AUGUSTA — It hangs prominently: a dark blue star contrasting sharply against the white backdrop. It’s a notice that one of their own is missing; it’s reserved for family.
That makes this star right at home outside the Augusta Police Department.
“We are a family,” Augusta police Sgt. Christian Behr said during a ceremony held Thursday to hang the blue star in honor of patrolman Eric Dos Santos, who is serving in Afghanistan on his second deployment with the Maine Army National Guard. “For that reason, we are going to display the blue star this morning.”
The brief ceremony, which included members of Dos Santos’ family and the Maine Army National Guard, including Chief of Staff Col. John Jansen, marks the first time that Augusta police have hung a star for a deployed officer. Dos Santos, 31, who joined the department in 2006, is a captain with the Maine National Guard and commander of the 488th Military Police Company.
His yearlong deployment began in July, and he arrived in Afghanistan a couple months later.
Families have hung blue stars in their windows since World War I to signify a member is fighting overseas.
“Mothers of service members who hang the blue star in their windows are considered Blue Star Mothers,” said Behr, who retired in September after a 25-year career in the Maine Army National Guard. “While I was deployed, my parents hung one in their home window, as did my wife.”
Dos Santos’ father, Norman Nadeau, said his family has hung a blue star during both of his son’s deployments. Nadeau is glad Augusta police have followed suit.
“The guys appreciate him and enjoy him when he’s here,” Nadeau said. “They all miss him, I guess. I know I do.”
Dos Santos’ fiancee, Destinee Ryder, said she hears from Dos Santos almost every day, mainly online through Skype. Being able to see Dos Santos has made his absence easier to bear, perhaps especially for his young children.
“It’s awesome,” Ryder said. “I’m so thankful we have that.”
Augusta police Chief Robert Gregoire said hanging the star was “a no-brainer” when Behr proposed it recently.
“Even without the star, his absence is definitely noticed,” Gregoire said. “He’s definitely missed.”
Dos Santos is one of two active-duty guardsmen or reservists to serve with the Augusta Police Department — Officer Brad Chase is a sergeant with the Air Force Reserve — and one of countless others who have worked for both the city and the military. Behr said in recent years he, Dos Santos and Chase were deployed simultaneously.
“At one time there would have been three stars hanging,” he said.
Gregoire described Dos Santos as a mature leader who is a role model to the other officers.
The yearlong absence of such an employee poses a challenge both professionally and financially, Gregoire said. Augusta, which does not hire reserve officers, makes do with extended shifts and overtime. Dos Santos’ coworkers fill in the gaps while he is gone.
“It can be an inconvenience, but they all know there’s a greater need out there,” Gregoire said. “He’s serving a larger community now.”
That service is, at least in part, made possible by Augusta police willingness to do extra, said Rolanda Nadeau, Dos Santos’ mother.
“I know Eric appreciates everything the guys do,” she said.
Gregoire is quick to point out that his department benefits from the training and experience Dos Santos and other service members gain while deployed.
“It’s invaluable to us,” he said.
Those benefits are not limited to law enforcement. Battalion Chief Steve Leach of the Augusta Fire Department said one of his department members, Jim Worcester, has served two tours in a field hospital with the Maine Army National Guard. Worcester has been exposed to a higher frequency of trauma patients — and learned how to treat them — than he would ever see at home, Leach said.
“A lot of the changes in emergency medical services care that we provide to patients here, trauma patients specifically, are driven from the battlefield,” Leach said. “The skills they’re using in the battlefield on the wounded soldiers eventually make it to the streets as a new standard of care.”
Leach, whose department hangs blue ribbons for deployed soldiers, said his department offers overtime to ensure minimum staffing on shifts when Worcester typically would work; but as with Dos Santos, the bigger void may be his experience.
“We certainly miss having him around, but we’re able to continue with our mission while he’s out serving the country,” Leach said.
Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said his department started hanging blue stars when he and Deputy Christopher Cowan deployed to Iraq in 2004. The office, including corrections officials, has seven people deployed and another three who have deployments pending.
“We hang a blue star because we consider our employees family members,” Liberty said. “We have a daily reminder we have employees deployed in defense of our nation.”
The office fills the vacancies with part-time officers and overtime. For one deployed officer, Deputy Matthew Cain, the county filled the slot with another full-time deputy for the entire four years he will serve on active duty.
“We’re holding his slot for him,” Liberty said. “It’s a big commitment.”
That commitment is not taken for granted by the service members or the branches in which they serve, said Maj. Michael Steinbuchel, public affairs officer for the Maine Army National Guard.
“We are fortunate to have great employer support throughout all our communities,” Steinbuchel said. “It means a great deal to know our soldiers are supported. It validates that what we’re doing is valuable to the community and to the nation.”
Craig Crosby — 621-5642