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Ex-Marine proof of what county's 'boot camp' can do

Monday, January 24, 2005
Chicago Sun-Times
by ABDON M. PALLASCH

Two months ago, Rick O'Hara was dodging bullets and rocket fire in Iraq as a U.S. Marine.

"You'd be driving down the road and you'd just hear AKs [machine guns] going off, coming your direction, you just don't know where it's coming from," he said.

But six years ago, O'Hara, now 25, was a teenager driving with friends in Hyde Park when someone said, "Let's rob somebody."

O'Hara and another teen jumped out of the car and told a man to hand over his wallet. The man wouldn't, so they helped themselves. The other teen had a BB gun.

Then, standing before a Cook County Circuit Court judge, O'Hara made what he considers a very smart choice and enrolled at Cook County's "boot camp" for young offenders.

The Marine-trained drill instructors helped persuade O'Hara to turn his life around.

"They wanted everyone there to succeed and not come back," O'Hara said.

At a Cook County Board budget hearing Friday, Sheriff Michael Sheahan pointed to O'Hara -- who stood rod-straight in the audience -- as proof that the $7 million the county spends on the boot camp every year is worth it.

In past years, a board member has asked why the county runs its own boot camp when the state runs two camps Downstate. Those programs, Sheahan said, do not have the same after-care programs the county does to keep youth from re-offending, and the county would end up spending more to house the youth at Cook County Jail because they would not go to the state programs.

O'Hara backs him up.

A Kenwood High School graduate, O'Hara, whose parents divorced when he was 10, went to Kishwaukee College in DeKalb to play baseball, then had to give that up when he hurt his shoulder.

"Everything kind of went downhill from there," he said. "I started hanging with the wrong crowd. We were just driving around one night. One of the younger guys I was with said we should go rob somebody."

O'Hara and his friend who was driving the car both opted for the boot camp and were so impressed by the drill instructors they signed up to be Marines.

They both were sent to Iraq.

Coming under rocket fire

O'Hara's unit, based near Hit, in the Sunni Triangle west of Baghdad, was charged with keeping the highways clear. That meant setting up roadblocks and patrolling for bombs.

"You just get this big-ass rocket that just exploded next to you and for the first 10 seconds you're kind of stunned a little bit," he said.

Rockets were fired regularly at the former Iraqi air base where he was stationed.

O'Hara received an honorable discharge this month to come home to his wife and 2-year-old daughter. He is moving to Arizona later this month, he said.



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