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Faces in the crowd: UPD's unsung heroes

 

Everyday officers with the University Police Department patrol the nation’s most beautiful campus in order to protect the student body from harm. 

Mixed amongst the under-recognized group of university employees are a group of national heroes -— that very few students know. 

Police Captain William Sheffield, Lt. Adam Peacock, Sgt. Deborah Mills and officers Jason Brown, Benjamin Stepp, Gage Vance and Michael Hughes all served their country in the middle east after the attacks on September 11, 2001.

Sheffield, who spent 18 months in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2006, said that he can still remember getting the call informing him that he was going overseas. 

“Oh man, I’ll never forget it. I got a call at 12 midnight in December,” the 15-year UPD veteran remembered, leaning back in his chair. “We were a unit, and had been in that unit for 20 years and the closest I came to being deployed was Desert Storm, Desert Sheild, but we missed that one. 

“When they come knocking at your door, when you get that phone call you say I don’t believe this.”

Sheffield, who retired after 23 years as an Army Reserve officer, said even though there was the initial shock of knowing you were going to be leaving your everyday life to serve overseas, that neither he, nor anyone in his unit hesitated when the time came to fight for their country. 

“We knew the day when we  signed that line they might call your number, and you would have to go,” the Water Valley native said. “We want to serve our country, do our job. I think all of the (soldiers) were proud of what they did.”

Sgt. Mills knew she was going to be deployed three years in advance of the actual call. 

“As soon as I saw the planes hit the tower I knew we were going to be deployed,” Mills said.

Mills would actually arrive in the Middle East in the spring of 2004. 

While he knew there was a chance that he would get called up, Officer Hughes wasn’t excited when he got the call.

“It really sucked (getting the call),” the Oxford native said. “I was in my second year here (Ole Miss), I was making great grades. I was like ‘God, now I have to start over.’

It was an experience just knowing that I had to go, seeing how everbody reacted.”

Sheffield, Hughes and Mills all said there is an initial culture shock when you first arrive in the Middle East. 

“It was a huge, huge experience that you are not going to get anywhere else,” Hughes said. “In the morning and night you could hear the prayers coming all over the city, and that is not something I’m used to hearing.

“It’s hotter here in Mississippi,” Hughes laughed. “Sand storms took some getting used to.”

Mills, who joined the National Guard in 1978 and spent six years living overseas, did not experience as much of a culture shock as the other first-time active duty soldiers. 

“I have seen it before being over in Nicauragua, Korea. It is very, very primitive,” Mills said. 

Mills said that one of the toughest things to get used to was the limited resources available, mentioning that she did not take a shower until six months after being deployed.

“I learned to conserve water real quick,” Mills said. 

Sheffield stayed at an Air Force base for a short period of time before being stationed in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. 

“It was eye-opening for me,” Sheffield said. “You see how people live compared to what we have. A lot of them did not even have houses, they slept out in the open land with their sheep, camels and goats.”

Sheffield’s unit would mostly provide security for Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai and then three-star general Karl Eikenberry, who would eventually be appointed as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Sheffield said that his unit would also deliver supplies to schools. 

“It wasn’t guaranteed that when we left the gates of our compound that we were going to come back,” he said. 

“We had one experience where we took supplies to a school and the next day the school got hit. Taliban came in and took all the supplies and water. We went back for a week and worked around the school and got it back up and going and re-supplied the school.”

With the exception of the occasional gun-fire, Sheffield said that his unit was very lucky. 

“We had 356 soldiers, nobody was injured, nobody was shot,” Sheffield said. 

“Everybody came home after 18 months without a scratch.”

Sheffield ran into a familiar face on his travels picking up former UPD veteran Robert Langley along the way. Sheffield kept a video made by Langley of the two patrolling a busy road in Afghanistan. 

“He loved doing that kind of thing (documenting),” Sheffield said. 

Langley was killed on duty with UPD less than a year after returning home from his tour in Afghanistan.  

Upon return to the U.S. Mills said that it was just as big of a culture shock as when she arrived in the Middle East. 

“I jumped into the shower, took a very quick shower and my significant other told me to jump back in the shower and enjoy it,” laughed the 12-year UPD veteran.

The Oxford transplant from Michigan said she also had trouble adjusting to the driving laws in America when she get back. 

“We were combat heavy engineers, so when we were going places if somebody was in our way we crossed over into the other lane of traffic, we didn’t care,” Mills said. 

“You really didn’t want us driving, I didn’t care who was in my way.”

Mills said the most important thing that she learned from her time serving her country was to live life to the fullest. 

“I actually went and bought a Harley Davidson while I was still over there — a dyna glide low-rider,” Mills said. “That was my gift to me for life.”

While it took Mills sometime to get adjusted to being back home, Hughes said he didn’t have the same trouble. 

“It was a relief. It felt really good,” Hughes said.

 “A lot of people say you’re going to experience some kind of withdrawal, something similar to PTSD (Post-Tramatic Stress Disorder). I don’t think I really experienced that. 

“I was just so glad to be home in time for christmas. I think my relief overcame anything else.”

Hughes, who spent over a year at Ole Miss before being called over, finished up his exercise science degree at rival Mississippi State in 2009. He said his time overseas has made him more aware of his surroundings. 

“Especially within my immediate area,” the Lafayette high school graduate said of being more aware.

“I never used to watch the news, I think I watch it a lot more now, and I’m reading the paper.” 

Mills said that she feels for everyone that was and is still affected by the tragedy that happened on 9-11. 

“I will mourn for the nation,” Mills said last Friday, her eyes tearing up as she spoke. “We lost many a good officer, many a good fireman, many a good person. My prayers will be with them.”

Mills is not the only soldier in her family. Each of her three sons has, or is going to spend time in the Middle East. 

My oldest boy, he and I were in Kuwait together, and he never had to leave Kuwait, thank god,” Mills said with a look of relief on her face.

 “But then my other son Jimmy, he’s been to Iraq, and he went to Afghanistan.”

Mills said her youngest son is in the National Guard and is supposed to go to Afghanistan at the first of the year. 

“I’m proud of all three of them, following in mama’s footsteps,” Mills said. 

Though each officer may not receive the recognition that they deserve, each mentioned that they were glad that they spent time serving their country. 

“If I had to go back I would leave out tomorrow,” Sheffield said.