Fayette County

Officer helps police with transition to military duty and back

Brandy Joe Johnson retired from the Kentucky National Guard after serving three tours of duty, most recently in Iraq. But he still has a mission to help his fellow soldiers and veterans.

At first glance, he is a stern man; he assesses you with pursed lips and squinted eyes as if he just caught you breaking the law. But when he speaks, Johnson is quiet and affable. He laughs when he recalls stories — some more frightening than funny — from his most recent deployment to Iraq in 2006.

He tells of spiralling rapidly down thousands of feet as a passenger in a C-130 Hercules transport plane during corkscrew landings. ("I hate flying," he says, chuckling.) He tells of riding around the city of Mosul in "the buffalo," a giant armored vehicle that exists solely to detonate improvised explosive devices by poking them with a giant metal prong.

He recalls collapsing with relief — which erupted into uncontrolled laughter — after he and several squad mates narrowly escaped being taken hostage by Iraqi militants.

Johnson, who describes himself as an adventurous man, said he liked "the uncertainty" of the military. It's the same thing that he enjoys about his job as a Lexington police officer.

"You can be in your cruiser riding around, and the next thing you know somebody is breaking into a house a couple blocks over," he said. "It's just something different every day. You don't have four walls where you're just sitting behind a desk."

On Monday through Thursday, Johnson can be found patrolling the city's West Sector.

For someone who thrived in a chaotic war zone, coming back from Iraq was a mixed blessing. As soon as Johnson stepped onto American soil, he breathed a bit easier, he said. But for months he was hyper-vigilant, assessing every detail of his surroundings almost neurotically, after having spent months in a place where the sounds of gunfire and explosions pierced the air daily.

Over time, he became acclimated to being back. His transition from patrol officer to soldier and back was easier than it was for some, Johnson said. For example, he recalled a news story about a PTSD-stricken Wisconsin sheriff's deputy who slugged a handcuffed prisoner after coming home from war last year.

Nevertheless, the transitions could have been easier. The police department's 100 or so past and active soldiers have enough to concern them without worrying about their jobs back home, which is why Johnson stepped up when the Lexington Division of Police created the position of military liaison officer in 2009.

The position was originally suggested by soldiers returning from active military duty, police Chief Ronnie Bastin said.

"Our people are our most valuable resource. Even though we have many that are deployed for 12 and 15 months ... we want them to feel that they are still a part of the agency," Bastin said.

Johnson's goal as military liaison is simple: "I make sure all our military officers are taken care of along with their families."

He does that three ways: by helping officers get their police affairs in order before deploying; by keeping in contact with them by phone and e-mail while they're gone; and by helping them re-integrate when they return.

As a veteran, Johnson often shares war stories with his fellow soldiers. As liaison, Johnson repeatedly hears a less thrilling soldier's story — that of Lexington police officers struggling to get their administrative affairs in order before being deployed.

When soldiers are called to serve, they are placed on inactive status in the police department, Johnson said. Their pay is frozen, and their benefits are transferred to 401k accounts. They also have to use up accrued leave before deployment, or risk losing it. Officers then turns in their cars, equipment and guns.

All of this, of course, requires a mountain of paperwork and multiple visits with human resources officials and commanding officers.

"They give you a sheet of stuff you have to turn in and a page of signatures you have to collect," Johnson said.

"For me to go to all the places and track everything down, it took about three or four days," he recalled.

Since the military liaison position was created in 2009, what once took days now takes hours.

Officer Chris Eden has been deployed twice — once before Johnson's position was created — since he has been with the Division of Police.

Just days after being sworn in as an officer in 2005, Eden received orders from the National Guard that he was going to Iraq.

He had just graduated from the police academy, and he did not know many officers on the force. Getting his paperwork in order was harder for him than most. It took about 10 hours total, he said, but he managed to get squared away with the help of a few police academy coordinators.

"It was very hard on me, because basically I didn't know what to do and who to talk to," Eden said.

Earlier this year, when Eden was deployed to Afghanistan, he had Johnson there to guide him. This time, out-processing took about an hour and a half, he said.

"He makes sure that whenever you are leaving ... everything comes to you. You don't have to go to anybody," Eden said.

Other officers have benefitted from Johnson's help.

"You don't want to spend your last few days in the states trying to find the correct person at human resources to make changes to your 401k," officer Tyler Smith said in an e-mail. "Your free time really starts to add up when you only have a few days to spend with friends and family" before shipping out.

Smith is an Army soldier currently serving in Afghanistan — one of two Lexington officers deployed there. Four other officers are mobilized in the United States.

While they are gone, Johnson via e-mail sends department newsletters, local news stories and the latest University of Kentucky sports updates.

"It lets them know what's going on here, just to feel at home," he said.

Sending department newsletters also helps prepare officers for the inevitable changes that occur when they're gone. When Johnson came home from Iraq in 2007, he was surprised to find that almost everyone he had worked with had been promoted or transferred.

"When I came back, nobody I'd worked with except for two or three people were still there," he said. "I didn't know where anybody went."

Johnson also maintains a list of police officers with varying skills, including landscaping, heating and air conditioning, or electrical work. If the family of a soldier-officer needs the lawn cut or needs a plumber while their spouse is gone, officers will do the work free of charge.

Unexpected bills are paid by the Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association, a non-profit organization that supports the police department. The CPAAA administers the Military Resource Fund, which was used earlier this year to pay hotel bills for Eden's wife after Eden was injured in an IED explosion.

Military Resource Account funds are used first and foremost for the families, Johnson said, but he hopes to save up enough to buy Military Challenge Coins, half-dollar sized commemorative medallions, to give to each of the 100 or so officers who have served in the military.

The coins are similar to the ones handed out by the military as a reward when a soldier's actions don't warrant an official medal.

"In the military, coins were always a big thing," Johnson said.

The last portion of Johnson's job is done once the soldier returns home to Lexington, which can be a difficult adjustment in part because military and police work environments are so similar.

"It's the same thing over here, just not as extreme."

Both Iraq and Lexington are urban environments where soldier-officers serve as uniformed authority figures. It can be difficult for officers to respond appropriately to thefts and burglaries after spending months dealing with bombings and enemy gunfire, Johnson said.

It could have been a subpar transition program that caused Scott Krause, the Wisconsin sheriff's deputy, to attack a handcuffed prisoner, Johnson said.

"He was having some serious issues," Johnson said. "The transition just wasn't there."

And while that serious an issue hasn't come up in Lexington, Johnson said many officers who return are hyper-vigilant, assessing every person a little too closely and approaching each traffic stop a little too cautiously after spending months defending themselves from a decidedly more ruthless enemy.

For some soldiers, just knowing Johnson is there gives them some peace of mind.

"He is our voice while we're gone, and I know that at every turn, he's thinking about and looking out for us," said officer Daniel Burnett, who is currently serving in Afghanistan.

But Johnson approaches his duties humbly, recalling his mind-set as he was campaigning to have the military liaison position created.

"I said 'Why can't we get somebody that does that type of thing here, whose purpose in life is to make sure transitions are done well, that these people are taken care of?'"

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