Police officer from Moose Lake signs up for Iraq duty

By Mark Stodghill Duluth News Tribune Veteran Duluth police patrol officer Tom Degerstrom spent part of his 12-hour shift Sunday in a squad car, alone, shadowing rookie patrol officer Stephen Anderson, who was completing his final days of trainin...

By Mark Stodghill

Duluth News Tribune

Veteran Duluth police patrol officer Tom Degerstrom spent part of his 12-hour shift Sunday in a squad car, alone, shadowing rookie patrol officer Stephen Anderson, who was completing his final days of training on the streets of western Duluth.

Degerstrom expects to be doing similar supervisory work next month in a far different locale. To prepare, he's working on his Arabic.

The 38-year-old Moose Lake man has signed on with DynCorp International of Falls Church, Va. - which has a contract with the U.S. State Department - to serve a year in Iraq training, mentoring and advising the Iraqi National Police Force.


Degerstrom has been given a one-year leave of absence to take the position that pays $134,110.08 if he spends the entire year in Iraq. But this religious man said he didn't take the job for the money.

"The most important reason I'm doing this is to basically help out my fellow man,'' he said. "That's what it all boils down to. I believe in helping my country out because the sooner we can get the Iraqi forces up to snuff, the sooner we can get our troops out of there. ... I just read a [Bible] passage today that you're supposed to make the world a better place by what you do. You're supposed to help your fellow man. You're supposed to use the skills and talents you were given to help other people out. This is a unique way for me to do that.''

Degerstrom and his wife, Terry, a Moose Lake businesswoman, have been married for 18 years. They're parents of three sons, Ross, 15, Zhaobing, 14, and Jesse, 13. He has been a police officer for 10 years, three years in Napa, Calif., and the past seven in Duluth.

Degerstrom's last 12-hour shift as a Duluth patrol officer before leaving is Christmas Day. He heads for Falls Church on Jan. 5, where he must pass 12 days of training and two days of physical and psychological evaluations. "There's nothing guaranteed at this point,'' he said.

Degerstrom was asked if he had any second thoughts about volunteering for such duty after learning that Bill Juneau, a former Chisago County sheriff's deputy, was killed last month by a roadside bomb that hit his convoy 50 miles outside Baghdad. Juneau joined DynCorp International in June of last year and was doing the same kind of work Degerstrom will be doing.

Because a police officer can face life-and-death situations daily, Degerstrom said his fellow law officer's death in Iraq didn't give him pause, but made him think more about his own family.

"The separation will be hard, but I'm lucky and really blessed to have a wife who understands,'' he said. "She's really a strong, competent person, able to take care of the children and the things at home, and willing to do it.''

Degerstrom spent six years as a rifleman in the Marine Corps including a four-month tour of duty in Iraq in 1991 - and achieved the rank of sergeant before leaving the service in 1993.


He isn't certain what his exact duties in Iraq will be, but he will be assigned to a military unit and anticipates traveling throughout the northern part of the country, meeting with Iraqi police to see what their needs are.

"We may spend some days setting up training,'' he said. "It could be firing range training, it could be just your simple handcuffing techniques, your basic patrol duties, vehicle searches, person searches, and they have been teaching classes on civil rights. My personal hope is to be able to develop a friendship and rapport with the people I have contact with and to build trust. That's what I'm hoping to do as soon as possible.''

Duluth police Deputy Chief Mike Tusken said Degerstrom is a mature officer who understands what issues are important to address in police work.

"He has good, solid character and is a nice guy,'' Tusken said. However, Tusken and Degerstrom both acknowledge that the department initially wasn't going to authorize the leave of absence because it takes an experienced patrol officer off the street.

Degerstrom, a member of the Moose Lake Evangelical Covenant Church who carries a Bible in his duty bag, said he prayed about his decision and was prepared to resign from the Police Department if he couldn't get the leave of absence. He thinks the mission to Iraq is a calling from God. He appreciates getting the leave.

"We had to weigh what the benefit was to the department by having him go, what experience he can bring back and how to take care of his shift and calls for service while he's gone,'' Tusken said. "We certainly hope and pray that his service over there will be without incident and he doesn't get hurt and can return back to us and share some of his experience with the Police Department.''

Degerstrom is a man of many interests. He has written and self-published a novel, "Honor in Dishonor,'' set during his time in Iraq, about a squad of Marines that are misled by their squad leader into making an unauthorized rescue mission. He also has a Web site at .

"His entire life has been about protecting and caring for others,'' Terry Degerstrom said. "At 17, he joined the Marine Corps. He saw it as a way of doing his service for his country. And then the jobs he's had once he was out of the Marine Corps, as an EMT on an ambulance, in corrections and the police force. ... He is helping be part of a solution by going back and helping train the Iraqi people to help them self-protect themselves. That's what Tom is all about."


Duluth News Tribune reporter Mark Stodghill can be contacted weekdays at (218) 723-5333 or by e-mail at .

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