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Clearwater police officer returns after nine-month tour of duty in Afghanistan

CLEARWATER — Patrol officers have to deal with muggers, car crashes, drug dealers and domestic violence. But for Paul Balmer, that's like a day at Clearwater Beach compared to his last job: getting shot at while dealing with Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

Balmer, a Clearwater police officer and military reservist, just got back from a nine-month tour of duty at Bagram Air Base near Kabul, the Afghan capital. He's readjusting to civilian life.

"It's hard to put into words. The difference is remarkable," said Balmer, 43. "I'll take this work any day over what I was doing over there."

In Clearwater, he's a cop patrolling a beat east of U.S. 19 and north of Sunset Point Road.

In Afghanistan, he was a military police officer guarding Taliban and Al Qaida prisoners at the Bagram Internment Facility, a grim and hostile place that has been compared to the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.

His job also involved transporting newly captured Taliban detainees from U.S. Army encampments back to Bagram. That meant riding in convoys of Humvees on treacherous mountain roads, being targeted by small-arms fire and worrying about the threat of improvised explosive devices.

Reports describe the Bagram detention center as a crude, makeshift place where hundreds of enemy combatants are fenced into big metal pens. There, Balmer was a noncommissioned officer, or NCO, in charge of soldiers and sailors who were guarding prisoners.

"They would just as soon slit our throats as look at us. They wouldn't hesitate to kill us," he said of the detainees. "Their deep-rooted, fundamental hatred toward us created a hostile environment on a daily basis."

The detention center has been criticized in the past for abusive treatment of prisoners, especially when two Afghan detainees died there in 2002 after being beaten by their American captors. But human rights groups say conditions there have improved in recent years, and Red Cross officials routinely check on the prisoners' welfare.

In his nine months over there, Balmer says he never saw any detainees being tortured or mistreated. "It doesn't happen. Too many heads would roll. Everything is closely supervised," he said.

"The ones taking the abuse are the guards," he added, describing captured enemy combatants making shanks in their cells and throwing human waste at U.S. soldiers. Adding to the stressful environment, sometimes the base would be hit by rocket attacks.

Balmer has been a Clearwater police officer for five years. He was previously a canine officer in Largo, and began his law enforcement career in Virginia.

He's been a U.S. Navy reservist for 24 years but had never seen any action before now. He was deployed to the first Gulf War in 1991, but spent the war stationed on a minesweeper ship in the Persian Gulf. "We didn't see anything," he said.

But in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has adopted a strategy of using Navy and Air Force personnel to bolster the ranks of Army units. It's primarily a ground war at this point, so sailors and airmen are serving side by side with Army soldiers.

"Being embedded in an Army ground unit was definitely a new experience," said Balmer, who holds the rank of chief master-at-arms in the Navy.

Balmer proudly displays a Bronze Star medal that he was awarded in Afghanistan for bravery. But he says he can't discuss how he earned it because some of the operations he was involved in are classified.

Here are some of his other observations from Afghanistan:

• Americans tend to think it's hot and dry there, but they're thinking of Iraq. Balmer discovered that winters in the Hindu Kush mountains are brutally cold and icy.

• It was common to see Afghans missing limbs from exploded mines that the Soviets left behind decades ago.

• He was struck by how the Muslim religion is the foundation of most Afghans' lives.

• As Balmer began to transition back into civilian life, a military chaplain told him that less than 8 percent of Americans have served in the military, with less than 1 percent having served in combat zones. So most people won't really understand what he's been through.

• While he was deployed overseas, co-workers in the police department sent him packages of goodies and helped his wife Michelle move to another house. When he landed recently at Tampa International Airport, he was greeted by signs, balloons, relatives, co-workers and Clearwater's mayor.

"The officers and volunteers here, they really stepped up," Balmer said. "They just inundated me with gift packages," to the point where he was able to hand out treats to fellow guards who were suffering from low morale.

Balmer returned to work as a Clearwater street cop on July 4. He's finding that American criminals aren't as hostile as Taliban foot soldiers.

"It's very different — the tone, the environment. It's more laid-back," he said.

Although Balmer was proud to serve his country, he's relieved to leave Afghanistan behind: "Some things you've seen, you don't want to remember."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Clearwater police officer returns after nine-month tour of duty in Afghanistan 07/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 18, 2009 11:44am]
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