By Bob Balgemann
Zone 2 of the Atlanta Police Department has welcomed home Officer David Fernandez after his second lengthy tour of duty in Iraq.
After some light duty, Fernandez recently returned to patrolling the streets of Buckhead and is happy to be there.
“I’m glad you’re back here, man,” his commanding officer, Maj. James Sellers, told him in the squad room at the precinct house off Maple Avenue.
Seventeen other Atlanta police officers remain on duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. One of them, A. Silva, belongs to Zone 2, having been hired Oct. 5, 2005, and sworn in April 30, 2006.
But Silva, who’s in Afghanistan, never reported for duty in Zone 2 before shipping out for military service.
“It’s a hole in our resources with our experienced people being away,” Sellers said. “We recognize how important they are in their military assignments. But they’re also very important to the Atlanta Police Department, and we’ll be glad when they come back.”
Fernandez, 37, served 19½ months in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. A staff sergeant, he returned for 14 more months in 2007 and 2008. He was part of B Battery of the 101st Field Artillery in the Army National Guard and supervised 16 men who provided security for convoys.
“We had five Humvee gun trucks,” he said, “and we ran supplies all over the place. I had a .50-caliber machine gun on my truck.”
His tenure was a safe one, with no casualties, he said. “We never lost any of our trucks, either.”
But the danger was always present, primarily in the form of roadside bombs called improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They were usually hidden under debris.
“Something unusual catches your eye along the road,” Fernandez said.
One time his convoy came upon a suspected IED on the way to pick up supplies in Kuwait.
“There was canvas on the side of the road covering something,” he said. Fernandez checked it out and found it was a false alarm, but it was also a trap.
“We drew sniper fire from several different directions,” the officer said. “We returned fire with the .50-caliber — they’re terrified of that weapon — so I guess they were scared off.”
Again, no casualties. On either side.
Fernandez said the training he received before becoming an Atlanta police officer served him well in Iraq.
“It did get to be routine,” he said of the daily grind, much of it on the outskirts of Baghdad. “But then I reverted back to the training I got here. Never get complacent. Always be on the alert.
“Also, how you treat people. The people liked us a lot; they knew we were there to help them. We did community service — dropped off school supplies, provided security for new schools, road projects and hospitals. Our medics checked out little kids, fixing cuts.”
Fernandez left the Army in 2000 after 10 years of service, then signed on with the National Guard for another 10 years.
“I knew there was always a possibility to respond to a political action in another country,” he said. “I thought more about responding to a hurricane area” than fighting a war.
He said he could see the difference in Iraq between his tours of duty. “Now businesses are flourishing. It’s looking like a country again,” Fernandez said.
In 2004, “there was no running water in a lot of places, no power, destroyed buildings, the roads were in awful shape,” he said.
American troops lived in air-conditioned sheet-metal buildings while being served “excellent food,” Fernandez said. “Surf and turf, crab legs, once a week was steak night. There was Mexican night and a midnight meal, mostly sandwiches. We couldn’t complain about the food.”
The Atlanta Police Department was always supportive in his absence, he said. “There were no issues with anything. Sgt. (Ralph) Johns and Senior Police Officer (Richard) Bynes kept in touch over e-mail.”
Fernandez’s second Iraq tour ended Aug. 20.
He said he feels good “about what we did while we were there. We helped the people while protecting the lives of other troops.”
Now it’s time to protect and serve the residents and businesses of Zone 2. While much of the community is “like I never left,” he said, the biggest difference is “all the construction.”