A whole new breed of American soldiers

Published: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 31, 2005 at 10:41 p.m.
I have been teaching police recruits for 13 years now, and a cop for 26. I am also an ex-soldier.
I get a chance to meet literally hundreds of police recruits. Starting about a year ago I noticed some interesting things happening in the police recruit classes. A different type of student is appearing every now and then.
I would like to tell you about one of these recruits, because of his character and courage.
Recruit Lopez, now Deputy Sheriff Jose M. Lopez (Alachua County Sheriff's Office) was one of my recent police recruits. He graduated the academy on Nov. 14, 2005.
At the beginning of the class I asked who had had military experience and had any served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Recruit Lopez and several others raised their hands. After asking them a few questions, Lopez caught my attention.
He made very little comment of his service time. He seemed to downplay his service in Iraq. When asked how long he served over in Iraq he said "'bout a year."
The academy went on as it always does, and I got to know the recruits better as the months went by. I learned something from Lopez during this time.
I keep my military medal citations in my office on my wall as I am proud of my accomplishments. Recruit Lopez in an off-handed way and with all the humility I have ever seen in a student, nonchalantly said he had gotten a "few awards" while in Iraq. When I pressed him further he listed them and then said almost as if embarrassed, that he had received the Bronze Star.
The Bronze Star is nothing to sneeze at and is awarded for an act of valor. I asked Recruit Lopez to tell me in his own words what happened. Here is how he described it.
About midnight on the 30th of June, 2003, he was assigned as the RTO (Radio Operator) for his unit, Alpha Company, 1-124th Infantry Regiment. The unit was assigned to go to a location in Ar Ramadi and try to capture Adnan Faahar, a high ranking terrorist who was involved in attacks against U.S. Forces.
When they got to the location they thought he would be located as they came under very heavy enemy fire. The enemy was located on rooftops, in buildings and alleyways and they were having a hard time isolating where the incoming fire was coming from. He said "all you could see was muzzle flashes here and there and fire back at them."
It was during this fire fight that a terrorist threw a hand grenade near the Humvee that Lopez was near. When it went off it seriously injured four of his command staff. Lopez then manned a machine gun and began to lay down suppressive fire to help cover those trying to aid the injured soldiers. He also used his M16 to lay suppressive fire after another soldier took over the machine gun.
Lopez also was able to kill several of the enemy attackers by throwing a grenade into a location where they were receiving fire from. He killed at least two of the enemy and maybe injured or killed several more.
The fire fight lasted "about an hour," he said. The entire time this was going on Lopez was providing covering fire, to the point of having to resort to using the wounded soldiers weapons as he ran out of ammunition several times.
As the unit withdrew, Lopez continued to engage stragglers of the terrorist that were foolish enough to try and engage the U.S. soldiers.
Now Deputy Lopez has received orders to go back to Iraq. He reports to Fort Benning on Jan. 7 to start a 545 day tour of Iraq. His second tour.
I asked him what he thought of having to go back. He just said that "it's what I have to do." He told me "I signed up, nobody made me do it."
I asked him what was the hardest thing he had trouble adjusting to being back in the states, and he chuckled and said driving. He says he has little patience for sitting in a non-moving car. I am guessing that is because a non-moving vehicle in Iraq is a sitting target.
He says he had trouble adjusting to being in large crowds also and still doesn't like them too much.
What makes this important to me is that while talking to recruit Lopez, now Deputy Lopez, I realized this is the type of young person that we are turning out now from our military. Heroes who shake off the idea they are special. And have no idea that they really are just that, heroes!
They don't stand out from a crowd. He has been tested by fire and he has come out stronger and his metal is tempered better for it.
Yes, we lose soldiers; yes, we have soldiers injured and disabled. But we also have a whole new batch of young Americans who are heroes, and now Lopez has decided to continue to serve his fellow Americans by becoming a Deputy Sheriff. This speaks volumes of his character and dedication to his country, and what it stands for.
I am thankful I got to be his instructor. I hope he comes back from his second tour just as did from the first, with his character intact and his sense of humor still there.
We need young people like Jose and others to take up the call of public service and be America's new breed of police and public servants. I would love to have my 6-year-old son grow up to be like Jose. And I pray for Jose and those like him, who do what they do and then come home and make America better because they are here.
Chris Wagoner is an instructor at the police academy in Gainesville.

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