(photo by Kevin Herrera)

DOWNTOWN — Heading into the Taliban stronghold of Marjah with a quarter of his Afghan battalion high on hashish or opium was not how Douglas Woodhams, a major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, wanted to spend his third tour of duty in the war on terror.

“You don’t want a guy wielding a weapon after smoking that stuff,” Woodhams, a 7-year veteran of the Santa Monica Police Department, said during an interview last week.

The husband and father of three had dedicated months to developing a police academy course curriculum and trained over 1,300 Afghan police and national army personnel on everything from hygiene, first aid and marksmanship to constitutional law and appropriate use of force.

“That was critical,” Woodhams, 38, said of his work to create the first-ever Afghan Uniformed Police Academy. “That’s our exit strategy, to prepare them [to provide security for themselves] so we could come home.”

He was anxious to see how the men he trained would perform. He believed they were ready. Unfortunately, so were those corrosive forces that threatened to undermine the largest military offensive since the war in Afghanistan began.

The operation to take Marjah away from Taliban control was critical, Marine commanders said, as it was the biggest southern town under Taliban control and the linchpin of the militants’ logistical and opium-smuggling network. The U.S. wanted to eradicate the Taliban, restore public services and bring aid in hopes of winning support amongst the people.

That was in jeopardy as Woodhams soon heard stories of some of his Afghani police officers “shaking down” residents and selling or doing drugs. The public was already skeptical and Woodhams worried that this aggressive and unethical behavior would turn the community against them.

“The whole point of the operation was to win the trust of the people. Most just want to sell tomatoes, not plant bombs on the side of the road,” Woodhams said. “If we let this continue, what’s stopping them from turning to the Taliban for protection.”

Woodhams didn’t shirk his responsibility. Realizing how drastic the situation had become, Woodhams instituted a drug testing program and weeded out the bad seeds, along with a captain who had instilled fear within the battalion, intimidating those who wanted to serve their country. This same man threatened to kill Woodhams if he tried to drug test him, a loaded AK-47 in his hands as he made the threat.

“It was a little dicey,” Woodhams said, able to crack a smile while looking back at what was a tense situation. He pulled the captain off to the side, out of sight of his troops, and quickly disarmed him with the help of two Marines.

“I’ll never forget him.”

After the corrupt captain was out of the picture, Woodhams was able to regain control of his men and conditions improved. “It was like they were reborn,” he said. His response became a model for cleaning up a police force.

It is that dedication to service that earned Woodhams the “Twice A Citizen Award” in August from the National Defense Industrial Association/San Diego Chapter. The award recognizes service members who put their day jobs on hold and leave their families and loved ones so that they can fight for freedom.

“His efforts greatly contributed to building hope for a nation by training the protectors of a new Afghanistan,” the association said of Woodhams.

Family and faith play significant roles in Woodhams’ life. Aside from serving as a police officer in Santa Monica, Woodhams coaches his kids in little league and is a volunteer at his church in West Los Angeles, where his wife, Mary, runs the nursery.

“She’s a very strong woman,” Woodhams said of his better half. “Having to deal with your husband leaving for war is one thing. She knew who she was marrying. But to go through it three times, the last two with kids, that’s tough. I’m definitely lucky.”

He met his wife while at Camp Pendleton. The native of Michigan accompanied his friend on a blind date. Woodhams immediately locked eyes with his future wife and knew he would spend the rest of his life with her.

“It was love at first sight,” he said. “I was persistent. I had to propose to her twice.” That’s because he asked for her hand only after a few months of dating. He was that confident he had found the one.

The two were married and then two days later, while on their honeymoon in Aruba, terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. While with his wife at an army base unable to catch a flight home, Woodhams knew that he would soon be called on to fight overseas. A new wife, new life and a new challenge.

“A part of you wanted to deploy. It’s like a firefighter. You train to put out fires but you never want a home to burn down,” Woodhams said. “Every time you’re on deployment, you want to come back home. War is horrible. You want it to end. But you are also clear that you’ve signed up for this. You knew this was a possibility. So you go, no questions about it.”

Woodhams credits his faith in God with helping him make it through three difficult tours that included some of the most intense fighting of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Woodhams was there for the invasion of Iraq and fought in the deadly Sunni Triangle.

“The first tour was the hardest,” he said. “I never swear but after that one I found myself with a filthy mouth. It took about a month [after returning home] to feel like a human being again.

“Faith is absolutely critical. I don’t know how anyone could do it without faith.”

During those battles, he lost good friends, three of whom he remembers fondly — Cpl. Barbosa, Lance Cpl. Jacobs and Pfc. Brown. All three men had recently accepted God before they died; Barbosa in an accident when his Humvee flipped, while Jacobs and Brown were shot and killed by a sniper. Woodhams fought back tears while talking about his three friends, who often challenged him during the bible study classes he helped lead.

“You always want to honor them,” he said. “It’s good to speak about them and keep their memories alive.”

As a kid growing up in Saudi Arabia, Woodhams remembers having to keep his love of God close to his heart.

His father, an engineer working for a Saudi oil company, had to be careful about what he displayed on their home during Christmas. Sometimes a string of decorative lights was all that was allowed. It wasn’t uncommon for Christmas trees to be confiscated, he said. Bibles had to be hidden from sight. Woodhams said his family and friends had to meet in a gymnasium to worship, always worried about what others may say.

“They would challenge you in the street,” Woodhams said of some Saudis.

As a kid in Saudi Arabia, Woodhams never thought he would be a Marine or a cop. He kind of just fell into both. He needed a summer job while studying engineering at the University of Michigan. He thought the reserves would be challenging, and he liked being outdoors, so he put his dreams of being a pastor on hold and enlisted.

“I was blown away,” he said. “I have never seen people so dedicated. I loved being in that environment. I was hooked. There’s nothing like it.”

His family wasn’t so thrilled. “My father’s first reaction was, ‘You’re throwing your life away.’ He’s since become very supportive,” Woodhams said.

While in the reserves, he thought of applying for a job with the city of San Diego, using his experience in engineering. A human resource employee assumed, because of his military background, that he was applying to become a police officer. Woodhams had never even thought about being cop until then.

“It seemed like a good transition,” he said.

With faith in his corner, he applied for a job with Santa Monica and now he couldn’t be happier.

“I love the camaraderie and the professionalism of this organization, and being by the beach is nice,” he said, remembering those cold winters in Michigan. “I love the interaction with people from all walks of life, from the very privileged to the homeless guy on the street. No matter your status, we’re there to help.”

kevinh@www.smdp.com

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