Shortage forces Guard soldiers into MP training
Sunday, February 1, 2004
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. -- Spc. Jason Vazquez is a National Guard artillery soldier, but he hopes someday to become a Chicago police officer.
Thanks to the Army's crying need for military policeman, he's getting the kind of on-the-job training that will speed his way toward that goal.
Vazquez, 19, is among some 2,230 Guard soldiers being retrained at Fort Leonard Wood in central Missouri as temporary military police to replenish an Army force stretched to its limits by the war on terror.
"I'm very excited about the experience we're going to get," said Vazquez, who was attending college on a basketball scholarship when his Illinois Army Guard field artillery unit was tapped for retraining. "I have an uncle who is a Chicago police officer. I'd like to do the same one day."
The National Guard Bureau announced plans last fall to convert 18 Army Guard companies that were least likely to be called on in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom into much-needed MPs. Each company has about 124 soldiers.
They are to provide security at installations in the United States, Hawaii and Germany, while the Army's active and reserve police corps are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The new MPs are being created from 14 field artillery units, three combat support units and one transportation unit. The citizen-soldiers are from Arizona, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia.
All will undergo a four-week course at Fort Leonard Wood, home of the U.S. Army Military Police School.
The Army has gone to great lengths to make training realistic and fun. Among other things, soldiers get to perform drills in a mock village at the post.
It includes a crack house with drug peddlers. It has a bar with brawling patrons, as well as a duplex with quarreling couples. There's also James Jewels, Bob's Bait Shop and A & L Shoes, all ripe with robbers.
"We do a lot of role playing, and they have to interact with individuals in a variety of situations," said Maj. Rob Stiner, who supervises training. "The idea is to make it realistic so they gain general law enforcement skills."
The 128th Field Artillery, a 155mm towed-howitzer artillery unit from Missouri, was among the first group to receive a new job classification. The artillerymen-turned-military police graduated Dec. 19 and are now serving at Fort Polk, La.
"We've had zero issues. No problems whatsoever," said Lt. Col. Henry R. Evans, commander of the Army Reserve unit conducting the training.
While being an MP requires a different set of skills from those of artillerymen, the training runs smoothly because the students are seasoned soldiers, Evans said. He estimates more than 90 percent -- about the same as Army recruits -- pass training on their first try.
"They are versatile, very attentive and willing to learn," Evans said. "They help each other."
The stopgap effort is stretching the Military Police School, which graduated about 12,950 recruits last year. The National Guard expects to train 1,240 soldiers by April, with another 990 qualified for duty by February 2005.
"What's different is the magnitude," said Col. Joe Rapone, who as commander of the 14th Military Police Brigade oversees the school. "We've done (retraining) for years, but it's been on a handful basis. Certainly not on this volume."
U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, has concerns about the long-term implications of extending tours of duty for Reserve and National Guard members. But he also understands the need to protect installations in America and overseas.
"It's guerrilla warfare in Iraq, there's no question about it," Skelton said. "They have to meet the changing needs of the Army."