Why military veterans who become police officers are in a unique position
The Weld County Sheriff’s office employs multiple generations of military veterans, many of whom were deployed overseas. Veterans of the Gulf War, the Iraq War and the military actions in Afghanistan work side by side with each other. The office also employs veterans from different branches of the U.S. military. The rivalry between military branches leads to the usual teasing comments among veterans, but former servicemen and women do have a certain unspoken understanding.
“To be a good police officer, you have to be mission-oriented,” said Capt. Alan Caldwell of the Weld County Sheriff’s office, an Army veteran. “Having had the experience of being challenged physically and mentally (in the military) gives you a lot of confidence.”
If Weld County Sheriff’s deputy Dave Clarke is working a series of night shifts, he knows he might not see his wife for two or three days at a time. He’s thankful he doesn’t have to spend more time away.
When he was in the Air Force, during the Gulf War, Clarke would sometimes go months without seeing her during deployments. Communication could be sparse, too.
To those without military experience, the irregular hours and unexpected overtime police officers often deal with might seem taxing. For Clarke, though, and other military veterans who have chosen to become police officers, it’s one of many challenges they know they can handle. They’ve already been pushed, sometimes to their breaking point, during their military service.
“You make things as bad as possible during training, forcing you to reach higher and higher levels of proficiency,” said Capt. Alan Caldwell of the Weld County Sheriff’s office, himself an Army veteran. “You face a situation that seems unbeatable and you say, ‘let’s get through it.’”
All good police officers have to be mission-oriented, Caldwell said. He’s seen non-military officers with the same mindset, and he’s quick to point out they are just as successful in the world of law enforcement as former servicemen and women. Oftentimes, though, veterans fresh out of service already have that philosophy, making them natural candidates for the police academy.
That was the case with Weld County Sheriff’s deputy John Maedel, who served in Afghanistan during his tenure with the Army. He’s been a sheriff’s deputy since October. Field training for the sheriff’s office was stressful, he said. New deputies are urged to take as many calls as possible, and it often pushes them to their limits. But it still wasn’t as hard as the military.
There are differences between police work and military service. During his service in Afghanistan, Maedel knew missions had only two possible outcomes — he and his fellow soldiers would either come under fire, or they wouldn’t. That realization creates mental extremes, he said, without much territory in between. Law enforcement is rarely that black and white.
“When you show up to a call,” he said, “anything can happen.”
Still, military experience can be invaluable. One of the first things police are trained to do when they arrive on a scene, Caldwell said, is build rapport with the people they encounter. If police and civilians share military experience, that job becomes easier.
“Right there you have established that link and opened lines of communication,” Caldwell said. “They begin to see you as a former service member.”
That’s becoming important, he said, because lengthy military involvement overseas is creating more veterans back home. This means police encounter them more often. Police officers with military experience are in a unique position to connect with this growing segment of the population, he said.
Veterans who enter law enforcement understand each other in different ways, too. They bond over everything from the friendly rivalry between military branches to their familiarity with the rank and structure of a police agency. It’s a rare sense of camaraderie.
“You have an instant connection,” Clarke said. “It’s not like selling insurance.”