For Veterans Day this year, we feature nine court staff who served honorably on active duty as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and/or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. In doing so we honor all veterans working in the Trial Court.
You may not realize how many of your co-workers have served our country, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their unique perspectives in the military have helped shape their work for the Trial Court.
As an engineer in the Army’s elite Fifth Special Forces, Suffolk Superior Court Officer Michael Kenneally was one of the first troops to fight in Afghanistan. In December 2001, his unit infiltrated the border at night by helicopter. Local residents brought horses and mules to carry the Americans’ 200-pound packs down into a mountain hideout, some 90 miles behind Taliban territory.
“I stuffed my pockets with extra gloves – because I always lose them – and socks,” he remembers. When they landed, Officer Kenneally started handing out gloves to the locals as they walked to their hideout. “When they offered us tea and food, I knew we would be okay, because they wouldn’t have wasted time feeding us.”
Officer Kenneally's job was to call in airdrops for military and medical supplies, laser strike sites, and B52 air strikes in the mountains of central Afghanistan. He was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery and retired as a Sergeant First Class in 2005.
Mr. Kenneally has been a Suffolk Superior Court Officer since 2006. He likes his job’s predictable hours and the variety of his busy court’s sessions. “Any given day, I could be talking to an accused murderer or serial rapist in the lockup, and the next I’m in the Business Litigation Session speaking to a CEO. In the courts, you come across everybody from all walks of life.”
Westborough District Court Officer Jeriamiah Miccile was also among the first to serve in Afghanistan, as an infantry mortarman from 2001 to 2002. He enlisted in 1998 and served in Kosovo and Albania before being deployed as part of the Marines’ 3rd Battalion, Sixth Regiment.
“A lot of our time involved mastering the boredom,” he says, explaining that the terrorists behind 9/11 weren’t as organized then as the enemy is now. “Everyone was hiding. I saw very few locals. The tribal system is very complex and you never knew who was for or against us.”
As a mortarman, Officer Miccile operated 81 mm mortars, also known as hip pocket artillery. “You just did your job: we dug in and made sure the fighting holes were done properly," he recalls. "In that sense it was very similar to being court officer: you had to be disciplined and constantly prepared.”
Suffolk Superior Court Probation Officer Salvador Bolanos is a Section Sergeant assigned to Forward Support Company, 3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He joined the Marine Corps in 1994 and has served ever since, taking a break from 2002-2005 to be a probation officer in Florida.
Officer Bolanos comes from a long line of family members who have served in the military. “The greatest duty an American can have is to serve their county,” says Officer Bolanos. “We are the only volunteer force in the world.”
Officer Bolanos re-enlisted in the Florida National Guard in 2005, and landed with his unit in Iraq in 2006. Officer Bolanos, who also deployed as Support Personnel in Afghanistan in 2010, said that his first deployment to Iraq was the hardest. As part of Convoy Operations, he brought vehicles, weapons, and other equipment to Special Forces teams around Iraq. His unit also provided security to the convoy trucks, sometimes leaving as early as 3:00 a.m. to stay a step ahead of IEDs.
“For me, it got real when we lost someone in our unit, Sergeant Marco Miller,” says Officer Bolanos. “We were in our Humvees and we heard an explosion – then we heard another one that was like an earthquake. Marco got shrapnel in the back of his neck. We had a memorial service for him on the base. For the first time in my life I saw some of the toughest guys I’ve ever known crying like babies. One less person was coming back home with us, and he had a six-month old daughter, too.”
Southern Berkshire District Court Officer Brian Landquist comes from a family with a history of military service dating back to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. He served two tours in the Army before retiring in 2013 as a Sergeant First Class.
In 2005, Officer Landquist took part in the mission “Restoring America’s Honor” in Abu Ghraib. He handled the intake and release sections of detainee operations at Abu Ghraib prison, and ran the high value detainee segregation unit. In 2010, during the height of the war in Afghanistan, Officer Landquist handled convoy operations and area clearing, disposing of mines and IEDs before troop advancement. He received the Bronze Star for his multiple efforts saving troops and civilians while under fire.
As a single parent and widower, he technically didn’t have to go to Iraq, but “it was my duty and it was what I signed on for,” he says, adding that grandparents from both sides of the family took turns caring for his daughter, who was six when he first deployed in 2005. “My daughter isn’t mad at me about it anymore, but at the time she was very young and it was tough on her.”
Suffolk Superior Court Officer Robert Deragon enlisted in the Marine Corps at 19 in 2011. After training as vehicle recovery or wrecker operator he got his orders for the Marines 2nd Battalion, Eighth Infantry Unit and arrived in Afghanistan in 2013. He was later attached to Echo Company’s Quick Reaction Force in Helmand Province, helping convoys get out of trouble.
The longest vehicle recovery Officer Deragon did took 14 hours. “There’s some sand out in the desert called moon dust," he remembers. "It looks hard-packed, but you can quickly get chest-deep. A vehicle got stuck, and then another. You’d set up a 360-degree cordon around the truck and a soldier would have to get out and clear the area of IEDs with a handheld metal detector. I had people covering me, but those were some of the more nerve-wracking moments.”
