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Justice takes a tour of duty

| Thursday, Dec. 25, 2003

For five weeks in November and December, Rob Wyda wore a gun and a bulletproof vest instead of his usual black judicial robe.

The Bethel Park district justice returned last week from Afghanistan, where he was stationed as a member of the Department of Defense Criminal Investigation Task Force. He was part of a team that investigated and questioned people in Afghanistan suspected of being members of terrorist organizations.

That's about all he is able to reveal.

"I wish I could say more, but that's about all I can," said Wyda, who returned to his courtroom a week ago. "There's a lot of security reasons."

Wyda, 44, has been the elected district justice in Bethel Park for four years, and his office is festooned with "welcome home" banners, American flags and a few new rugs purchased from the bazaars in Kabul. District justices from other communities filled in for him while he was gone.

Wyda was called to active duty Sept. 2, and stationed at Fort Belvoir, Va., outside of Washington, D.C. By Nov. 1, he was shipped out to Afghanistan.

Flipping through pictures of an arid, bombed-out land dotted with land mines planted by Russian invaders in the 1980s, Wyda said Wednesday he wondered how long it will take for Afghanistan to rebuild itself.

"It'll take another generation before it ever gets to normal," he said. "The Taliban destroyed so much. There's no music or movie theaters. When it gets dark, you never see lights in the homes, you never see women and only rarely do you see children playing. It's a very hard land."

Wyda has been a member of the Naval Reserves for about 17 years and was deployed in the mid-1980s to Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, Cuba. He said he volunteered to go back there for the task force, which was formed in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"I joked that where I wanted to go was this warm sunny land, but instead I ended up halfway across the world in this cold, desolate place," Wyda said. "Some days while I was there, I kept wondering how this Bethel Park father ended up where I was."

Wyda received word that he was coming home by early December, and was back by Dec. 8 in Washington, D.C., -- where he stayed during his debriefing.

"I remember coming back and taking a walk around the Reflecting Pool and there was garbage in the water, but I looked in there and thought to myself, 'Gosh, it's so good to be back -- even the trash looks good,'" he said.

He returned home on Dec. 14, in time for son Jared's 12th birthday.

"It was amazing to walk through the door and see the tree up, and my family," he said. "Through it all, they were the ones I missed the most. I would get 10-minute phone calls a week to them, and hearing my wife (Shannon) tell me everything was all right meant more to me than anything."

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