Towards the end of my checkered career in the Army, I found myself stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison, a large Army base located outside Indianapolis.
I was the Traffic Sergeant for the 226th Military Police Company and we served more like a civilian police force than like a traditional MP company. The reason was that Ben Harrison was a “civilian” base.
The Army Finance Center — the second largest military building in the United States, after the Pentagon — was located at the fort, and thousands of civilian workers commuted to and from the base every day.
But the biggest problem we faced wasn’t the civilians or the military personnel on the base; it was the MPs themselves. At that time, virtually every trained MP was needed in Vietnam (a few were in Korea), so only a few trained MPs, most of whom had returned from Vietnam and had only a short time left to serve, were available for stateside duty. That didn’t provide anywhere near enough MPs, so the Army simply took a bunch of returning non-MP Vietnam veterans and called them MPs.
These guys weren’t trained cops. They were infantrymen, truck drivers, mechanics, cooks, whatever. And they weren’t exactly normal, either. Twelve months in Vietnam did strange things to a lot of guys.
Thus it was that every day of my life as traffic sergeant I worried that something awful would happen. We had nearly 100 untrained cops running around armed to the teeth and with way too much authority. It was, it seemed to me, a recipe for disaster.
And yet, no disasters happened — at least not on the scale I was worrying about. The “disasters” that did happen fell not on the horrific side, but on the hilarious side. Virtually every day, some untrained MP would do something surpassingly stupid, and those few of us who were actual trained MPs got to clean up the messes.
I could write a book about all that, but instead I will give you only a few sterling examples of your U.S. Army Military Policemen at work.
In those days, and maybe still today, cops spoke to each other and to the dispatcher using what is called a ten-series code. This was originally done for purposes of brevity and to enhance the security of police communications.
For example, if one of my patrolmen wanted to report that he had come across an automobile accident at Post Road and E. 59th Street, he wouldn’t call dispatch and say, “Hey, sarge, I got a bad accident out here at Post an’ 59th, blood and body parts everywhere!”
No, he would say, “Car 12 reporting a 10-50, 10-20 is Post and 59th.”
In those days, MPs worked twelve-hour shifts, six days a week, alternating between the day shift and the night shift. The day shift squad was much larger than the night shift squad, given all the civilians on the post during the day. At night, typically, only half a dozen patrol cars would be operating.
For some reason, MPs driving squad cars were required to wear white crash helmets with the MP logo on the front. Maybe it was so they could pretend to be fighter pilots.
It was a quiet Monday night — some kind of holiday — and I was working graveyard. Just before 3:15 a.m. I got a call from one of my patrolmen saying, as per the above, “I got a 10-50 out here, 10-20 is Post Road and 59th.”
I frowned at the two-way radio. This wasn’t possible. I knew perfectly well there were only six vehicles moving inside Fort Ben Harrison at that hour and all of them were MP squad cars. I abandoned the ten series code and radioed back, “What the hell are you talking about, Canavan?”
“Uh, sorry, Sarge, but, well, these two MP vehicles, they done crashed into each other!”
I slammed the mic down on my desk in disgust and ran outside, fired up my squad car and raced over to the intersection of Post Road and 59th Street. The scene I observed had surely never happened before in the history of police departments.
One MP squad car had obviously run a stop sign and had t-boned another squad car in the middle of the intersection. The MP in the t-boned car was standing outside it leaning against the front fender, being tended to by another MP. The MP in the car that had run the stop sign was still sitting in the driver’s seat of his car. The other four squad cars on duty that night were all on site, red lights flashing.
I stormed out of my car, raced over to the car that had caused the accident, and yanked the driver’s side door open so hard it nearly buckled in my hand. I’d opened my mouth to scream at the offending MP, but he’d apparently been asleep — or passed out — and was leaning against the door.
When I yanked the door open, the MP fell out of the car, and as he did so, his crash helmet fell off his head. In the darkness and with weird flashing lights reflecting off the surrounding buildings, I thought the guy’s head had fallen off. The next thing I knew I was lying unconscious in the middle of the road.
While this lovely tableau was laying itself out in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, a Marian County Deputy Sheriff arrived at the intersection, having monitored the call about the accident, in case we needed help. And there we all were, looking like a scene from a Keystone Kops movie that had been left on the cutting room floor because nobody would believe it had actually happened.
The deputy stared at the scene for a long moment, shook his head, got back in his squad car and drove away.
Next in this series: Richard Lugar, Part II