A mistake the police won’t forgive

KABUL: A week ago, Sgt. Osvaldo Hernandez ended his second tour of Army duty in Afghanistan, a tough seven-month stretch, and immediately hit life’s reset button.He returned to his family and girlfriend in Corona, Queens. He also had a to-do list. Every soldier has one, he said. Buying new furniture, clothing and computer equipment made the list — “nothing too crazy,” he said.The biggest luxury was a chance, at last, to sleep. “I haven’t gotten sleep in a long time,” he said. “I’ve been enjoying the fact that I can sleep more than six hours.”He has another wish that is not on every soldier’s list. For Sergeant Hernandez, it is at the top: becoming a New York City police officer.This is a tale of bureaucratic inflexibility versus the power of redemption. Thus far, rigidity has the upper hand. It often does.You may be familiar with the sergeant’s story. This is not the first time it has been told.In 2002, when he was 20, Osvaldo Hernandez was arrested on a gun charge. Police officers stopped his car in Richmond Hill, Queens, and found a loaded semiautomatic pistol under his seat. Until then, he’d had a clean record. He had never fired the gun or used it to commit a crime, he said. He had carried it around for only a week, he said, out of a misguided notion of self-defense in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood.

He pleaded guilty to third-degree possession of a weapon, a felony, and received a year’s jail sentence. After serving eight months, he was released. That’s when his life turned around.The Army provided a waiver that allowed him to enlist despite his felony conviction. In 2007, he began a 15-month tour in Afghanistan as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. He was honorably discharged in mid-2008, only to be recalled to active duty in 2009. Last winter, he was sent back to Afghanistan, attached to a unit of the Connecticut National Guard.There were bad moments, like a fierce firefight with the Taliban two months ago in eastern Afghanistan. Three shots hit his rifle’s grip and magazine. Shrapnel struck its shoulder sling. Except for some “bumps and scratches,” Sergeant Hernandez emerged unscathed.“For nothing to happen to me, that was a sheer miracle, because guys were getting shot left and right,” he said on Monday.

Along the way, Sergeant Hernandez, who is now 28, decided that he wanted nothing more than to join the Police Department. His reasons boiled down to a simple concept. “I believe in public service,” he said.In 2008, after his first return from Afghanistan, he took the department exam and aced it. He passed a medical exam. For reasons that are not clear, the department allowed him to go through these procedures even though it knew about his old felony conviction and insisted that it disqualified him.It has turned a deaf ear to extraordinary testaments to Sergeant Hernandez’s character and his reinvention of himself – Sananews