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The Military Police Museum at Missouri’s Fort Leonard Wood is celebrating 80 years of MPs

The Military Police Museum at Fort Leonard Wood has a new display of MP uniforms from over the years as part of the corps 80th anniversary.
Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
The Military Police Museum at Fort Leonard Wood has a new display of MP uniforms over the years as part of the corps' 80th anniversary.

The Military Police as a standalone unit of the Army was founded in 1941, and the installation where all MPs receive their training — Fort Leonard Wood — is marking the 80th anniversary with a new display at the Military Police Museum.

The display showcases the history of the police with uniforms and other artifacts.

One of the biggest changes in MP uniforms happened in the mid-1970s when women were fully integrated into policing positions, and not just limited to auxiliary functions.

“Women MPs wearing skirts while performing law enforcement duties, you know that’s not the most practical aspect of a uniform. And so right here we have a green pantsuit which debuted in the '70s — the timing when women became involved,” Megan McDonald, a museum specialist with the Army, said on a recent visit to the police museum.

Kathy West was one of the first women to wear that green pantsuit. She was part of the initial wave that took on the full range of MP duties. Wes, now the director of the MP Museum at Fort Leonard Wood, said seeing that uniform reminds her of her first assignment at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

“I wasn’t greeted with hostility, but there wasn’t any big enthusiasm with, ‘Yay! We have an MP officer that is female!’ But it was more like, ‘What do we do with her.’ But I had some really great leaders, and everybody adjusted,” West said.

West is proud to have paved the way for women currently serving as MPs, but she is also grateful for those who came before her. One of them, Marvel Joos, enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Corps during World War II.

“She was serving at the WAC training center in Des Moines, Iowa, and she learned one of her brothers had been killed in the Battle of the Bulge. So she felt that there was more that she could contribute. And a call came in for two women to be part of the MP detachment in St. Louis at the rail terminal, and she volunteered,” West said.

A display at the Military Police Museum at Fort Leonard Wood featuring the story of Marvel Joos.
Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
A display at the Military Police Museum at Fort Leonard Wood features the story of Marvel Joos.

An exhibit of Joos' uniform and other artifacts tells the story of her experience as a woman in an all-male unit.

A more combat-ready appearance

Another visible change in the uniforms started as U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War ended.

With the Army scaling back on the number of troops it needed, MPs wanted to make the case that they were essential in both war and peacetime. It was during this time that MPs saw the transition from uniforms that looked a lot like civilian police to battle dress uniforms, or BDUs, that look like more common military fatigues.

“MPs are really trying to prove their value and necessity in the Army as it was going through this reduction of force, and so they wanted to emphasize their combat arms expertise. And so they started wearing the BDU almost exclusively,” McDonald said.

During wartime, MPs process and guard prisoners of war. McDonald said some of the most popular and interesting items in the MP museum came from when soldiers were guarding POWs for extended periods of time, including paintings, cut paper artwork and even a scorpion made out of spoons from meals ready to eat.

"Alpine Scene", a wood carving made by a German POW held at Fort Leonard Wood, guarded by military police. The prisoner gave the work to his guard at the end of the war.
"Alpine Scene," a wood carving made by a German POW held at Fort Leonard Wood, guarded by military police. The prisoner gave the work to his guard at the end of the war.

“We have works of art by POWs that are in that case, that the POWs gave to the MPs afterwards — so kind of making a more complex portrayal of the relationships MPs may have in those situations,” McDonald said.

The dual function of peace and wartime duties is what helps make Military Police special, said Col. Steve Yamashita, assistant commandant of the Military Police School at Fort Leonard Wood.

“If you just walk around the museum, you’ll see different eras in how we have contributed to the good ordered discipline of the force and to help win America’s wars,” he said.

Yamashita is proud of the MP's work during wartime; he says that is an additional benefit of the corps stemming from its primary function.

“We are a professional police force. We’ve come a long way in our history. A great deal of the amount of it is geared towards professional policing, so we are on par if not better than many other law enforcement organizations in the United States,” Yamashita said.

Looking to the future

The Military Police have evolved over the years, and that evolution will likely continue in the near future. The Army has drawn criticism from Congress for its performance in investigating crimes against soldiers.

Maj. Gen. Donna Martin, the former commander of Fort Leonard Wood and provost general of the Army, told a congressional hearing in March that reforms are in progress.

They include stronger partnerships with local law enforcement, additional resources to investigate sexual assaults and hiring hundreds of civilian investigators to work alongside MPs in the Criminal Investigative Division.

“We are seizing this moment to reform and strengthen CID. We can and we will do better,” Martin told the House Armed Services Committee, which reviewed a case at Fort Hood in Texas, where Spc. Vanessa Guillén was murdered.

Since that testimony, Martin was promoted to lieutenant general and transferred to the position of inspector general of the Army.

And as changes described by Martin come, they will be reflected at the MP museum at Fort Leonard Wood. The next new display that is under development is going to highlight the criminal investigation aspects of Military Police through the years.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.