European edition, Thursday, May 31, 2007

BAUMHOLDER, Germany — On the day shift, they mostly respond to motor vehicle accidents, investigate suspicious packages and help on security detail.

On weekend nights, they bust up brawls, deal with belligerent drunks and sometimes get assaulted as they do so.

“I had an MP get punched in the face this weekend,” said 1st Sgt. Durward Travis. “That’s when the floodgates open up.”

For the past 12 months, members of the Connecticut National Guard have worked to keep the peace in Baumholder. It’s been a sometimes-rocky road for the unit, which had no law enforcement experience before arriving in Germany in March 2006.

Now, the 36 men and women from Connecticut are preparing to return home in June. Some of the guardsmen have spent much of the last three years deployed in one place or another, leaving behind families, careers and school. At times, the sacrifice of units such as the Connecticut military police is easy to overlook during a time of war.

“You don’t sign up for the National Guard anymore thinking that you’re going to stay home,” said 1st Lt. William Baker, commander of the Connecticut MP contingent in Baumholder.

For the MPs, learning the ropes of police work was mostly done on the fly.

“We had a lot to learn,” said Staff Sgt. Nicholas Diluggo.

Back home, Baker is a state auditor. Diluggo is a history teacher. Travis, the platoon leader, is a truck mechanic. The group is rounded out with construction workers, small-business owners and students.

Before Baumholder, the guard members were trained for dealing with things like chemical spills. On Baumholder’s downtown streets, however, the MPs were introduced to drunken, knife-wielding soldiers, drug overdoses, sexual assaults, domestic disturbances and those driving under the influence.

“We’ve seen it all,” Travis said.

And it’s not just young soldiers causing the trouble. There was the time when a drunken officer punched an MP in the face, leaving a nasty shiner, the MPs recalled.

On off-hours, “I tell my guys to stay away from Baumholder,” Travis said.

The mayhem, though, made Baumholder an ideal place to engage in serious police work, the MPs say.

Their fellow Connecticut guardsmen who were assigned to MP posts in Hanau and Darmstadt spent much of their time dealing with motor vehicle accidents, Travis noted.

When an MP from Hanau was in Baumholder for temporary duty, the visitor was surprised at what he saw.

“Holy [expletive], what are you guys doing here?” Travis recalled the shell-shocked guardsman as saying.

“We have a heavy caseload,” said Baker, who declined to release specific arrest numbers.

On Wednesday, Sgt. Eric Dubenetsky spent part of his afternoon helping to block traffic after a suspicious package was found at the garrison post office. Back home, Dubenetsky works in a casino. With his MP experience, he says he’s considering a new career.

“I’m looking into law enforcement. This has been a stepping stone for me,” he said.

There are a few such cases, where the MP experience in Baumholder could open the door to police work back home. For the most part, though, the MPs have other careers and education to return to, Travis said. Still, the lessons learned in Baumholder have value.

“You learn patience and you learn self-control,” Travis said.

For the guardsmen, there was more than a lack of policing experience to overcome. There also was the stigma of simply being an MP. And that scarlet letter was compounded by the fact that they were National Guard.

“Not only are we MPs, you’re a National Guard MP, which makes things more challenging,” Diluggo said. “A lot of that has been overcome with what we’ve done on the road.”

The MPs experienced a surge in activity after the soldiers returned in November from their deployment in Iraq.

“The soldiers went through a lot mentally,” Diluggo said, referring to the heavy casualty toll experienced by the 1st Armored Division’s 2nd Brigade. “They’re living for today.”

A mix of factors, the MPs say, contributes to making Baumholder a combustible place at times. A bunch of young soldiers — many just a year or two out of high school — with easy access to alcohol and a short supply of dating options can sometimes be a recipe for disaster.

When possible, the MPs say they’ll turn a soldier in trouble over to his unit for discipline instead of thrusting him into the legal system.

“Combat soldiers have been through a lot. We take into account what their jobs are. That’s what makes our Army work,” Baker said.

And because of the challenges they’ve faced, “I wouldn’t have any problem putting my guys up against any active-duty MP,” Travis concluded.

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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