After a year-long deployment with the National Guard that included almost nine months in the Middle East, Dustin Dunklee is back at home and back to his duties as prosecuting attorney for Morgan County.
"It's very good to be home," he says.
Dunklee returned to his home in the Versailles area in early May. He had been serving as trial counsel for the 35th Combat Aviation Brigade stationed in Kuwait. One of two JAGs, he served as a prosecutor in disciplinary issues for the close to 1,400 soldiers in the brigade as well as giving briefings on rules of engagement.
Overall the deployment was a great experience for Dunklee, but there was no feeling like coming home. Welcomed back by a crowd of friends and family who surprised him by redoing his '66 Mustang while he was gone, Dunklee says his return was an "overwhelming, humbling" experience.
"Seeing my wife Dina and my daughter Ella - it was a feeling I won't forget. And coming to Versailles, I really got an unearned hero's welcome," he says. "I had a 9 to 5 job. There was a lot doing worse stuff than me."
As an aviation bridge, the main mission of the 35th were joint missions to other countries in the region as well as training missions with the Navy.
Dunklee was stationed at Camp Buehring, a small base just south of the border with Iraq. On the hottest day he was there, the temperature hit 134 degrees — almost unbearable, he says.
Driving was one of the small things he missed during this deployment — the ability to simply get up and go.
The few times they did drive, the route to Kuwaiti City was like "Nascar Kuwait," he says. While there are speed limits, they're not generally enforced because the police are third country nationals. He now has a greater appreciation for the stress free drive he can take whenever he feels like it.
But there were really no bad experiences, Dunklee says. The older generation who remembers Operation Desert Storm were especially friendly.
Third country nationals, however, make up a large percentage of the population with large Filipino and Lebanese communities.
Kuwaiti City was not what one might expect of a city in the Middle East. The downtown was very westernized, he says, reminding him of Miami Beach but without the swimsuits. The Muslim culture was a little different, but training before deployment teaches cultural awareness. A natural talker, Dunklee says it felt odd to not to be able to talk to women who didn't have a man with them.
But it was not all strict and traditional. Going to a mall in Kuwaiti City once, you could see the whole range of Muslim culture from women in full burkhas to women in shorts and t-shirt.
Page 2 of 2 - "It's kind of like Mennonites here. Some are stricter than others," he says.
Dunklee has been in the National Guard since the age of 17. Part of big blended family, he signed up mainly for the opportunity to help pay for college.
But Dunklee grew to enjoy the Guard for its service to community and country. He stayed with it long past time when he needed to and plans to continue in the Guard in the future.
"I like doing my civic duty. That's why I became a prosecuting attorney. That's what I'd always hoped to do. I like public service. I've been in private practice and enjoyed it, but if it's my choice, I'd be prosecuting attorney for my whole career. I was born to do it. I love it," Dunklee says.
Now, he feels fortunate to have been able to have left his prosecuting attorney responsibilities in good hands while he was gone. Part time assistant prosecuting attorney Doug Kinde, Laclede County Prosecuting Attorney John Morris and Morgan County's P.A. staff stepped up and did a great job during Dunklee's employment, Dunklee says.
"I didn't have to worry about stuff getting messed up. It was a relief leaving it in such good hands. Even with some of the serious stuff that has happened, the sheriff's department and police deserve a lot of credit for the way they've handled things," he says.
Settling in at home, Dunklee plans to take his wife and daughter on a vacation soon.
"I just don't want to see sand unless there's an ocean attached to it," he laughs.