Former Juneau cop trains Iraqi police in Red Zone

Despite ongoing violence and separation from his family, man says work is most rewarding

Posted: Wednesday, August 01, 2007

While former Juneau cop John Lichtenberger spent 14 months in Baghdad's deadly Red Zone, two of his colleagues were blown up and his 35-year-old interpreter was executed by insurgents.

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Yet, he said his work there was the most rewarding thing he's done in his life.

"If I had known about the personal benefits, I would have done it for half the pay," Lichtenberger said.

Separation from his family and the time lost from work was trumped by the unexpected privilege of nursing an emerging democracy by teaching police work. He also gained from the resulting friendships, built in a land plagued daily by insurgent attacks.

Lichtenberger left in February 2006 to teach at the most dangerous police academy in the world, Baghdad Police College. He served 21 years in the Juneau Police Department before retiring to Queen's Creek, Ariz., where he now works as a neighborhood preservation officer.

Dubbed the "Year of the Police" by top military commanders, 2006 was the beginning of an effort to allow troop reductions by replacing U.S. soldiers with a viable Iraqi police force.

Lichtenberger was halfway through his tour at the famous academy when a failed $75 million project that left raw sewage dripping from the ceilings was exposed. Those problems limited the number of trainees to 800 at a time.

Yet, Lichtenberger would rather talk about the positive work being done and the good Iraqis who constitute the overwhelming majority of the population.

Lichtenberger described most of his students as eager-to-learn Iraqi patriots. He arrived at that conclusion after training nearly 1,500 police recruits to lead and secure a country ravaged by decades of dictatorship and war.

Essentially they are just like us, Lichtenberger said.

"They want to work, not get blown up and raise families unharmed," he said.

His work included teaching men the seemingly simple task of making decisions. Decision-making did not come naturally to those who lived for decades under a dictatorship that allowed few choices. The problem speaks of the long road ahead for an ancient tribal society ramping up to become a democracy.

"After three generations of oppression, I don't know if we can say, 'Prop your self up and go for it,'" Lichtenberger said.

He found out about the academy through a Juneau friend and then talked with three fellow retired Juneau policemen working at the college. The decision to go, he said, was made by his entire family.

"My job was pivotal to supplying Iraq the tools to convert to a democracy," he said.

Teaching management and supervision in the officer candidate school, Lichtenberger worked with classes of 40 recruits in two-week rotations. His enjoyment came from building relationships with Iraqi nationals and exploring cultural differences.

Later he "team-taught" communications and the Iraqi constitution.

Teaching the constitution was one experience Lichtenberger holds dear to his heart.

"Their constitution is more developed than ours," he said. "In America it took 130 years before women could vote and 200 years before we took the rights of blacks serious."

Commenting on the irony of an American policeman teaching Iraqis their own constitution he asked, "How many Americans know the Constitution and Bill of Rights?"

Iraq's constitution explicitly forbids torture and discrimination against Shiites and Sunnis, men and women. The wording of the newly minted document spells it out, and unlike its American counterpart, equality does not ride upon interpretation, Lichtenberger said.

He is circumspect about the speed in which a successful police force can be built in Iraq. But Lichtenberger believes the sooner the work is done, the sooner American soldiers will come home. Americans need to have patience, he said.

"There are no microwave democracies," Lichtenberger said.

Evidence of his point comes out of Iraq monthly. News came in June of an emergency response commander and 12 other policemen arrested for their role in an attack on a mosque that was under their watch.

Lichtenberger said, among the thousands of new police, those arrested were the rare few with questionable motives for joining the force.

"Like any society, you get some bad with the good," Lichtenberger said. "We're doing the best we can do."

Everyday while working among the people with his interpreter, Lichtenberger would hear from Iraqis, "John, please tell people that Iraqi people are good people."

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