Lou Tomassone of Atco has vivid memories of his service as a turret gunner in a cavalry unit in Tikrit, hometown of Saddam Hussein. The 24-year-old former Army specialist once escorted an Iraqi police chief through town when a bomb blew up, spraying his turret with shrapnel and miraculously missing him.
Sean Smith of Runnemede recalls coming under fire in Fallujah, guarding prisoners and teaching Iraqis how to police their country. The 22-year-old, who was in the Marines, showed the recruits how to conduct house raids and patrol the streets.
Louise Bazelak of Barrington remembers taking cover as insurgent mortar rounds fell into her camp at Balad. The 33-year-old former Air Force staff sergeant and F-16 aircraft mechanic still kept the planes flying.
After years in the military, Tomassone, Smith, and Bazelak now have changed uniforms and begun service of a different kind - in their own community.
The three were among 14 military veterans sworn in as Camden County sheriff's officers yesterday during a ceremony to mark the opening of the Camden Veterans Administration Outpatient Clinic adjacent to Cooper University Hospital.
The 12 men and two women were immediately marched to Camden City Hall to undergo processing. Another Iraq veteran was in Marine reservist training yesterday and will be sworn in later, officials said.
The new sheriff's officers had long looked forward to careers in law enforcement. Some imagined their swearing-in even before entering the military.
"It's unusual to hire 15 officers at one time, but we had a shortfall in staffing," said Camden County Sheriff Charles Billingham. The former military personnel have "proven their desire to serve our nation.
"This is the proudest day in my life, as far as hiring officers," Billingham said. "When I think of the nightmares they've been through, I'm glad to help them realize their dreams."
Police departments across the country typically have a high percentage of veterans, he said.
"They have discipline and are used to stress," Billingham said. "In the Middle East, they were also used to confrontation, used to dealing with innocent people in crisis."
The veterans' duties will include providing security in courtrooms and transporting prisoners, Billingham said. "But what they will do as sheriff's officers won't compare to what they did in the military."
The threat of attack was part of daily life for many of the new officers.
"They were all scary moments when I was over there, but they've all faded together now," said Tomassone, who briefly bunked in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. "I was part of a three-man patrol that provided security for bomb disposals."
The explosion of a roadside bomb as his vehicle crossed a bridge in Tikrit stands out. "My turret was hit by shrapnel, but I was uninjured," he said. "It was really amazing.
"Now, I'm looking forward to providing security for the court system, maybe working with a special investigation unit or a K-9 unit."
Smith, a former Marine corporal, said he had wanted to go into law enforcement for years. "I plan to go to college, too," he said.
The swearing-in at the VA outpatient clinic was "overwhelming," Bazelak said. "We're privileged - we've come back with all our physical and mental faculties. It's flattering and good to know we're getting support from the neighborhood we live in."
Many veterans aren't finding jobs, said another new sheriff's officer, former Air Force Staff Sgt. Nicholas Cobian, 25, of Audubon. He was an avionics technician who kept the planes running at Balad.
"I'm extremely fortunate because I've not only found a job and have a new clinic like this, but I've found a job in law enforcement, like I always wanted."
The new sheriff's officers also have served in Kuwait, Korea, Japan, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina and have been exposed to different cultures, sensitizing them to people of various backgrounds in this county.
"The Kuwaiti people were good to us," said former Army Staff Sgt. Calvin Rouse, a 31-year-old Camden resident. "They like to have tea before they do business, and the men and women don't interact."
"The military has done a lot for me," Rouse added. "I served my country, and now I want to serve my community."