Veterans find home in law enforcement

wcrenshaw@macon.comMay 25, 2013 

Veterans find home in law enforcement

About this time 10 years ago, Houston County Sheriff’s Deputy Nick Brown was in Iraq dodging bullets and bombs while trying to cope with temperatures that reached 140 during the day and cooled down to 110 at night.

That’s why you won’t hear him saying much about the stresses of being a law enforcement officer.

“No matter what is happening, it can always be worse,” he said.

As veterans sometimes struggle to find jobs, many find law enforcement a perfect fit. They have the same sense of camaraderie and service, without being away from their families for months at a time.

Law enforcement agencies find veterans, especially those who have been in combat, are uniquely able to deal with the chaotic nature of the job.

Houston County Chief Deputy Billy Rape said the county doesn’t track the number of deputies who are veterans, but he said many are, including current reservists and guardsmen.

“We have not had any problems with any of them that I know of,” he said. “We are sort of a paramilitary organization, so they do well under the structure.”

Most any veterans job fair typically will have multiple law enforcement agencies there recruiting.

Lee Hartley is a rookie Macon officer and former Marine. He was part of the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was seriously injured in combat.

He is currently in field training in the 2nd Precinct, where he rides with an experienced officer for three months before he can go on patrol alone. His supervisor, Sgt. Reginald Washington, was impressed with him from the moment he reported for duty on his first day wearing an impeccable, perfectly pressed uniform.

Although Washington is not Hartley’s regular training officer, the two rode together on patrol that day, and Washington saw a rookie who behaved nothing like a rookie.

“His actions and his performance were not something you normally see in a rookie,” he said. “Most of them have that deer-in-the-headlights look when they go on high-risk calls, but he is really levelheaded.”

Washington, a combat veteran himself, attributed it to Hartley’s military experience, which he said instills maturity and values that trainees can’t get from a 12-week police academy. He estimated about 20 percent of Macon’s officers are veterans, and he would like to see the department do more to recruit them.

“These guys believe there is no greater honor than to serve and even die for their peers,” he said. “These are the kind of people we need to be looking for.”

Rookie sees action already

Hartley was on top of an amphibious assault vehicle when his unit came under attack in Iraq in the bloody Battle of An Nasiriyah. As he tried to take cover, he fell and his right arm was paralyzed.

He remained that way for almost three months, and doctors weren’t sure what was wrong. It was a scary time.

“I didn’t know if it was going to get better,” he said.

But doctors finally determined he had pinched a nerve in his neck. After surgery, he started to regain movement.

He left the Marines after four years of active-duty and four more as a reservist. He worked various jobs, including selling cars and working in a quarry. Nothing gave him the satisfaction he had from serving in the military, and he chose to go into law enforcement.

“I decided to take a pay cut and do what I had always wanted to do,” he said.

The fact that someone has served in combat doesn’t mean they would necessarily make a good law enforcement officer. Hartley, 32, said he never could have done it when he first got out of the Marines.

Communication is a big part of the job, and that’s not something he did very well when he returned.

“Sometimes it was hard for me to deal with other people, because when you get back you don’t really want to talk about anything,” he said.

He suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome but has learned to control it with counseling and medication. He still doesn’t let his children have latex balloons, however. They can only have the foil type.

“I don’t like to hear them pop,” he said.

He already has seen plenty of action on the job. He was among a group of officers who responded to a call, and a man fired a shot at them through a closed door. He has also responded to a couple of murder scenes.

Hartley has gotten enough of a taste of the job to know he made the right choice.

“I love it,” he said. “This is something I know definitely in my heart I am going to retire from.”

The right perspective

Deputy Brown was also a Marine, and was also part of the initial invasion of Iraq. He is a paratrooper and still serves in the reserves. He only recently started with the Houston County Sheriff’s Department and previously worked as an officer in Macon and Perry.

He doesn’t like to talk about his combat experiences, except to say he was fortunate.

He points out that jumping out of airplanes and his extensive wilderness survival training are not particularly useful skills in law enforcement. What he mainly takes from his combat experience, he said, is that he learned to put things in perspective. He knows how bad it could be, and that helps him cope with the job.

When he first returned from Iraq, he would get downright upset if he heard someone griping about 100-degree temperatures.

“You won’t find anyone in Macon, Perry or here who can say they’ve heard me complain about anything,” he said.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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