Five Questions… with LTC Karst Brandsma
On June 4th, We posted an article on MPPJ that discussed the 720th Military Police Battalion’s fielding of motorcycle patrol units on Fort Hood. The article resonated with you and received over 21,000 views.
We reached out to LTC Karst Brandsma, the 720th MP BN Commander and Fort Hood Installation Provost Marshal to ask if we could follow up. Read the rich discussion below to hear his thoughts on balancing risk & reward, force-tailoring MP patrols, leveraging established relationship with civilian counterparts, perception, trust, how to overcome the repetitive quest for “relevance” and what career path you should walk.
MPPJ: Policing on motorcycles isn’t new to the Soldiers of the 720th MP BN. The 720th MP Battalion formed a Motorcycle Squad in 1946 at Camp Burness in Nakano, Tokyo. It has been many decades though since the last Harley Davidson rumbled to life prior to a patrol. Why bring them back now?
LTC Brandsma: I wish on this question that employing motorcycles for LE was a decisive point on a line of effort as part of a grand policing strategy, but the answer is less glamorous. It really comes down to fundamental Army doctrine. One of the tenets of Unified Land Operations, flexibility, tells us that to achieve success at all levels requires more than “agility and adaptability” (very buzzy words, very rarely clearly defined), but to innovatively employ a versatile mix of capabilities, formations, and equipment, and this is what I believe breeds adaptability (another ULO tenet) in our formations to gain and maintain a position of relative advantage to an adversary. Motorcycles are not a panacea solution, but here we have a piece of equipment that gives us a capability and unit of employment that we didn’t have. It allows us to force tailor our MP patrols to do things we couldn’t do before.
MPPJ: That our Military Police PCS every few years is often offered as rationale as to why we cannot invest Soldiers with hard-earned technical competencies. Once gained, how do you protect this proficiency and ensure a steady pool of trained Soldiers so the effort thrives with the passing of time? How do you hold gained ground?
LTC Brandsma: First, I think it’s just easier to say that we want a capability, but just can’t get it done because of training or getting the right Soldier in the position, even if we have the prerequisite equipment on hand. If it’s is a priority — REALLY a priority — then it can be done.
As an example, how many times have we looked at a requirement for an ASI needed for a deploying unit and killed ourselves trying to get the right Soldiers into school? We need to make these skills, that we believe we absolutely need, to become an institutional priority and make the risk decision to get the bench built across the force. As the bench gets built, as it already has been done in some ASI, then it requires a talent management solution to balance the force and keep units sustained.
Think about the ASV. I don’t think it’s a surprise to say that some units don’t fully use them, but units that want to use that capability, figure it out. Those that don’t, train on something else. Given equipment availability and all the resourcing required to maintain said equipment, which I acknowledge isn’t the case everywhere (especially with motorcycles) then whether it’s ASVs or motorcycles — it’s a RISK decision and a training PRIORITY decision.
Extrapolate from vehicles and equipment onto any capability or technical skill/ASI you like and the principle remains the same, it just scales up exponentially in complexity when dealing with human capital. As an example, how many times have we looked at a requirement for the ASI needed to fill a “tailored FTN” for a deploying unit and killed ourselves trying to get the right Soldiers into school? If as a regiment we believe that we absolutely need to have that capability in the force, then it becomes a training priority and risk decision to get the bench built across the force. As the bench gets built, as it already has been done in some ASI, then it requires talent management solutions to balance the force and keep units sustained. This, by the way, is incredibly hard to do — when you cross streams between the institutional and operational Army, it gets exponentially more complex.
Specifically, on Fort Hood and motorcycles, you can believe that every battalion has at least a platoon’s worth of motorcycle riders that have at a minimum mastered the basics, at best have a lifetime of experience and advanced training that is not tied to rank. For that capability, there’s the starting point for your initial pool — identify those guys that love to ride and reward them for it.
Second is to identify the training requirements, which in our case was from our civilian LE partners at the Georgetown, TX Police Department. GPD offered us the training for free, so that was the path of least resistance. Once the groundwork was laid, which took some time, then it was fairly easy.
MPPJ: What was the most significant obstacle to implementation and how did you overcome? What obstacles remain?
LTC Brandsma: Two obstacles: budget and risk. COL Ross Guieb (Commander, 89th MP BDE and Fort Hood DES) brought it to my attention from his previous experience as the 720th MP BN S-3 that the installation had motorcycles that were purchased in the past by III Corps (FORSCOM). He challenged us to determine the feasibility of revitalizing this program. It became a matter of getting the correct funding stream (IMCOM) approved to maintain the equipment that we already had. The staff and leaders at the DES, led by Mr. Chris Zimmer, were instrumental in making this happen.
That took trust up and down the chain of command from the tactical chain of command across to the garrison leadership to allow me to make the risk decision to implement and sustain this capability.
Second, the risk in putting out Soldiers on motorcycles is always going to be a leader decision. That took trust up and down the chain of command from the tactical chain of command across to the garrison leadership to allow me to make the risk decision to implement and sustain this capability.
