When newly-promoted Lieutenant Rene Roa, Jr. reported for duty to Career Day at his daughter Juliet’s school on Wednesday morning, he wasn’t sure which uniform to put on. He had just finished an 8-hour shift with the Weehawken Police Department, where he’s been an officer since 1999. But Juliet wanted him to wear his other uniform.
“So I had to get all my Army stuff together and change,” said Roa, 34.
After graduating from St. Peter’s Prep in 1998, Roa did two things: enlisted in the Army National Guard, and took his hometown’s police exam. His father, the late Rene Roa Sr. was Weehawken’s first Latino policeman, a 25-year department veteran.
“I think it was a combination between growing up in the G.I. Joe generation and having my role model be a police officer,” he said. “He always said every day was a new experience. That appealed to me.”
“It was a combination between growing up in the G.I. Joe generation, and having my role model be a police officer.” – Lt. Rene Roa, Jr.,
Then, in June 2008, he found out he was going to Iraq.
“I kind of expected to get the call with everything going on, to be honest,” said Roa.
Roa reported to Fort Bliss, Texas, where he assumed command of 40 infantrymen. In September, they shipped out.
For security reasons, Roa was unable to discuss where in Iraq he was stationed, or whether he saw combat, but he did say that his company, of which he was named commander, worked primarily in detention operations. During his year in Iraq, he commanded 75 to 80 infantrymen and 25 civilian contractors, and was tasked with overseeing the care of 300 detainees at any given time.
“We were able to demonstrate the versatility of infantry, because detention operations aren’t what infantry are trained for,” he said. “It was a good experience.”
Still, explained Roa, the entire tour of duty was focused on one goal in particular.
“I had guys under my command,” he said. “It felt good to bring them over there and make sure everyone got back okay.”
Asked about the experience of coming home from a tour of duty, a sight commonly seen on the nightly news, Roa joked that seeing his wife, Alison, was wonderful, but seeing his daughter was better.
“It was strange, because when I left she was barely learning to walk, but when I got home she was running around and talking,” he said.
If he ever is called into service again, he’ll return to two children. His son, Rene III, was born in September 2010.
Picking up right where he had left off, Roa enrolled in law school at Pace University’s White Plains campus, and took the Weehawken police’s lieutenant’s test. He placed first.
Currently in his last year in law school, Roa reports to the Jersey City Armory for National Guard training one weekend a month, while working the midnight shift in Weehawken.
As for balancing his time between the two, Roa said there are benefits and detriments.
“The leadership skills that I develop in both sort of lend themselves to each other,” he said. “But it can be a struggle.”
For instance, when Weehawken, his hometown, was devastated by Hurricane Sandy in November, Roa was called by the National Guard to help hurricane victims down the shore, in Bay Head.
“Obviously it was weird not going to work with the guys when I knew the town was having such a hard time,” he said, “but it was comforting knowing that they were taking care of things.”
“The department is very understanding of my military obligation,” he said.
Down the road
Roa plans to finish out his 25 years as a Weehawken Police officer (“God willing,”) and then practice immigration law. His mother’s family had come to America from Ireland in the early 20th century, and his father’s family emigrated from Cuba when the revolution broke out in 1953.
“I think it’s important that people who are able to get here are given a chance to succeed without worrying about being deported,” said Roa.
For now, however, he is content in his role as a Weehawken police officer.
“It’s a pleasure to have had the opportunity to have been a patrolman, sergeant and now a lieutenant in this town,” he said. “I hope I can continue to serve proudly as a public servant.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org