DuPage prosecutor, Army major serves county and country
Talk about juggling careers.
When he's not in a DuPage County courtroom prosecuting felonies, Mike O'Donnell can be found in the Middle East serving his country.
The 42-year-old Army veteran has been deployed three times in 10 years, including twice while holding down a job at the state's attorney's office.
"I often tell people that being a prosecutor and an Army Reserve soldier are similar because we're both required to get the job done, and often that means working after hours," O'Donnell said by email from Bamyan province in central Afghanistan.
O'Donnell, a DuPage County resident who grew up in West Dundee, enlisted in 1994 and served his first deployment in Kuwait and Iraq in 2003. In 2008 — about four years into his other career as a criminal prosecutor — he was called back to Iraq for another year. On both missions, he worked in detainee operations.
O'Donnell was summoned once again in January — this time to help train Afghan police. The assignment has him working at a NATO training center with an Afghan counterpart. Their goal is to prepare local law enforcement for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and their allies in 2014.
"The development of an Afghanistan police force has not been an easy task," O'Donnell said. "Due to years of civil war and Taliban policies, the police force needed to be built from the ground up."
The center where O'Donnell works can serve a little more than 100 students. Subject matter includes courses for new recruits and noncommissioned officers, as well as classes on human rights, law and crime-scene investigations.
Today, the area is "one of the safest in Afghanistan," O'Donnell said, though it is still extremely poor and lacking electricity and sewer and water systems.
"Talking to many of the Afghans here, almost all have personal stories about Taliban atrocities against them or their families in the late 1990s and prior to 9/11," O'Donnell said. "I have no doubt that our commitment here is worth it and we will leave Afghanistan a better place. I think the American people should be proud of what the U.S. and our allies have done here. The Afghans still have a ways to go, and it won't be easy after 2014, but they now have the skills necessary to succeed."
O'Donnell expects his part of the mission to last until early next year and — with 1½-year-old daughter Keira at home — he hopes it will be his last overseas.
He nearly resigned from the Reserves after his second deployment, but he decided against it after talking it over with his wife, Allison O'Donnell, a trustee at College of DuPage.
"She said it was my decision and she would support it either way. But she also said I would miss being part of the Army team and the camaraderie that goes with it," he said. "It also has a lot to do with being part of something bigger than yourself and giving back to your country. We both knew that probably meant another deployment, but that is the commitment you make."
Despite his many commitments, O'Donnell still found time this year to nominate his boss, State's Attorney Bob Berlin, for a Patriotic Employer Award. Berlin received the award last week at a DuPage County Bar Association luncheon.
O'Donnell credited Berlin for making sacrifices at the office that allowed him to return overseas. Berlin said it's O'Donnell who deserves the praise.
"I feel fortunate to have somebody like Mike who's made the commitment to serve his country," said Berlin, whose office has had several active veterans on staff over the years. "I've always said that to be successful as a prosecutor, you have to have a passion for the job. You have to believe in it. Mike has that passion here, and he has that same passion to serve his country. This office is 100 percent behind him."
O'Donnell, a major, trains with the 327th Military Police Battalion in Arlington Heights when he isn't deployed. One of his first priorities back home will be spending time with his daughter, who took her first steps and learned to talk since he's been gone.
For O'Donnell, those are some of the most difficult sacrifices, even if they come with the territory.
"I always wanted to serve in the Army from an early age. I guess I just wanted to be a part of the long line of Americans who give back to the country through military service," O'Donnell said. "My plan was to do it as part of the Army Reserve and have a civilian career. I don't think anyone saw the last 10 years coming, but when we decided to volunteer to serve, we made the commitment."
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