As key leadership players were introduced during a recent Carr Fire press conference, there was a brief murmur among some local media at the mention of a familiar name.
“… Paoletti, in command of the California National Guard…”
Paoletti? Perhaps related to former Redding Police Chief, Robert Paoletti?
No, not related to. Rather, the Paoletti mentioned during the introductions was in fact the one and same former Redding Police Chief, 48-year-old Robert Paoletti.
Oh, the sweet irony, that the same man who was unceremoniously shown the door last year as Redding’s police chief was back, called upon to protect and serve his community during the Carr Fire, this time, not in the capacity as a civilian police chief, but a military commander.
In June of 2017, when Paoletti was abruptly asked to step down from his RPD police chief post, many surmised that the career-ending move was political, that Paoletti served as a convenient scapegoat during Redding’s leadership shakeup. His departure occurred during the short span between the May 2017 retirement of former Redding City Manager Kurt Starman, and one week after the hiring of Barry Tippen, the city’s current manager — just one month after Starman stepped down.
At the time, the official City explanation was that Paoletti “separated” from the City on June 13, 2017.
For his response, Paoletti took the high road with this public statement:
“It has been my honor to serve as the chief of police for this wonderful community. I am extremely proud of the Redding Police Department and will miss everyone dearly.”
Separated, departed, fired, dumped, canned. So many words that can each have the same meaning. Whatever word one uses to describe what happened at Redding City Hall in June of 2017, in the end, the fact remained that one day Paoletti was Redding’s police chief, and the next day he wasn’t.
That’s the past.
Today, Paoletti has more pressing things on his mind, such as commanding 600 National Guard soldiers and airmen brought to Shasta, Trinity and Lake counties, to help with not just Carr Fire, but also the Mendocino Complex fires.
This week I caught up with Paoletti in between his tour of various fire zones throughout those various counties. We talked about where he’s been, what’s he’s done since his RPD departure, and what’s he doing now, here in the north state.
Many people assumed Paoletti moved away after he lost his RPD job. That’s a mistaken assumption, because the truth is, Paoletti may have left his job, but he didn’t leave the north state, where he’d settled in, grown roots and developed friendships.
For work after he left RPD, Paoletti accepted a full-time position with the National Guard, an affiliation he’s had for nearly 30 years, part of which included two tours in Iraq with the California Army National Guard.
He is currently the commander of thousands of soldiers within the National Guard’s 49th Military Police Brigade, California’s only Army National Guard military police brigade. Headquartered in Fairfield, Calif., the 49th Military Police Brigade’s primary role is to provide defense support to civilian authorities (DSCA) statewide.
The 49th was officially reorganized in May 2005, and was immediately deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). During its OIF tour, the 49th trained the fledgling Iraqi Police force and maintained command and control over thousands of soldiers.
Here in California, Paoletti also commands California National Guard’s Counterdrug Task Force that supports federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies and community-based organizations in their efforts to counter the production, distribution and demand for illicit drugs.
But there’s more to the 49th Military Police Brigade than as a Counterdrug Task Force. It helps out in such natural disasters as floods, wildfires, earthquakes and mudslides. If it’s a significant disaster, and it’s in Calfornia, Paoletti and his soldiers are there to help.
Examples of how the 49th assists citizens in the northern part of California included response to the Oroville Dam crisis, the Santa Barbara mud slides, and fires in Siskiyou, Sonoma, Solano, Napa, Mendocino, Ventura and Lake counties.
When orders came for Paoletti to bring his 49th Military Police Brigade to Shasta County to offer assistance with the Carr Fire, things got personal. Initially, Paoletti felt panicked, because he was in the middle of graduating from the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvanian, and he couldn’t get home until the next day. He was anxious to get home, because the Carr Fire was in his home county of Shasta.
Plus, Paoletti knew that the Carr Fire was no ordinary fire. It was out of control, unpredictable and spreading fast. It needed containment. Paoletti knew that the citizens who lived in the path of the Carr Fire also needed his protection: whether it from the monster fire consuming subdivisions, or opportunistic looters stealing from evacuated neighborhoods.
For Paoletti, who’s commanded many missions overseas and on American soil, this time, as commander of the National Guard’s response to the Carr Fire, it was not just close to home – it was home, the place he, his wife and three children have been engaged community members since 2011, when Paoletti accepted RPD’s top leadership position.
