508th MP Battalion in the field for first time in two years
July 20, 2012
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. -- The verdict is in for Soldiers with the 508th Military Police Battalion: Sometimes, slide show presentations just don't cut it. To train properly, you need to go outside once in a while.
You need tents, you need generators, you need to break the field equipment out of hiding. You need the elements and you need artillery simulators -- things classroom environments simply don't offer.
"It's not something we get to do very much of," said Staff Sgt. Michael Whitaker, a squad leader with the 67th MP Company, during a battalion field exercise July 16-18 -- the first opportunity for the unit to train with all its entities in a field environment at once in more than two years.
"Normally, training consists of us sitting in a classroom with PowerPoints (slides), and an hour later we go home or go to work," said the Groveland, Fla., native, as Soldiers around him started to pack up gear to leave the training area on Lewis-North. "Here, we have simulators and we have role players and the proper equipment."
The 508th serves as one of only four internment and resettlement battalions in the active duty Army. Its primary mission is to man the Northwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., a civilian-style institution that houses troops who have committed criminal offenses.
And with 130-160 inmates from across the region incarcerated at any given time, operating the facility is no 9-to-5 job.
"That's a 24-7, 365-day mission in there," said Lt. Col. Robert Davel, the battalion's commander, standing just feet from a heavy-duty kitchen containment trailer and generators he said the unit was excited to finally put to use. "Our manpower is very tight, as we have to provide a guard force inside the facility as well as admin roles."
For its three days in the field, however, the unit's mission was to manage a detention camp on a mock Afghanistan operating base -- to transport its more than 20 detainees within the camp, to safeguard them and to control aggressive revolts in the camp's yard, all while reacting to simulated indirect fire attacks.
The exercise tested Soldiers working in the camp and monitoring its detainee role players with challenges few of them have ever dealt with in the facility they regularly spend their daily 8- to 12-hour shifts.
The inmates taunted them, yelled at them and occasionally threw fake urine and feces on them.
"We're going to deploy, and this is what we're going to be doing, so this is really good," said Spc. Andrew Mace, a Kansas City, Kan., native and 67th MP Co. corrections specialist, of the battalion's upcoming Afghanistan deployment early next year. "This is like practice for the big game."
But freeing up the 120 Soldiers the unit brought to the field was no easy task. It took nearly a year of planning and the help of a group of Reservists from Salt Lake City's 420th MP Co. to make the event possible.
The 53 Soldiers from the Utah-based company, all corrections specialists as well, replaced Soldiers with the 508th in the corrections facility and acted as detainees for the duration of the exercise.
"I'm learning a lot, even just being a detainee, because we've never really done any detainee ops like this before, so it's just a big learning experience," said Pfc. Josh Haddock, a 420th Soldier supporting the battalion, clad in a brown jumpsuit with a number written on tape affixed to his chest as he walked the camp's yard as an inmate. "We're learning how to talk to the detainees and how you can influence them with your words."
Davel said three of his Soldiers travelled to Salt Lake City two separate times in the past several months to train the group of Utah military police on the duties associated with running a corrections facility.
His battalion, he said, is the only one of its kind in the Army to use an outside organization in the capacity that it did -- supporting a battalion so its Soldiers can train in the field.
"There's no other internment resettlement battalion doing this right now," he said. "This is unheard of; this is uncharted water.
"We felt, as an organization, that it was imperative we don't lose our field craft."
But according to Davel, the real benefit came to the younger Soldiers -- new MPs like Pfc. Adan Perez, whose Army experience hasn't gone much beyond the walls of the jail they work in on a daily basis.
"We've never really actually hit up room clearing before," said Perez, an Okanogan, Wash., native. "I've trained on everything else, just the room clearing was the biggest thing on my part."
"It's a rush," Perez said, describing the feeling of stacking up outside a door, head-to-toe in riot gear. "It's like, you're scared, but you're not scared, and you're just ready to go."
Classrooms may have their place, but for Perez, who has now successfully cleared a room for the first time with his squad, the most intense lessons come when Soldiers put on their gear and put themselves in realistic scenarios.
"It keeps your eyes open -- keeps your mind open to your surroundings, to make sure you're not doing anything wrong," he said.
"You don't want the next guy behind you or next to you getting hurt because of your mistake."