By Daniel Silliman
When Michael Wheeler listed the reasons he joined the military, it was the same reasons he gives for joining the Clayton County Police Department.
"Camaraderie," he said. "Discipline, being able to look out for one another, team work."
Wheeler, a 34-year-old raised in Stockbridge, is one of the many county police officers who serves his country and his county simultaneously, serving with the National Guard while he works full time as a day-shift patrolman.
Wheeler joined the police department in August of 2004. He was a veteran, who had served five years with the United States Navy, two years with the United States Army, and as a citizen soldier in the National Guard.
He had recently married Pamela, an Atlanta police officer, and the shift to police work, he said, seemed natural.
"I love the military. It's just something I enjoy doing. But I also knew I could work in civilian life and serve my country ... When I applied here, I just felt at home. I just felt like I belonged, as a police officer," said Wheeler, who talks with what he describes as a "country boy accent" and has his hair cut into a short, brown Mohawk.
In May 2005, Wheeler was called to go to Iraq, and the department sent him off with more than 25 bullet proof vests for the soldiers of his unit to use.
"The department has backed me completely," he said.
Wheeler served in Baghdad for one year, spending half of his time protecting convoys, and half doing work which is still classified, he said.
When he first came to the police department and went to the academy for training, Wheeler noticed that his military experience was valuable. When he deployed to Baghdad, he immediately noticed that his training on the streets of Clayton was useful.
"It's all about how to keep aware of your surroundings at all times," he said. "What I learn here can help me over there, and what I learned over there can help me here."
The two jobs are similar and, he said, the police department understands the requirements of his military service and works to help him in anyway it can.
While stationed in Baghdad, Wheeler exchanged e-mails with officers he worked with at the police department. Now, back in Clayton, he exchanges e-mails with the men and women he met in Iraq, most of whom have returned to the United States and some who have redeployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.
"You worry about the guys you leave behind," he said. "You can't just not think about it. You never know what's going to happen."
Sometimes, though, the two worlds where Wheeler serves come together. A man he served with in Iraq has recently followed Wheeler into the Clayton County Police Department. The two men talked for hours and days about their lives back home, and the soldier liked what he heard.
"He asked me how I liked it," Wheeler said, "and I told him I loved it."