From vets to cops

When Army Sgt. John Jenkins was in Iraq, getting pummeled with gunfire from nearly 100 shooters stationed on rooftops, he wasn’t thinking about his other job protecting the U.S. Capitol.

One year later Jenkins returned to his work as a U.S. Capitol Police office with shrapnel embedded in his cheek, having earned the Army’s Bronze Star with valor. But he came back with something else: a new skill set that would help him become a better cop.

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“It prepares you a bit mentally,” Jenkins said. “Not for anything that has happened [on Capitol Hill], but maybe for what could happen. There’s not a whole lot that I think could faze me now.”

The Capitol Police, like much of America, is seeing its ranks bolstered with men and women returning from Iraq as the military scales back the thousands of troops that were stationed there. And as the soldiers return to their posts on Capitol Hill, many of them detail how the two different jobs complement each other.

In Iraq, Jenkins, 29, was a .50-caliber machine-gunner handling convoy security. Perched atop a five-ton truck, he employed the same watchful tactics that he uses as a police officer — only instead of suspicious-looking backpacks left by tourists, he was looking for roadside bombs planted by insurgents.

Jenkins hopes he won’t have to use the combat skills he honed for dealing with large-scale attacks involving machine-gun fire or improvised explosive devices while working on Capitol Hill, he said.

“It’s one thing when it happens in Iraq, and it’s horrible there, but you definitely don’t want that to happen here at all,” he said. “So hopefully my actions, and my fellow officers’ as well, can keep anything major from happening, at least anything catastrophic.”

Capitol Police officer Ray Mooney echoed Jenkins’s sentiments. Last year Mooney, an Air Force master sergeant, led a 13-person squad in Iraq, where they were put in charge of defense operations for a forward operating base near Kirkuk.

The base came under mortar and rocket attack frequently — approximately 16 attacks in six months — and Mooney, serving as battle captain, would funnel information back and forth from his superiors to his subordinates in the field, telling them which buildings needed to be evacuated and roads needed to be closed, and if medical teams or fire trucks needed to be dispatched.

The multi-pronged, and often hectic, nature of his job in Iraq has left Mooney, 37, feeling like there’s little that could happen on Capitol Hill that would make him lose his sense of calm and concentration.

“Some people [on Capitol Hill] get a little worked up about one smaller incident when you still have to keep in mind that we might have multiple incidents,” Mooney said in an interview before starting his shift on the Capitol Police’s patrol division. “Where I was, you’d have an attack that opened up over here and then another over there. And you’re keeping track and managing all of it.”

In his 32 years in the Army and 26 years with the Capitol Police, Sgt. Kurtis Timmer said he’s noticed a marked difference in police officers who have military experience from those who do not.

“Over there you have to have your wits about you the whole time,” Timmer said. “You tend to learn what to react to and what’s important and what … you need to get excited about.

“Things that happen here, be it a street robbery, a shooting or a response to a significant event, regardless of what it is, I think you’ll find the folks that had the exposure in the military overseas would handle the situation a little more calmly than those that had never been exposed to something like that,” said Timmer, who supervises 19 police officers in the Capitol Police’s Intelligence division.

While the size and scope may be different between positions in the Capitol Police and in the Army — Timmer supervised as many as 5,000 men as an adviser to a commander — Timmer said good leadership is a constant for both jobs. The military really invests in its supervisors, he said, and Capitol Police jobs require leadership.

“Being in the military has a huge payoff value for those of us that have a supervisory capacity in the police force,” Timmer said.

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“The payoff for the police department is they have somebody who’s gone through numerous supervisor schools,” he said. “You’ve been taught how to manage your time. You’ve been taught how to manage more than 10 people. So managing 19 people is a no-brainer when compared to managing 5,000.”

Timmer’s military skill set has come in handy in many other instances as well. During President Obama’s inauguration, military organizers needed someone within Capitol Police’s ranks to be able to speak in both military and police code. (For example: The military calls motor movements “convoys,” while the police department calls them “motorcades.”)

“Once the military found out that I know the talk and know the walk, they [decided] to communicate through me because I could then transpose the military speech back to the police,” Timmer said. He was put in charge of handling all of the event’s motorcades.

Many of the military personnel who work on the Capitol Police force said the training that officers receive in the department is top-notch. But one thing that’s not quite the same is the friendships. Mooney attributed the difference in camaraderie to the distinct nature of each jobs

He explained that because people in the military usually live together, they get to know each other on a more personal level. Police officers, on the other hand, often have their families and other support networks already in place.

Mooney’s Delaware-based Air Force reserve unit, for instance, takes outings together to the American Legion for shrimp-and-ribs meals and also organizes summer picnics, gift exchanges and vacations.

Jenkins, who joined the Army at the age of 18 when he graduated from high school, said there’s also a sense of camaraderie between former and current military men and women who work on the Capitol Police force. They inevitably end up knowing each other, he said, whether it’s the traditional military haircut that gives them away or they discover they were stationed at the same base, as he did with another officer. And an automatic bond is formed, he said.

But it goes beyond that as well, he said — there’s an unyielding sense of respect from the Capitol Police officers who haven’t served in the military. On Jenkins’s first day back at Capitol Police, he drove around for 45 minutes trying to remember where to park, saying that it felt “weird” to be back. But when he got down to roll call, he walked into a roomful of his peers giving him a standing ovation. He was home.