NEW YORK — The chatter died down as all eyes turned to a member of the cadre, who given the events earlier that day had something important to say to his ROTC students.
It was just hours earlier that four planes hijacked by terrorists crashed into the twin towers in Manhattan, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., killing thousands of people in the air and on the ground.
“You are all going to war,” a training officer said during dinner. “Even those of you going to the National Guard, you are not getting out of this one.”
Eight years later, Officer Robert D’Andrea is back from his second deployment to Iraq in five years with the United States National Guard, one of about a half dozen officers from the Santa Monica Police Department who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“He was right,” D’Andrea said, reflecting back on the conversation with the training officer.
With about a month of active duty and several weeks of vacation remaining before his return, D’Andrea said he is ready to come back to the department and patrol the streets of Santa Monica again.
“I’m ready to be a Joe again,” he said.
The native of Clifton, N.J. went straight to the military after graduating from high school as a means to finance his college education.
“I liked the structure and I loved the challenge and that fresh start,” D’Andrea said.
He ended up in San Diego, attending the Police Academy and beginning his law enforcement career with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department as a reserve deputy, all while remaining on active duty.
“I did it to be a part of the community,” he said of police work.
After finishing two years at La Mesa College, D’Andrea enrolled at San Diego State University where he graduated in 2002 with a degree in linguistics.
A year later, he joined the Santa Monica Police Department, the same time he became the platoon leader for the Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion of the 184th Infantry Regiment.
When the call came to deploy to Iraq in 2004, D’Andrea said he felt both nervous and excited to be leading soldiers into combat. His mother’s reaction though was less enthusiastic.
“My mother hung up on me, and then she called me back,” he said with a smile.
What started out as an uneventful tour of duty ended up deadly for his battalion in which 19 soldiers were killed and four received Purple Hearts.
“There wasn’t much action [in the beginning],” he said. “It was kind of quiet with a little here and there and as spring started, it picked up every single day.”
Under fire, D’Andrea stayed calm, only to have a strange reaction — laughter — after the adrenaline was gone. In the days following each battle, he would find his moment with peace and with God.
He returned home after 19 months. It took a year to find normalcy.
“You don’ realize how much stuff changes over a year, especially a year and a half,” he said. “When you come back, you see how much the clothing style has changed, nothing is the same on the radio, the prices have gone up.”
Though the war dominated headlines when he left, it didn’t seem such a big deal after his return.
“It was really weird to turn on the History Channel to see things I was involved in,” he recalled. “That was a little surreal.”
D’Andrea went back to life as usual, working for the department and spending time with family and friends. But by the summer of 2008, he was called back for duty.
“I was not pleased,” he said. “I didn’t want to deploy again, but I was not going to dodge my deployment.”
The second tour was different for D’Andrea, who spent less time in the trenches and more commanding his troop. He didn’t lose a single soldier during the year in Iraq.
“I knew what it was like to be a commander on the ground and I was able to make better decisions,” he said.
He can speak with relative ease when it concerns the two deployments, but there’s a moment in the past five years that still brings tears.
It happened during a two-week break in D’Andrea’s first tour in May 2005. He was standing outside LAX waiting for his ride to arrive when he began chatting with an officer from the Los Angeles Police Department.
D’Andrea told the officer that he too works in law enforcement, for the Santa Monica Police Department. The LAPD officer’s face turned pale.
“Are you here for the major who was killed from your department?” she asked.
She was referring to SMPD Officer Ricardo Crocker, who died on May 26, 2005 in the Al-Anbar Province of Iraq.
“The war didn’t stop,” D’Andrea said. “Even when I had my two week break, it was still going.
“I thought I would have my two weeks of peace and go back to it and it was still right here.”
More than 16 years after he joined the military, D’Andrea said he has no regrets.
“It’s a big part of who I am,” he said.