Budget will always be a showstopper, and until we can show that it is an asset too valuable to shut down then, just like SRT at many installations, it will remain a risk and budget decision. I believe it provides a capability that will provide immeasurable benefits to the Fort Hood community.
MPPJ: You mentioned previously that motorcycle operations, “provide incentives for our very best patrolmen to earn the honor and privilege of serving on motorcycle.” How have the Soldiers and community reacted to this effort?
LTC Brandsma: Most that ride motorcycles do it because they love it. Unfortunately there is a perception in the two wheeled community that those that ride on four wheels don’t trust them and make it as hard as possible to let them follow their passion. The chain of command has shown here that this is not the case: that they trust our motorcycle riders to do their LE mission while doing what they love. This is the very definition of job satisfaction, is it not?
MPPJ: Lastly, a bit of a divergence, as a SAMS graduate, what advice would you offer to a post command CPT who is considering SAMS? How has this gained skill helped you in your follow on assignments and as a leader of Soldiers?
LTC Brandsma: I think there’s a misconception that SAMS is a course where the graduates are doomed to do nothing but PowerPoint slides in a windowless cubicle farm. Nothing could be further from the truth! SAMS teaches history, theory and doctrine in order to train officers to become critical and creative thinkers. Leaders who can produce viable options to solve operational and strategic problems and can then communicate these options orally, in writing, and graphically. SAMS is also a tremendously humbling experience. I went as a post KD Major who thought he knew everything there was to know (which XO doesn’t, right?) but I can tell you from day one I was humbled by my peers. The MP Corps may not put a premium on SAMS attendance, but I can tell you that our maneuver and sustainment brethren do. That taught me to work in and lead teams where each individual brought something critical to the fight (because I knew I wasn’t the smartest guy in the room) in order to solve a problem with no optimal solutions, just a menu of imperfect choices. It is a world class education where your instructors are all PhDs in subjects like history, international relations, and strategic and security studies. Your military mentors are all CSL selected former battalion and brigade commanders. You will come out on the other end with a Master’s of Military Art and Science degree, an achievement only a small percentage of officers dedicate themselves towards. My relationships built in the course pay dividends — two of the four BCTs my MP Companies support has one of my SAMS classmates in the S3 or XO position and the same goes for the war planners up at III Corps Headquarters.
I cringe when I hear MPs gripe that the Army doesn’t understand our “relevance,” and Divisions and Corps don’t know how to leverage MP capabilities to shape the deep fight, but are unwilling to put in the work to make a difference. If we want to “prove relevance” then we need to posture our junior field grade officers on the most senior levels of staff
I stretched the truth some… There is a lot of PowerPoint. SAMS also teaches you to have a sense of humor.
Finally, it is a means to an end, a key that unlocks doors only available to SAMS graduates. I cringe when I hear MPs gripe that the Army doesn’t understand our “relevance,” and Divisions and Corps don’t know how to leverage MP capabilities to shape the deep fight, but are unwilling to put in the work to make a difference. If we want to “prove relevance” then we need to posture our junior field grade officers on the most senior levels of staff (DoD, Interagency, Combined and Joint) to get in there, brief the Division, Corps, and JTF commanders in order to create institutional change. SAMS is “a way” because it gets graduates into a position to serve our most senior military leaders. Waiting to be a COL is too late — a MAJ can take those lessons and bring them back to better lead our combat formations.
The MP Corps is something like 4% of the Army, so get out there and see the rest of the force that you profess to support.
Post command CPTs have lots of options. The bottom line, for me, is follow your passion. We do this job because we love it. Don’t take a post-command job because you think you have to have that “golden assignment” that will punch your ticket to success. In between those “must do” wickets (Command and KD assignments) you have to tell the Army what you want, or they’ll tell you what you’re going to get, and you might not like that very much. Find and follow your passion. If you want to be a PMO law dog, then that’s fantastic, go do it! If you want to be an SGL and mentor future platoon leaders, then compete for it! But I just changed out 5 company commanders in my battalion in the last 4 months. With the full support of the chain of command, one is going to Law School at the U of M, one is teaching ROTC at U of Nebraska, one is attending UT Austin to get a second Master’s Degree, one is going to a NATO job in Italy, and the last is taking a congressional fellowship to work policy issues on Capitol Hill. None of those assignments are “MP jobs” and I’m perfectly OK with that. All of those officers will be equally competitive for KD and I can see as future battalion commanders. The MP Corps is something like 4% of the Army, so get out there and see the rest of the force that you profess to support.
Hope this helps! Soldiers of the Gauntlet!
Karst Brandsma is the Commander, 720th Military Police Battalion and Installation Provost Marshal at Fort Hood, TX. His 18 year career has spanned from the platoon level to Headquarters, Department of the Army and Joint Staffs, but his passion has always been training, mentoring, and serving alongside Military Police Soldiers. His full biography can be found here. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect any official policy or position of the U.S. Government, the DoD, The U.S. Army, or the Military Police Regiment.