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Veterans say military experiences help guide pandemic policing

Military police at Fort Bliss wear face coverings in this photo from September 2020. (Mark Lambie/El Paso Times/TNS)

For Maine State Police Trooper Lee Vanadestine, the resiliency he’s developed during his more than 25 years serving in the United States military, both in the Army and Air Force, is key to how he’s handling his law enforcement work during the ongoing pandemic.

Just finishing seven months of active duty at the Air Guard base in Bangor, Vanadestine is a technical sergeant in the U.S. Air Force Security Forces, a non-commissioned officer with supervisory and training responsibilities.

As a civilian, he patrols the Maine Turnpike as part of the Maine State Police. After 24 years on the job, he will retire next year but will remain a member of the Air National Guard.

On active duty in the Army, he served in multiple combat zones in Iraq and was awarded a Bronze Star for his role supporting his peers and subordinates in combat. He can rattle off cities and regions across Iraq that he’s been to, often under fire, with the familiarity of someone who has spent plenty of time in the war-torn country.

He said life as a cop during COVID-19 has forced him to adapt.

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“Learning resiliency is huge,” said Vanadestine, who lives in Winslow. “The normal things that would get some people down doesn’t get me down. You learn to adapt, modify and overcome the day.”

He said protecting public safety during the pandemic has required modified strategies, including sometimes not arresting suspects who might have otherwise been detained or taken to jail. Some of that has happened, in part, because of restriction on the courts to prevent the spread of COVID-19, creating long delays in trials for crimes and a backlog of cases.

Other police who served in the military, like Auburn Police Officer Devon Bohacik, also say the adaptation skills transfer well to the front lines of public service. Bohacik is a combat veteran of the Marine Corps who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as well as at sea aboard Navy ships involved in anti-piracy missions.

Among other deployments during his time in the Marines, Bohacik was part of a team that constructed a 22-mile supply road, often under small arms fire, between combat outposts in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. He said being able to focus and stay on task despite distractions — like regularly being shot at — is ingrained from his military experience.

“The military definitely instills the kind of discipline that helps you work through situations and not get tunnel vision — not jump the gun so to speak,” Bohacik said.

But there are small nuisances to pandemic policing, like remembering to put on his face mask when interacting with people. He said of the myriad safety concerns police have running through their minds during a traffic stop, making sure to put your mask on sometimes gets forgotten.

Regardless of COVID-19, he said, all police learn to protect themselves with space.

“You learn to keep that kind of street distance, that reactionary gap for safety,” Bohacik said.

Bohacik also said hearing virus-related excuses during interactions with the public, for example, is a new challenge.

Some people will get “hysterical,” even if he’s 10 feet away during an interaction. Others still try to use the earlier pandemic-related grace periods for motor vehicle inspections and expired registrations. Initially waived by executive order, Maine’s vehicle inspection and registration laws are now in full force.

But both Bohacik and Vanadestine said their experiences as veterans enhanced their work in law enforcement. The officers say they love the work they do and feel appreciated by the majority of Mainers they interact with.

He and Bohacik said police, like everyone else, are dealing with life during COVID-19 and learning to expect that things can change quickly.

“We are all settling into this new normal and everything that’s going on in this world,” Bohacik said.

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(c) 2020 the Portland Press Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.