Many in local law enforcement lean on their military training
Published: Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 5:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 18, 2013 at 10:03 a.m.
Joel Lancaster says he never felt comfortable in Iraq. The military base was confusing. It was hot and dusty. Mornings started at 4 a.m., long before first light dared to crack the skyline, with his squad scanning the streets for car bombs and detonation devices.
“Iraq always keeps you on edge,” said the 34-year-old deputy from the Alachua County Sheriff's Office. “It's very stressful, so you have to find something to keep you going.”
He was in the small town of Q-West for about half a year. When he returned to the U.S. last spring, he received shipping orders again for Tuesday. He doesn't know where he'll be stationed yet.
But it didn't stop him. He enlisted at the police academy immediately and took a job with the Sheriff's Office in August 2012.
“I asked them if it would be a problem, me being in the military,” he said. “They (ASO) just took me in with open arms.”
The deputy isn't alone. Locally, it's common for military members to also work at the Sheriff's Office or the police department between or after stretches of active duty.
Since 2008, nearly 60 ASO officers and deputies have been called upon for training or deployment, according to an office spreadsheet.
Lt. Todd Kelly said the majority of employees at the Sheriff's Office have military experience. It only makes sense, he said.
“They understand team concept, organization. They understand the importance of their role, and the structure is similar to things they've learned in the military,” he said.
At the Gainesville Police Department, four officers are currently activated, with another 12 who could be at any moment, spokesman Ben Tobias said.
“They still want to be able to serve their country,” he said. “I think those are definitely officers we want protecting the citizens of Gainesville.”
For Lancaster, it's something in his blood. He feels hard-wired to help and protect people, he said. Gainesville or Iraq, service is his life.
Since first grade, he has wanted to be a police officer, he said.
He grew up in a run-down neighborhood in the South Bronx. Litter piled in the street. Vacant, crumbling houses lined the block. And out of fear, police rarely patrolled, Lancaster recalled.
“I hardly ever saw cops come through,” he said. “I wanted to become one to help communities.”
Now, he does what he loves. But each military trip remains a challenge.
He's married with children, so goodbyes are heartaches, he said.
Regardless, duty has its place.
“I want to serve and protect,” he said. “I feel like that's why I'm here on Earth, that's my purpose.”
Their service isn't forgotten, Kelly said, even when they're overseas for months.
Down the hallway of the Sheriff's Office, a section of the wall is devoted to the military members. Against a green backdrop, in gold letters, it reads: “Deployed Military Personnel,” and black frames house the smiles of 12 burly officers. Underneath, a folded American flag rests inside a wooden triangle box.
Kelly said he empathizes with those in active duty. Their service is invaluable and puts day-to-day squabbles into perspective.
“I walk by it every day,” he said. “It's a constant reminder. You can't look at it and not think about them.
“It hits a little closer to home because these are people who work here. No matter how bad your day is, it's a heck of a lot better than what they're going through.”
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.