For Minnesota Guardsman, military service leads to career in law enforcement

April 26, 2016 (ST. PAUL, Minnesota) — If you’re looking to meet Sgt. David Zolldan of the Minnesota National Guard, there’s a right way…and a wrong way. If you choose to text and drive, speed or fail to keep right on Minnesota’s highways, check your rearview mirror, he might be there.

Seeing him standing proudly in the distinctive maroon and khaki uniform of the Minnesota State Patrol or on drill weekends, wearing the camouflage of a Soldier and military police officer, you might guess that Zolldan was born to serve and protect. But to him, the path to where he is today wasn’t always as clear as one might think.

“I’m kind of an anomaly in my family,” said Zolldan, thinking through where else he might have gone with his career. “All my family members are teachers.”

Zolldan’s only family connection to the military was his grandfather, a World War II Army veteran who landed in Normandy at Utah Beach a few days after the initial invasion. His original Eisenhower D-Day letter to the troops is a prized family possession. As a kid, Zolldan spent some time in the Police Explorers, a law enforcement variant of the Boy Scouts, and as he neared college, a few of his friends began to pursue careers in law enforcement. It seemed like an interesting field, so he started college and soon after joined the National Guard.

His first drill weekend started out as uneventful, but a building storm had plans to change that. “That night I got a phone call at about two or three in the morning, ‘You need to be at the armory now,'” he recalled.

Flooding had hit hard along the banks of the Mississippi near Winona. Zolldan and his unit, the 34th Military Police Company, spent the next week assisting local police, patrolling the devastated area and checking on local residents who were cut off by the rising waters.

“It was a true disaster,” said Zolldan. “We were in mud up to our knees in places with houses that had been completely dislodged, landing on railroad tracks. It was utter devastation, but it was also pretty cool to be able to do something tangible in terms of helping people on my very first drill.”

As he continued to work toward his degree in law enforcement between drills, he starting picking up part-time, then full-time work with the Minnesota National Guard’s nationally-recognized Military Funeral Honors Team.

“It was the best job I will ever have in my life. There is no doubt about that,” said Zolldan, smiling broadly. “What drew me in was curiosity. I didn’t know if it would be too emotionally taxing. But it turned out that I loved it. It was such an intensely unique job, something that not many people get to do. We preformed honors for deceased veterans of all ages, all manners of death. We did everything from elderly people that just passed away from World War II, all the way up to KIA [Killed in Action] funerals for vets of Iraq and Afghanistan, we even did the last Medal of Honor recipient in Minnesota, survivors of the Bataan Death March, repatriated remains that they found overseas from World War II that they found and brought back.” When pressed on his quantity of accomplishment, “It’s got to be near a thousand funerals,” he guessed.

He was close. According to Military Funeral Honors Coordinator Bastian Van Hofwegen, during Zolldan’s time on the team, with the haunting sound of “Taps” echoing out, he helped render honors with rifle volleys or folded and presented the nation’s flag for 905 veterans and their families. “The Military Funeral Honors program would not be where it is today without his dedication and professionalism,” said Van Hofwegen.

“My life was really undecided before I joined the Guard,” said Zolldan. “It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’ve loved the vast majority of it.”

But not all of it. In 2009 he and his unit deployed to Basra, Iraq, with the 34th Red Bull Infantry Division where they suffered a tragic loss when an insurgent’s rocket struck their base, killing three of his fellow military police officers: Spc. Carlos E. Wilcox IV, Spc. James D. Wertish and Spc. Daniel P. Drevnick. It was one of the largest single day losses of life for Minnesota troops in modern history.

News of the attack quickly reached Zolldan who had just left Iraq, to begin his two-week rest and recuperation leave at home. But his much deserved leave didn’t stop him from temporarily returning to his role on the honor guard, serving at a discrete distance on the rifle teams for his friends’ funerals. “It was difficult to do, but I was glad I could at least be there,” he said.

Back in Iraq, he served on the personal security details for Red Bull leaders as they traveled across the war-torn nation. The assignment gave him important experience, a broad perspective on the conflict and would point his civilian career toward where he is today.

“When I was in the 34th [Red Bull Infantry Division] a fair number of influential, good people were state troopers,” he said. It was their mentorship that convinced him of his next leap. “The first place I ever applied was the state patrol and low and behold I got it; here I am.”

But entry in to the State Patrol which, according to their website offers paid training, state benefits and a “company car,” wasn’t as easy as he first lets on. The 16-week State Patrol Training Academy, which is hosted at Camp Ripley, can be a grueling mental and physical challenge to even the most experienced candidate.

“It was amazingly similar to basic training, just about as tough too,” said Zolldan. “I was surprised, but I was prepared too. There were a lot of guys there that had never been in the military and a lot of them washed out in the first week.” But Zolldan and many of his veteran classmates stuck with it and graduated.

Not only did his military police experience carry over to help him with his civilian career, but so did his time spent honoring veterans. “After being a trooper for two years, I was assigned a spot on the State Patrol Honor Guard, again as a result of my experience in the National Guard,” he said proudly. He also recently completed an even more advanced course to become a weapons instructor, providing training for his fellow troopers from across the state.

While he’s not sure of what lies ahead for his future, he’s sure of his past. “I have no doubt that my experience in the Guard was instrumental in the realization of my civilian career,” said Zolldan. “I didn’t know where I was going before I enlisted, and now, looking back, I don’t know where I would be at today if I hadn’t.”

by Sgt. 1st Class Ben Houtkooper
Minnesota National Guard Public Affairs