriping firm. He said his wife is opposed to his mercenary ideas.
Carl Ward, a clinical psychologist from Dallas, whose speciality is studying how people behave under stress, said he has no intention of going overseas to fight. He was not even trying to learn more about stress -- since he doesn't see the mercenary school as particularly stressful.
So why was he out in the Alabama heat, slapping mosquitoes, crawling around at night, and falling asleep during lectures?
"Fun and adventure," he said. The training, he added, "allows some people to satisfy fantasies and others to acquire skills they can apply in their line of work." The two weeks in the woods, he said, are "getting me away from the concrete and the fast lane" of the city.
Among the other trainees was an Eastern European (who requested that neither he nor his country be identified), a Puerto Rican college student, and a martial arts instructor from the Sudan, who now lives in England but plans to return to work in Saudia Arabia.
Mercenary opportunities in Central and South America are declining, according to Camper. But co-instructor Debski says anti- terrorism protection in the US or abroad offers increasing employment possibilities.
Camper says he served four years in the Army, including one in Vietnam on longrange patrol, leaving the service with the rank of corporal. The mercenary school is a "hobby," he said in an interview during a break in the training. He said he has worked in Mexico, Jamaica, Saudia Arabia, and Egypt using his military skills.
"I stand for people; I dislike governments," Camper said quietly.
A midday march in the intense heat was about to begin. But this reporter, who already had passed up the opportunity to be "gassed," quietly packed his gear and hiked back down the hill.