I met Eleasiff Ojeda Ayala in 2003. He'd just returned from his first tour in Iraq and had walked into his welcome-home party. He wore his Marine dress blues and a stunned expression. His wife had told him they were having lunch and then going to Sears for a portrait.
Eli was just 21 then, and while he was in Iraq, his father wrote him a letter that is as appropriate now as it was then.
"Am I proud of you, son of mine? Of course I am. I think of you in battle, so young and inexperienced, but clever and intrepid with your innate wish to do your best. I just want to remind you that this is not just a normal phase of life when failure helps you mature more. No, my son, where you are now, triumph and failure are one and the same if a fateful bullet goes through the heart of one you love."
I hadn't talked to Eli since that party. His father, Eleasiff Ojeda Riera, called me last week. My son is now becoming a police officer, he said. Will you come to his academy graduation?
It was held Thursday in Aurora. I'd never been to a police academy graduation. It's not unlike other ceremonies. Seats filled by proud family and friends. Faculty in the front rows. Eager graduates awaiting their big entrance.
A few were rehearsing: "Smile. Salute. Don't drop what they hand you." Nicole Weiffenbach, the only female graduate in Aurora Police Academy's Class 11-2B, flapped her hands and gave an excited shriek. "I didn't do that," she said, catching herself. "Yeah, you did," a fellow graduate said, grinning. Twenty-six weeks of training, and they couldn't wait to hit the streets.
Thirty-one people graduated Thursday. Fourteen had previous law-enforcement careers. The rest are new officers. Of this latter group, at least half are military veterans. Three, including Eli, are also the sons of Mexican immigrants. I mention this because Eli says the police officer he hopes to become will be informed by both of these experiences.
"Aurora is a city rich in diversity, and many residents are from Mexican backgrounds and they bring their beliefs with them about police and corruption," he says. "I had friends who questioned me. 'Why are you becoming a cop? The police are corrupt.' Some people asked why I didn't become a firefighter. ...
"So, there's a gap between the police and the community, and one of my goals is to work on that."
Eli did two Iraq tours, and he struggled when he came home to Denver in 2006. "I didn't think it was going to be that hard of a transition, but four years of active duty, two tours, and you come back a different person. It's confusing. I missed the structure, the routine. My wife and I started arguing. I started to lose my motivation."
Nearly everyone in Eli's family is a teacher, and his dad urged him to apply as a paraprofessional. The hours would allow him to take college classes at night. "I ended up at Newlon Elementary, and that experience working with kids did me so much good," he says. "It made me more patient. It made me more empathetic."
When Eli decided to become a cop, neither parent was thrilled. "First, it's a dangerous job," his father says. "Second, if one police officer is bad, all of them are judged to be bad, and we didn't want that for him. He's close to his degree in psychology, and we want him to get his master's degree. But we could not change his mind, and, as parents, the next step is to support him."
So, they were all there for his graduation: his wife, Letitia; their 18-month-old daughter, Arianny; Mom; Dad; siblings; nieces; nephews. Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates reminded the graduates they were embarking on a career that demands sacrifice "and it's not just your sacrifice. There are a lot of long nights ahead, a lot of holiday gatherings you're going to miss, a lot of family events you're going to miss." Thank your families, he said.
You'll be tested over time, the chief went on. Remember the idealism that motivated you to become police officers. "Hold on to your sense of compassion; it will be hard to hold on to."
Are you worried about that? I ask Eli. No, he says. His parents raised him well, and his wife has never stopped believing in him.
Letitia pinned badge 11-51 to her husband's uniform Thursday. He tried to keep a straight face as she did so but broke into a smile. Officer Eleasiff Ojeda Ayala officially reports for duty M0nday at 3 p.m.
Tina Griego's column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Reach her at: 303-954-2699 or firstname.lastname@example.org.