Iraq war puts local sacrifices in perspective

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By Bill Dwyer

All of the people interviewed for this article were quick to say that they didn't consider whatever sacrifices they were making this holiday the least bit comparable to the sacrifices made by some of their colleagues serving in war zones.

At least five Oak Park and River Forest police officers and fire fighters have been on duty in Iraq or Afghanistan over the past two years. They include River Forest police officers Edith Zawelski and Latonya Allen and fire fighter Lester Telkamp, and Oak Park police officer Albert Velasco and fire fighter Jacob Gloodt. Telkamp, Velasco and Allen are still there.

A single gold star hangs on display in the department lobby, representing Oak Park officer Velasco, who is 24. He has been in Iraq since July on his second tour of duty. About all his colleagues know is that he's an infantry sergeant?#34;he's not allowed to divulge where he is or what he's doing to anyone back home.

"Our sacrifices pale in comparison to his sacrifice," said Deputy Chief Robert Scianna.

River Forest patrol officer Latonya Allen is also in the Middle East for a second tour of duty. In fact, when Allen returned from her first tour of duty last February, said Deputy Police Chief Kendra Sullivan, she was recalled for duty so quickly that she never officially rejoined the police department.

"Last I heard she was supposed to be back in February, 2005. Now I have no idea," said Sullivan.

Like Velasco in Oak Park, her superiors don't know exactly where she is either.

"I know she's not in Iraq," said Sullivan. "But she's somewhere in the Middle East."

Last Wednesday, Oak Park police department staff finished collecting, boxing and shipping off six boxes to Velasco. The items enclosed are the sort of mundane yet important things people in more normal and comfortable surroundings take for granted?#34;socks and 'odor eaters', Power Bars, peanuts, hand sanitizer and all sorts of other toiletries. Plus "lots of notes and cards." Personnel in the other departments have done the same for their fellow officers.

It may not be over. Oak Park officer Dina Vardal, a seven year veteran of the Oak Park force, may be next to go. A staff sergeant in the Army National Guard, she's a technical inspector for a Black Hawk helicopter unit. Many people she knows have been called up.

"The battalion's gone. Our sister company's gone," said Vardal. "I've been lucky. My entire unit's been lucky."

Luck is exactly what firefighters and police in our two communities continue to hope and pray their colleagues are blessed with while in harm's way.

Vardal, who will be observing her birthday as well as Thanksgiving this Thursday, isn't feeling the least bit sorry for herself. All she has to do, she said, is think of Velasco and the others for perspective.

"We get to go home to our families," said Vardal quietly. "After an eight hour shift, we can go home. We're not 9,000 miles away."

?#34;Bill Dwyer

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