Lt. Col. Randall Twitchell welcomes home a member of the Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 95th Military Police Battalion, at an award ceremony in Mannheim, Germany, on Saturday.

Lt. Col. Randall Twitchell welcomes home a member of the Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 95th Military Police Battalion, at an award ceremony in Mannheim, Germany, on Saturday. (Russ Rizzo / S&S)

MANNHEIM, Germany — The day the 95th Military Police Battalion was handed control of main supply routes through Baghdad, word came of the group’s first casualty.

A National Guard soldier attached to the Mannheim-based battalion died of a heart attack during physical training in Kuwait.

“It kind of set the tone,” Maj. Dewayne McOsker said of the battalion’s time downrange.

After nearly a year in Iraq, the battalion is returning home. Members of the Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment returned last week, and the remaining two of 10 companies are expected back by mid-April.

It was a year that started and ended with the unexpected and it featured far too many bagpipe renditions of “Amazing Grace.”

When Lt. Col. Randall Twitchell entered Iraq with the 95th MPs in March, things were relatively calm in and around Baghdad. So calm that he and others expected their mission to mirror the battalion’s last deployment experience: Bosnia.

Their mission was to keep supplies flowing on major roads through Baghdad. To Twitchell, the battalion commander, the biggest challenge appeared to be logistics. The battalion of 1,500 soldiers from 10 companies, at its peak, was unusually large. And it was responsible for a large area of roads: from Convoy Support Center Scania, 100 miles southwest of Baghdad, to Balad, 40 miles north of Baghdad.

“It was supposed to be that the really heavy fighting had been done. Saddam’s army had been destroyed,” Twitchell said. “We weren’t expecting all-out combat.”

That changed in April, when the Mehdi Army, the Shiite force following Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and other insurgents mounted heavy attacks along the roads the 95th MPs controlled.

For Twitchell, April 11 opened his eyes to how different the mission would be from ones in the past. It was Easter Sunday, a day one typically thinks about “other things than war and bloodshed,” said Twitchell, who had lost his first man in combat days earlier during a roadside ambush.

Around noon, Twitchell saw smoke billowing in the distance from where he stood at the Baghdad airport. A convoy was ambushed along Main Supply Route Tampa. Four fuel tankers were on fire and the Humvees with them were “completely wiped out,” Twitchell said.

The 95th MPs arrived first to the scene, calling in two Apache gunships to help fight off insurgents.

When one helicopter went down, killing both pilots, Twitchell and others secured the scene. Hours later, more fire rained down on MPs as they attempted to tow a Humvee from the site of the ambush, he said.

Twitchell’s MPs survived Easter Sunday, but the realization had set in that combat would be a daily reality for them.

“It went from occasional attacks to heavy attacks with ferocity every day,” Twitchell said.

McOsker, second-in-command to Twitchell, put it another way.

“It all hit the fan,” he said.

McOsker played “Amazing Grace” on his bagpipes at every memorial service held for 95th MP soldiers.

“I played a lot of bagpipes,” McOsker said.

In 90 days, seven 95th MP soldiers had died — six in combat — and about 80 more had been wounded.

Twitchell had some close calls himself. In the heaviest attack he experienced, six rocket-propelled grenades came streaming at his Humvee, leaving trails of light and smoke over the hood and behind him, he said. He recalls the pinging of bullets as they hit the doors and the windows.

“It doesn’t sink in that a bullet was right by your temple until you stop and see the pockmarks,” he said.

To protect large convoys, the 95th Military Police Battalion began sending small groups of Humvees ahead. Their job: draw enemy fire so that rapid-responders could spot insurgents and take them out. In a year, they escorted 10,000 convoys, Twitchell said.

When they weren’t patrolling roads, the 95th MPs set up roadside checkpoints for the Fallujah campaigns in April and November and helped establish Iraq’s first highway patrol.

The combat took its toll on the battalion, said Twitchell, who appeared close to tears as he spoke about the loss of soldiers.

“Those were the lowest times, the hardest times,” Twitchell said.

In December, the 95th MPs had mourned the loss of 10 soldiers and reported 165 wounded. They were prepared to go home when word came of yet another death: a member of the Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment died of a gunshot wound to the head, apparently self-inflicted.

The death, which is still under investigation, came as a shock for Twitchell. The soldier, Pfc. Joshua Ramsey, was a gunner who traveled in the Humvee in front of Twitchell everywhere the commander went.

11 soldiers lost

Eleven soldiers assigned to the 95th Military Police Battalion died during the unit’s yearlong deployment to Iraq.

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