In 1983 when I became a police officer the department was full of officers who had fought in Vietnam, Korea, or even WWII. Many had remained in the Reserves or joined the National Guard upon their return.
You could tell who most of these police officers were easily by looking at them. Their uniform was always squared away. Shirts and pants neatly ironed. Hats worn like an officer, not a bus driver. The biggest tell was their shoes or boots. They took pride in the spit shine they maintained. Their low quarter shoes worn during the warmer months looked like patent leather. Their jump boots that they switched to in cold weather were immaculate. They understood the need for good foot care.
They also understood the importance of the chain of command and how it worked. If they were given an order they didn’t like they did what was ordered and complained afterward. Sometimes someone has to stand in the rain and direct traffic. You don’t have to like it, but you have to do it. The veteran understood that and did what he was told. He might complain a storm later, but he understood how things had to work.
More than anything we admired his cool calm demeanor when situations went south. I remember shots coming down an alley and our sergeant who had served in Vietnam directing us in a calm voice as he lit his cigarette. His coolness steadied those of us who hadn’t served. We wanted to be that cool. Because of people like this we learned to remain calm on the radio when all hell was breaking out around us.
I once worked for a lieutenant who I was fortunate to work closely with. When he was on the street he was fearless. One evening over dinner I think I learned what made him the man he was. He told me how when he was in Vietnam he was in a bunker during a mortar attack. There were several other men with him. A mortar round impacted the bunker. He was the only survivor and came home on a stretcher. As a result, he still had some shrapnel in him when we dined. He told me he was supposed to have died in that bunker and hadn’t for some reason. Every day since then was a gift and he’d already lived a good life. He wasn’t afraid anymore. After all, he was supposed to be dead already.
I was part of the post-Vietnam era and had not been in the military. Instead, I squandered my parent’s money away at college. All I really learned at that time was how to drink, hunt and fish. I wasn’t alone. For a decade the number of veterans declined. To a degree so did the quality of the department. We didn’t have that Uncle Sam training.
You heard occasionally about an officer refusing to do an assigned duty. They didn’t want to stand out in the rain and cold. You occasionally heard from senior officers about how the college kids were ruining the department. Looking back upon this time I have to agree with these senior officers. The lack of military training was taking a toll on the department.
Sure, we had physically fit and intelligent officers on the job, but what we were lacking was courage and character tempered in fire. Officers became more concerned with covering their ass than doing what was right. Keep in mind I am part of this generation of officers. I only hope I wasn’t like that.
Today we are in a different situation. More of our officers, both male and female, are military veterans. They’ve survived boot camp, deployments, and the physical hardships that accompany military service. They understand the chain of command and appreciate the need for it. They bring with them the leadership skills that the military taught them at a young age. Many of them have seen action in Iraq, Afghanistan, or anywhere else our military is deployed. There is an air about them that only having worn a military uniform can create.
As a police officer, it is important that you take a good hard look at these veterans and learn from them. See if they have a skill set you can benefit from and try to develop it yourself.
This Veteran’s Day weekend take a moment to thank the men and women who interrupted their lives to serve and protect our country before they decided to serve and protect our communities. Show them the respect they earned by sacrificing for you and me.
Robert Weisskopf is a retired Chicago police lieutenant. In thirty years, he rose from police officer to sergeant, to lieutenant, serving every role in patrol with 18 months detailed to the Department of Housing and Urban Development leading a team for narcotics enforcement. He became a member of the Lieutenants Union and served as its’ president for six years negotiating two contracts. He also served as vice president of the Illinois Police Benevolent Protective Association. He’s a divorced father with three sons.