Nick Kozak has two jobs, one as an officer with the Forest Park Police Department and one as a member of the U.S. Army National Guard Special Operations Force. What unites them? He contends that love is necessary for doing both jobs well.
In a study published in August 2016, the Army found the three main characteristics of a good special operations warrior — we’re talking about soldiers like the Green Berets — are toughness, audacity and love.
“Their capacity to love enables them to see the humanity in some of the most difficult environments and situations,” the study reads. “It enables them to gain information and knowledge in areas that conventional units cannot. Special Operations warriors, see, feel, and build genuine trust relationships with the people they live and work among.”
But in 1988, when Kozak joined the army at age 17, toughness was how he imagined soldiers, dreaming they were characters like actor John Wayne in the movie “The Longest Day.”
Kozak remembers flying for the first time into a small village in Afghanistan, where Afghan government officials hadn’t been able to help the locals. Village elders were referred to Kozak’s Special Operations Force, which supplied them with flour, rice and other supplies. But what the small village really needed was help with defense. The Taliban had been coming in and kidnapping young men of fighting age—locals said the Taliban were outsiders, and village elders just wanted to be left alone.
Kozak and others started teaching residents how to defend themselves. They visited the village several times and, in subsequent trips, also brought along doctors and dental and eye care services. Kozak remembers one young man named Muhammed Ismail telling him he wanted to learn English. Kozak emailed his aunt and asked her send over some kids books for him. “A really close relationship evolved to the point where they gave us a house to stay in whenever we came,” Kozak said.
One day, 15 of special ops officers were in the village when the Taliban attacked. A nine-hour battle ensued, with the army itself outgunned—until 250 Afghan villagers rallied to fight the Taliban and protect the 15 Americans there.
“The empathy you develop for studying a culture, learning the language, eating their food and being around the people—just being there—develops from empathy to love,” Kozak said. “I still have friends in the different countries where I’ve served that I talk with to this day. We really care about each other.”
In addition to serving as a special ops member, Kozak has also spent the last 17 years serving with the Forest Park Police Department as a patrolman, field training officer and range officer training officers in firearms and tactics.
Over the years, Kozak said he has observed that many people are afraid to talk to the police. For him, he said communication boils down to trust. Trust, he believes, must be earned.
Aware that people have preconceived images of what a police officer is, Kozak said he begins deconstructing stereotypes by simply saying “good morning” to people with a smile. He knows how to say “good morning” in Arabic, Russian, Polish and Korean—the first languages of some of the businesspeople in town.
“The goal in Special Operations in other countries is through conversation and relationship building to help people solve their problems,” he said, and applies this logic to his work in the village too. Kozak said one of the main causes of polarization in this country is that people are “insulated” from others in their own view of the world.
“We have to have the audacity,” he said, “to look past ‘what we know’ and that develops empathy.”
So, when Officer Kozak comes into a store or smiles at you in Constitution Court, part of what he is after, of course, is what the military calls “intel.” Another part is relationship building.
“I have only one set of eyes,” Kozak said. “But if I can develop a relationship with people on Madison Street, for example, now if I have 30 people all looking as my partners.”