The Home Front, Part 4:
Deployments impact police ranks

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(Host) The war in Iraq is taking an especially heavy toll on police agencies around the state. That’s because many police officers also pursue part-time military careers. Today in our series on “The Home Front,” VPR’s John Dillon reports that the call-ups have also taken a personal toll on police families.

(Sound of the Burlington Police Department dispatch center.)

(Dillon) The dispatch room at the Burlington Police Department is the nerve center for the state’s largest municipal police force. It’s also the communications hub for Burlington officers deployed overseas. Deputy Chief Walt Decker explains.

(Decker) “We at one time had an officer in Afghanistan, an officer in Iraq and an officer in Bosnia all at the same time. So our dispatchers here in the background, members of our department, there’s an almost an ongoing weekly project of e-mails, packages, the latest news, that type of thing – just because of our commitment to those individuals.”

(Dillon) The Burlington department has 95 officers. Three were recently deployed and another three or four may soon be called up for active duty.

(Decker) “It’s a challenge for us. When someone goes it’s usually also as a result of obviously some type of national or military crisis involving security. That compounds the challenge for us because at the same time the federal government in many instances is saying we also need to increase police presence and provide additional security for key infrastructure sites, the Burlington International Airport and oh, by the way, I’m now activating some of your police officers – they need to come work for us.”

(Dillon) It’s a challenge for other police agencies as well. Eight state police officers were recently mobilized and public safety officials say up to 25 more could also be called into service. The Caledonia County Sheriff’s Department lost both of its deputies when the National Guard mobilized more than 1,000 people. The call-ups have depleted the ranks of state prison guards and local police departments. Even the tiny Statehouse police force was affected.

But the war and the military mobilization are also felt on a personal level, one family at a time.

(Phillip Small) “There’s still a little traumatic episodes for me being gone with my daughter. When she sees me in a flight suit heading out the door, she still asks if I’m coming back at night.”

(Dillon) Corporal Phillip Small is the traffic safety officer for the Burlington force. He also flies Blackhawk helicopters for the National Guard and returned this spring from a mission in Bosnia. Small could be sent to Iraq in a year or so. He’s got 23 years in the service, but he’s not ready to quit flying.

(Small) “If they call me up to go to Iraq, I’m more than willing to go. The big issue again would be the family, the wife. I’ve been kind of sweet-talking her, getting her ready, prepared mentally for that type of situation.”

(Dillon) Down the road at state police headquarters in Waterbury, Sergeant Mike Heston has a clear understanding of what families go through when a loved one is sent to a war zone.

(Heston) “You miss the Christmas parties, the Thanksgiving football games when you’re away.”

(Dillon) Last year, Heston spent a little over six months in Afghanistan as part of a mission to train the Afghan army. He found the work rewarding and says his wife June deserves the credit for keeping things together at home.

(Heston) “And I still don’t know how she did it. Because I’m back and working with her and I’m like, how did you pull all this together? The schedules of the kids going to soccer and karate and then getting them up every day for school, and maintaining the household, along with chores. It’s not an easy task for anyone, for any family.”

(Dillon) Police officers and people in the National Guard often talk about having two families: their one at home, and their one in the service or on the force. Heston has some advice for fellow officers who want to help out families feeling the stress of the military deployments.

(Heston) “You just need to make sure these kids, you know they’ll see the state police, they’ll see the cruiser. Get over there and pick them up, get them to a hockey game or get them to wherever they have to go to make sure that their lives are still intact and they can still make their events.”

(Dillon) But the police are also stretched thin. At the Middlesex station, Lieutenant David Harrington is losing two of his troopers to military service. One was called up after just 20 days on the force. The second officer will leave in Janaury for Iraq.

(Harrington) “That puts a hit on us. I only have three supervisors here and to be down one third of my supervisory staff just isn’t acceptable. So what we’ve done is to take one of our senior troopers here and rotated him into an acting patrol commander position.”

(Dillon) Although the troop deployments will have some impact on police service, Harrington and other police officials say they’re confident they can respond to emergencies and protect the public with the numbers they have.

The impact on the families may be harder to gauge. In some ways, the families of police officers who serve in the military are more prepared to have their loved ones in harm’s way. They’re ready when an emergency call comes in the middle of the night. But that stress will just get worse when those family members are sent overseas.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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