It was 2009, and Mike Panko was busy supervising a combined Army/Navy unit that held Islamic extremists in custody in Iraq. Some were murderers, rapists or gang leaders. Others had fired weapons at Americans or made bombs.
It was Panko's job to make sure both his unit and the detainees were safe. His comrades searched detainees, fed them, took them to medical appointments, took them to interpreters and took them to personnel for the Geneva Convention, who made sure the detainees were being treated properly.
Panko, 38, has served four tours of duty in Iraq and Kuwait as a U.S. Naval reservist. A Petty Officer 1st Class, he's been gone a lot from his Lodi home, leaving his family behind off and on for more than five years.
In Kuwait, Panko set perimeters for fighting and patrolled waters off the Kuwait coast to make sure the enemy didn't get too close. In Iraq, he was convoy commander of a unit that provided security and secured weapons and related equipment for his unit. In his fourth and final tour — this one again in Kuwait — he was coxswain, or small-boat captain, of the same unit he served on his first tour.
But as commander of a prison in Iraq is where he saw Islamic detainees up close and personal.
Many of them have been in custody for several years because they can be incarcerated before they stand trial, Panko said while on leave from the Naval Reserve.
"A majority of the Islamic detainees feel a hardship because they feel they have been kidnapped," he said. "They feel they are going to be killed by the Iraqi government."
By design, American prison personnel don't learn much about Muslims who are in custody because they might develop a relationship — even based on small talk — that could put Americans in danger, Panko said.
Military personnel don't even learn why an individual is in custody, he said, or anything about their personal lives. Many detainees learned English at American or European universities, while others learned English in prison, Panko said. The Army taught prison officials some basic Arabic, just enough to ask a prisoner if they want some water or if they need medical attention, he added.
Panko wouldn't say if he's killed anybody in the Middle East due to security reasons, but he's mastered the use of some ominous-looking weapons, such as an M4A1 rifle, which can fire 30 bullets in just seconds.
"It's certainly designed to get your attention if it's pointed at you," Panko said. "It's known as the last means of communication."
Nevertheless, he said, "We're not looking to shoot and kill unless they're trying to kill us."
Panko grew up in Stockton and attended Lincoln High School before transferring to Manteca High when he moved in with his mother about three months before he graduated in 1992.
Panko and his wife, Wendy, married in 1994 and moved to Lodi the same year because they considered it a safer place to live than Stockton.
Panko's been on leave since February, but it ends on April 20, when he'll be back on reserve status for MSRON 9 DET FOXTROT in Sacramento. He'll be on duty one weekend per month and participate in two weeks of annual summer training in Montana.
He said he could easily be deployed, but there's nothing in the books right now. When he's not on duty, he is store manager for S-Mart Foods in Stockton.
Wendy Panko has essentially been a single mom for much of the time that Panko's been overseas. She remains busy with the tax preparation business she owns in Lodi and taking care of their 15-year-old daughter, Kristen, a sophomore at Tokay High School.
"It's a stress because she and (Kristen) don't have any idea what we do over there," Panko said.
Due to security reasons, Panko said he can't be too specific about what he did in the Middle East, even with his own family.
Panko credits technology, such as email and Skype, as a way to keep in touch with his family and share photos.
After serving in the Navy Reserve for eight years, Panko said he'd like to complete his 20 years of service, but he hopes more of it will be within the United States as an instructor so he can spend more time with his family.
Contact reporter Ross Farrow at email@example.com.