“It’s more emotional for me to drive through and see the destruction,” he said. “I live here.”
Although there are National Guard soldiers who live in Shasta County, and who are — as Paoletti once was — weekend warriors, Paoletti selected California soldiers and airmen beyond Shasta County, hailing from places like Sacramento, the Bay Area and Southern California.
This was done intentionally, because Paoletti wanted soldiers who could give their full attention to the task at hand, free from the potential distractions and hardships of dealing with possibly evacuating themselves and/or their own families, or potentially losing their own homes.
For the duration of their mission, Paoletti’s National Guard soldiers are headquartered at the Shasta District Fairgrounds where they sleep in tents. Although Paoletti is primarily responsible for ground forces to help with the Carr Fire, he said the National Guard also has three aircraft, as well as helicopters standing by to assist in combating the Carr Fire.
According to Paoletti, the National Guard soldiers are here to do everything from manning road blocks and operating fork lifts, to assisting firefighters as part of the hand crews.
He recognizes that some residents were initially shocked – and even unsettled – by the presence of military vehicles and National Guard soldiers in uniforms. For many residents, their first encounter with National Guard soldiers was Sat., July 28, at check points, decked out in military uniforms, and driving Humvees and military trucks throughout the city and county.
Paoletti understands what an adjustment it can be for civilians to see a military presence on city streets, but he wants the public to remember that for 95-percent of his soldiers, the National Guard is a part-time job, and the majority of their lives are as civilians. Paoletti emphasized that volunteering with the National Guard is something they’ve stepped up to do as a way to serve their country. Their commitment means being away from their homes, families and jobs.
“Remember these are citizen soldiers, and we’re here to help,” Paoletti said. “The troops are here to assist the Sheriff and RPD and CHP. If we take care of a roadblock, for example, that frees up other law enforcement to deal with other things, like looting.”
For Paoletti, although he remained as a Shasta County resident after he left the RPD, being deployed to the Carr Fire with his National Guard Brigade put him in a delicate situation he never anticipated: direct contact with many law enforcement personnel he knew from his days as Redding’s police chief, barely one year ago.
However, in this capacity, he’s not Redding’s police chief, but commander of hundreds of National Guard soldiers working alongside Redding police officers and California Highway Patrol and Shasta County Sheriff deputies.
“I’m getting hugs from cops, and a lot of citizens, too, and text messages,” he said. “This is a new role for me.”
Meanwhile, Paoletti’s mission is to command his National Guard soldiers as they do whatever’s required of them to assist with the Carr Fire disaster. Paoletti knows these are trying times for everyone, and he asks for people to be patient with his soldiers, and remember they’re following orders; doing the best they can under extreme emotional and physical conditions.
He is grateful to those who’ve shown acts of kindness to his soldiers, whether it’s making and displaying handmade signs with uplifting messages, or honking horns, or giving thumbs up, waves and smiles, or, yes, bringing food, like donuts to where soldiers stand guard at road blocks.
“But not too much,” said Paoletti with a laugh. “They still have to fit into their uniforms, and they have to pass their PT tests. They can’t get too fat.”
Meanwhile, Paoletti is like many north state people, dealing with making the most of life, despite the destruction of the Carr Fire.
“It is a little bit different when it’s your community, but the mission is the same,” he said. “We’re here to help, and we’ll stay until we’re not needed.”
That’s Commander Robert Paoletti talking.
But private citizen Paoletti reacts to the Carr Fire similar to any other north-state resident. That’s why, like others whose homes are not in danger, Paoletti’s wife opened their Palo Cedro doors to 10 friends who were evacuees, fleeing the Carr Fire.
There, in his home, Paoletti played another role, far different from that as a military commander. That’s where he’s a husband, father of three, and friend to many, including those in the law-enforcement community.
“Everyone is making the best of it,” he said of his home’s current situation with multiple house guests sharing the Paoletti home as a result of the Carr Fire.
“We have trailers parked on our property, and friends staying in spare rooms,” he said. “I’m doing a lot of Italian cooking, which I like.”
Ask his specialty, and he’s not bashful about boasting.
“You name it,” he said with a laugh.
Joking aside, what’s next for Paoletti, after the Carr Fire has released him from military duty here in his north state he still calls home?
“I’ve been a soldier for 28 years,” he said. “I’m really enjoying active duty, and doing things I couldn’t do before. I’m looking forward to seeing where the rest of my military career takes me.”