After duty in Iraq, they're back on the beat

Times Staff Writer

Ron Von Gober has had his share of close calls as a Los Angeles police detective, including the time a group of toughs patted him down during an undercover drug buy in Hollywood and discovered he was wearing a wire.

Surrounded, Von Gober pulled his gun and held the angry thugs at bay while he backed off and then ran to safety.

But Von Gober's closest brush with death happened far from the streets of L.A.

He was the gunner atop a Humvee on a highway outside Baghdad last year when a roadside bomb went off, sending shrapnel into one of his hands and leaving a spray of cuts across his head.

Evacuated from Iraq to an Army hospital in Germany, Von Gober recovered from his wounds and received the Purple Heart.

Now he can be found back chasing criminals for an auto theft detail at the LAPD's Van Nuys Division.

The 50-year-old cop is one of dozens of LAPD officers who have returned to the sometimes dangerous streets of Los Angeles after being deployed as military reservists to the meaner streets of Iraq.

He also is one of five LAPD officers who are back on the job after being wounded in combat. Two others who were injured have not rejoined the force, and another, a helicopter pilot, chose to retire after a brief return.

Von Gober said his decision to come back to potentially dangerous duty with the LAPD was an easy one.

"We go out in the field every day and we really make a difference," he said. "I arrested someone this morning for auto theft. It feels good to be part of that."

Christopher Burke cites a similar motivation. A four-year LAPD veteran, he suffered wounds to his left leg and face July 31 when a roadside bomb hit his Humvee in Ramadi, Iraq, west of Baghdad.

Although he is still recuperating from the latest round of surgery, doctors expect the 27-year-old to make a full recovery, and Burke said he looks forward to returning to the LAPD.

"I still have it in me to have a career being a cop," Burke said. "I just like making things right. People who shouldn't be on the street -- I want to be the person who takes them off the street."

That continued drive, seen in so many of those returning from the war, has admirers in and out of the department.

"They are extraordinary individuals," said Police Chief William J. Bratton. "It's a phenomenal commitment when you think of it."

Bratton was on hand recently for a ceremony at the Police Academy, where a Marine general gave Burke his Purple Heart.

Burke's fiancee and Von Gober's wife were supportive of their decisions both to go to war and to return to the police force.

"My wife was a police officer for 20 years," Von Gober said. "Her father was a cop. Her brother was a cop. She had her hands full with the two kids, but she was understanding."

Experts estimate that more than 500 peace officers in California have been called to active military duty since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Police agencies are required to let officers go to military service, even if they volunteer, and the LAPD keeps paying its officers' salaries -- minus whatever they collect in military pay -- and benefits.

The LAPD has received special recognition from the Department of Defense for its support of officer-soldiers; it is one of only a few agencies in the country to assign an officer full time to help employees make the transition back to police work from military service.

Military liaison Dennis Denoi, a police officer and former Marine, has smoothed the transition of more than 200 LAPD employees who are members of reserve and National Guard units called to active military duty, many to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Returning officers are given medical tests and refresher training. Psychological counseling is also available.

"They really took care of me," said Officer Brandon Valdez, a Marine Corps Reserve sergeant who suffered an arm injury when a roadside bomb exploded near his convoy.

Now a gang enforcement officer in the LAPD's Southeast Division, Valdez didn't leave behind violence when he left Iraq. Just months after his return, gang members opened fire on him from a passing car.

Valdez was not injured, and he brushes off the incident today.

"I just do my job," he said.

That job, policing a city that has had more than 450 homicides this year, is challenging enough. So why volunteer to go to a country where more than 2,000 people were killed just in October?

"I lost a few buddies, and the guilt was killing me," Burke said. "So I called up the Marines and said, 'The next unit to go -- I want to go.' For me, personally, it was peace of mind."

Von Gober, who traded his .38-caliber police revolver for a heavy M-60 machine gun, said he volunteered to go to Iraq to be part of something historic and to fulfill his sense of adventure.

It didn't matter that he was teased by fellow soldiers for being a 50-year-old private.

For Jonathan Kirkpatrick, 39, an LAPD patrol sergeant who has 10 years with the department, joining the Marines followed in the footsteps of his father.

He served more than five years in the military before joining the LAPD, only to be called up as a reservist.

Kirkpatrick's experience as a police officer helped him distinguish himself during his five months in the battle zone at the outset of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

He received a Bronze Star, with a V for valor, for heroism during a battle with Iraqi forces in the town of Gharraf.

Kirkpatrick was credited with risking his life by leading a successful rescue after a U.S. artillery unit was pinned down and its company commander seriously wounded.

"We were the next unit back, and they told us to go get 'em, so we did," Kirkpatrick said recently as he prepared to begin his shift patrolling the streets of the North Hollywood Division.

Kirkpatrick sees some positive parallels between serving in the Marine Corps and wearing an LAPD badge that help explain why he has done both.

"There is a certain camaraderie," he said. "It's the people you work with. There is just something about working together in a challenging job."

Another similarity: There have been complaints that the U.S. did not send enough soldiers to Iraq to keep the peace, and complaints have been made here about the size of the LAPD.

"We are understaffed and undermanned here in the LAPD," Kirkpatrick said. "But you feel like you are really doing something together that is challenging. You are put to the test."

Some returning officers face adjustments.

Von Gober's foes these days are car thieves instead of insurgent bombers, but he now carries a backup gun and extra ammunition, a holdover from the days when he did not want to be caught short of firepower in Iraq.

In addition, Von Gober admits that he is irrationally vigilant whenever he drives under freeway overpasses while on the job in the San Fernando Valley.

One similarity Burke noticed centers on the danger to Iraqi civilians from insurgents if they are seen cooperating with American troops.

"If the gangbangers here see you talking to some innocent person, that can put them in danger," he said.

However, Burke said the similarities pretty much end there.

He said he has never fired his police firearm and never been shot at in Los Angeles, but exchanged fire with attackers many times in Iraq.

"People like to make comparisons between the war in Iraq and the war on the streets of Los Angeles," he said. "To the extent gangs are shooting at you instead of insurgents, it's similar.

"But in Los Angeles you don't have to worry on every street corner whether a bomb is going to go off or someone's going to shoot an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] down at you."

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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