By Ben Meyerson
Alberto Velasco wasn't your average Oak Park police officer.
During his six years with the department, he also served in the Marine Reserves, going on two tours of duty in Iraq. He invaded Baghdad. He fought in the Battle of Fallujah and saw eight of his comrades die there.
He made it back alive and picked up right where he left off with the Oak Park police.
But while he escaped Iraq unscathed, a horrific car crash on the way back to his Schaumburg home after a day on the force in Oak Park nearly claimed his life in 2008. Velasco survived that crash but was paralyzed from the waist down.
After nearly three years of rehab and civilian life, Velasco was rehired by the Oak Park Police Department earlier this month as the department's new head of training. A week and a half into his new job, he's adjusting to civilian status — and the department's getting used to his needs.
"Alberto was one of our exemplary police officers," Police Chief Rick Tanksley said. "That's why it really broke my heart when he was involved in this accident. But I knew he had the internal fortitude to make it through."
Tanksley and the department have showed remarkable support for Velasco throughout his career. Both times he was called to active duty, Velasco said, he received an outpouring from his colleagues.
"I got packages upon packages, letters upon letters," Velasco said. "While I was in Fallujah on my second tour, they went to visit my son, and they gave him Christmas presents."
When Velasco's car flipped that fateful day in 2008, the department stayed beside him. Velasco was in a coma for a week and a half, but Tanksley and Deputy Chief Anthony Ambrose kept an officer stationed by his bedside, and the department held a couple of fundraisers for him.
"It's family, that's the best way to put it," Ambrose said.
When Velasco got out of the hospital, he went through nearly a year and a half of rehab, learning to navigate the world via wheelchair.
He needed a way to support his wife and son and found a position as military liaison for the office of U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam (D-Ill.).
But earlier this year, as Tanksley began shifting his resources because of budget cuts, he decided to put his existing training officer on the street and replace him with a civilian.
The idea, Tanksley said, was part of his initiative to put the department's resources in the most visible place. By replacing a desk position with a civilian, the department could save money, too.
Which is where Velasco came in.
He had stayed in touch with the department since 2008, and he jumped at the opportunity.
Before he left the force following the accident, Velasco had been a field training officer, responsible for helping new cops out on the streets. The training coordinator position is a desk job, but as a staff sergeant in the Marines, he'd worked in an administrative role.
It seemed like a perfect fit, but Tanksley interviewed Velasco to find out if he was really prepared to return to the department — as a civilian.
"Physically he can get around, but we needed to know he was psychologically prepared," Tanksley said. "We interviewed two individuals, and Alberto was by far the better candidate."
A scramble for accessibility
But Tanksley and Ambrose realized they needed to make some physical changes to the police station. Given the fact that police officers are generally required to be able-bodied, they didn't have many accessibility features. How would their new employee navigate the station in a wheelchair?
"We needed to figure out what to do," Ambrose said. "It was all new to us."
So there was a mad scramble to work with the village's Department of Building and Property Standards to get the station up to snuff. Former Deputy Chief Carl Leidy's old office was retrofitted to make the desk higher and the coat hangers lower, for example.
Most impressive was the speed with which they built a new wheelchair ramp for Velasco: in three days.
"We put everything else on hold," said Mike Aguayo, one of the maintenance workers who built the ramp. "We've known Alberto for a while. He's done a lot for our country, and this was the least we could do for him."
In a week and a half, the station was ready for Velasco on his first day.
For a week and a half since, Velasco's been learning the ropes from the former training officer, James Norton. But Norton's on vacation for Christmas this week, so Velasco's been on his own.
"His learning curve has been remarkable," Ambrose said. "While Jimmy's gone, he's really thrown himself into it."
Velasco's making himself at home already. His office is decked out with a set of Christmas lights Norton gave him.
"I'm trying to learn as quick as I can," he said. "But getting this position is an amazing Christmas present. I love Oak Park, and I'm glad to be back."