Yet he’s quick to add that military life isn’t as stressful or scary as you might think. “You don’t have real life issues to worry about, like bills. When you’re out there, you focus on the task at hand and on the mission and getting back okay. It’s not until you’re back at the base that you start thinking about all the what-ifs: what if I took one step that way or if I went down that path…”
Lowell Juvenile Court Officer Joshua Aponte signed up for the Army’s ROTC program while at Lowell High School. He left for basic training right after graduation in 2005. Sent to Iraq from 2010 to 2011 as part of the 287 Heavy Equipment Transportation (HET) Unit, Officer Aponte drove Humvees and trucks carrying fuel, tanks, and other large equipment in convoys with the nine other HET drivers in his unit. Their mission in Iraq during the 2010 American pullout involved closing down the bases, and preparing and transporting everything in those bases, including vehicles and thousands of pieces of equipment, back to their base in Kuwait for shipment to the U.S. Driving slowly for hours in convoys that could stretch as long as a mile of 50 trucks through the vast desert could be disorienting.
“Driving in between the bases you saw desperate people pop out of nowhere,” says Officer Aponte. “Little kids would beg for water and food. I would throw them a couple of bottles of water but you had to be careful because they could use it against you later, as an IED disguised on the side of the road.”
Today, Officer Aponte often talks to young people about his military experience and encourages them to think about serving. “Certain misdemeanors can get waived…but I tell these kids that enlisting is worth it, especially if you don’t know what you want to do after high school.”
As part of the Unit Ministry team, Suffolk Superior Court Officer Michael Cleary was a Chaplain’s Assistant on three consecutive Army deployments: from 2008 to 2009 in Iraq, and from 2009 to 2010 and 2010 to 2011 in Afghanistan. He provided security for the Chaplains, who are by law unarmed, and helped screen stressed soldiers. He describes seeing service members at some of the best and worst times of their lives.
“In the military, Chaplains are the first stop anyone makes when they’re having an issue,” says Officer Cleary, who helped soldiers open up about domestic violence, assaults, disciplinary actions, even homesickness. While it was difficult being away for three consecutive holidays and birthdays, he says it was also a unique experience. “I always wanted to serve, especially after 9/11. I wanted to be shoulder-to-shoulder with the guys, to be there for them and help them out,” he says.
Officer Cleary became an Assistant Court Officer in 2013 and a Court Officer in 2015. He credits his Army training and experience for preparing him to be a Court Officer. “Helping Army psychologists and soldiers taught me to learn and guide others,” he says.
Lawrence District Court Officer Gary Levesque completed one tour in Afghanistan in 2013. He enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves in 2009 and served as a Sergeant in the Armory unit, fixing rifles, machine guns and “all the things that go boom,” as he puts it.
At Camp Leatherneck, Officer Levesque cleaned, repaired and inventoried thousands of weapons arriving from bases closing down around Afghanistan, shipping them back to the United States to be re-disbursed back to the entire Marine Corps.
Officer Levesque says his military experience has helped him bring “accountability, responsibility, and pride” to what he does every day at the courthouse.
Growing up in a small farm town in rural Michigan, Suffolk Superior Court Officer Amy Hickey felt that her career choices were limited to either working on the farm or in a factory. She realized that the military was her ticket out, she says, recalling that her grandfather, a Navy veteran, urged her to join the Air Force, where she served for 22 years before retiring in 2013. She became a Court Officer in 2014.
As a Technical Sergeant in the Air Force’s Ravens based in Kuwait, Officer Hickey flew hundreds of missions to Iraq, Jordan, and Djibouti, Africa, as a member of security forces providing cover for air crews loading planes. Their missions ran the gamut, from picking up POWs to dropping off troops and supplies. “The four of us would be armed,” she recalls. “We’d jump off the plane, provide cover for ground crews and for loading supplies, and then we’d fly off,” at times taking mortar fire.
Her last deployment lasted seven months in 2005 and was the “scariest.” “There really wasn’t a front anymore at that point,” she says. “It was everywhere.”
Every veteran interviewed for this story experienced some difficulty readjusting back to civilian life.
“Coming back to the civilian world is really hard. There is no comparison,” says Officer Landquist, who notes that the lack of structure and regimen in civilian life can be difficult for returning soldiers. He has learned to compartmentalize the memories.
“I‘ve stored them away somewhere. If you dwell on it, that’s what starts tearing you down,” he says, adding that he saw more combat on his second deployment. While everyone in his unit survived, several are severely disabled as a result of their wartime injuries.
Officer Hickey’s biggest difficulty transitioning to the civil work force was “staying put,” after years of going on new assignments every six months. “When you deploy there’s no home or money stress,” she says. “You’re just focused on work – there’s no work-life balance to worry about.”
Everyone interviewed for this story also agreed that their time in the military helped prepare them for working at the Trial Court, namely: to be observant, to be prepared and punctual, to have good interpersonal skills, and to follow orders.
Officer Landquist believes that the military trains people to have “good situational awareness.” Veterans also “often react to situations faster.”
“I notice everything that’s going on – even the smallest conversations in the courtroom. My radar’s constantly going,” says Officer Aponte.
Probation Officer Bolanos notes that both the military and the Trial Court force you to think on your feet and take a creative approach to solving problems. “There’s no individuality in the military,” he says. “Everyone works as a team, because without teamwork your mission doesn’t get accomplished. Veterans bring that spirit of teamwork to the Trial Court.”
Court Officer Frankie Pica passed away suddenly in September at his Lowell home. A proud veteran, Officer Pica was a member of the Army’s Military Police for over 10 years. Officer Pica served two tours in Iraq and in Afghanistan, where he was wounded during a raid and excavation operation. He received many commendations for his bravery and dedication in the line of duty. After his honorable discharge from the Army, Officer Pica served as an Associate Court Officer in the Peabody, Salem, and Lynn District Courts and at the Essex Probate and Family Court, and as a Correction Officer at the Hillsborough Department of Correction.