Jackson County Attorney returns from IraqJACKSON — Just finishing up his fourth week back at work, Jackson County Attorney Robert O’Connor feels as if he is mostly adjusted to being in his office, but the first few days were a little rough.
JACKSON — Just finishing up his fourth week back at work, Jackson County Attorney Robert O’Connor feels as if he is mostly adjusted to being in his office, but the first few days were a little rough.
“I’d decide I want a cup of tea and really have to think about where I keep the tea, where to get the hot water,” O’Connor said with a laugh. “During a conference call, I realized I had forgotten where some of the buttons are.”
After spending the last 10 months in Iraq, O’Connor is slowly getting reacquainted with all the little things he used to do daily.
As a member of the U.S. Army Reserve, O’Connor was called up in January 2009. He landed “in theater” March 19, 2009, after six weeks of preparation for the task ahead.
Colonel O’Connor’s job while in Iraq was to advise Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby on local governance.
“I got to tell him what Iraqi politicians were doing,” O’Connor said.
To prepare for the job, O’Connor spent those six weeks learning about Iraq — politics, history and religion. For an attorney born in a country of democracy, working with parliamentary procedure was an interesting challenge.
“I had to immerse myself in their government, their systems,” he said. “I had to understand the key players and what they were after, then tell the generals.”
Those generals, O’Connor said, were smart people who already knew quite a bit about what they were hearing, but the additional perspective and confirmation of information was important.
One person on his governance team, O’Connor said, was the point person for women’s affairs. The team was able to give good guidance and helped shape policy, which O’Connor found satisfying.
“The war widows and their children,” he said, “the numbers of them are phenomenal.”
The team helped coordinate Iraqi attorneys, who can help the widows sign up for benefits.
“Some of them just didn’t have the educational skills to do so or were too intimidated about signing up,” O’Connor explained.
In a country that had historically been progressive about women’s rights until Saddam Hussein’s regime came along, O’Connor said one of the obvious signs of change has been Iraqi women once again walking around without head scarves.
Another of his team members was a farm advisor — an American citizen, but Iraqi-born.
“He helped us understand a lot of the culture,” O’Connor said.
Through his work, O’Connor was able to meet community leaders and business people, and all he dealt with were friendly toward Americans. But he was always aware of the potential for danger.
“We slept in trailers, and while I was there, two guys were blown up in their cots,” he explained. “We stayed at Camp Victory, but once a week had to go to the embassy. To get there, we had to ride through dangerous parts of town.”
The teams rode in armored vehicles equipped with a large gun and seating for eight. One of the trucks in his group was hit with an explosive device during a drive, O’Connor said, and two personnel lost their legs. Another person who performed triage in the truck was affected deeply by the experience, O’Connor explained.
O’Connor was affected as well.
“That is the biggest risk in Iraq — moving around,” he added quietly. “At the end of my last ride through town, I shook the hand of each and every person who had manned those vehicles and said ‘Thank you very much.’”
“Nobody in my family liked the idea of me going to Iraq,” O’Connor laughed. “My mother was very put out with me.”
A family steeped in military service still struggles with the idea of a loved one going into danger, and O’Connor’s family was no different. With a husband who had served 20 years active duty in the U.S. Army, his mother was no stranger to military life and gradually accepted the idea of her son going overseas.
“She knows my life has been about service,” O’Connor said. “She knows my beliefs about service to my country.”
O’Connor’s daughter graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2008, but “wasn’t keen about” her father going to Iraq, either.
But orders are orders. After 30 years of service in the U.S. Army Reserves, O’Connor was ready to do what needed to be done. Preparing to be gone for almost a year, however, was a challenge.
“I had to shut down my civilian life,” he explained. “I have no wife, and no one to run my life here while I was gone, so there was a lot of scrambling to get things taken care of.”
O’Connor had to shut down his Jackson life — turn off water, transfer mortgage and car payments to his military bank account and prepare his office for his absence.
“By federal law, I can’t have anything to do with my civilian job while mobilized,” he explained.
As the county attorney in an active legal office, there was much to be done.
“I had long talks with (Assistant Jackson County Attorney Sherry Haley),” O’Connor said. “I had great confidence that she would be able to act in my place.”
As an elected official, O’Connor was eligible to keep earning his salary while he was away, but he went to the Jackson County Commissioners and told them he would decline that salary while gone. That helped the county hire a temporary assistant to help with the workload.
Knowing that things would be taken care of in his office was a great comfort to O’Connor.
“When you’re over there, you have to be on auto-pilot,” he explained. “You can’t be worrying about what is going on at home.”
Back in the U.S.A.
O’Connor landed back on U.S. soil on Jan. 17. He had left the country of Iraq and traveled by way of Kuwait, Germany and Dallas, Texas.
“When we flew into Dallas, the pilot said they had a special greeting for us,” O’Connor stated.
As the plane taxied forward, firefighters in their fire trucks on either side of the plane shot a stream of water over the aircraft, creating a tunnel of water. When the people onboard deplaned, it was on the upper deck of the terminal.
“Everybody in the terminal stopped what they were doing and applauded,” O’Connor said, still visibly moved by the memory. “It was so cool.”
Before coming home to Jackson, O’Connor visited his mother in Washington D.C. He had missed most of the snow-laden Minnesota winter, but while in Washington, 52 inches of snow fell in five days.
“It was great, I loved it,” he laughed. “No one else did.”
Arriving on Feb. 24, he and his family went to Arlington National Cemetery the following day — his birthday. He visited his father’s ashes, which are located in a columbarium, a vault with niches for urns.
While there, O’Connor left his father a gift.
“Two days before I was given terminal leave, I was awarded the Bronze Star,” he explained. “I left it on his niche.”
His plan was to be back in Jackson for the last two weeks of February to restart the life he had shut down. It didn’t quite work out that way, but he did get some down time before returning to work March 1.
“I finished painting a room I had left half done,” O’Connor said. “Now I’m trying to hit every restaurant in Jackson, but I still have two left to go.”
Opening the house and adjusting to civilian life again has been a general process.
“I discovered I really missed cooking,” he laughed.
The “very weird” feeling of being back is gradually fading away.
“I’m happy for so many reasons,” he said. “There is just this glow — this is home and everyone has been so welcoming.”
After 30 years, eight months and 22 or 23 days, O’Connor is now officially a retired reservist. The Iraq deployment was not his first, but it will be his last.
“Bottom line: I would not have been able to go without the support of the citizens,” he stated. “I am grateful for their support so I could go serve my country, but I am glad to be home.”