How Navy brat is helping the Naval War College
By NICK WALDEN / Rohnert Park Correspondent
Herlinda Heras was in New York City last year when she happened across a group of men in uniform touring Ground Zero and began chatting with Commander Bill Ellis.
He turned out to be a Santa Rosa native working with the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He invited her to join the group’s VIP tour of the 9/11 memorial, and before they parted ways Heras had offered to host the students on a tour of Sonoma County.
It went so well she is hosting a second group this week, naval officers from countries like Canada, Finland, Bulgaria, Oman, Afghanistan and Taiwan who are enrolled in the War College’s Field Studies Program. They come from nations throughout the world to learn how the United States functions and to help develop global maritime partnerships.
In Sonoma County, they will meet representatives from the Santa Rosa Fire Department, the CHP, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Fish and Game. The goal is teaching them ways to improve their countries’ peacekeeping methods.
Lunch will be provided by Guy Fieri’s Johnny Garlic’s restaurant, and participants will tour the demonstration vineyards at Kunde Estate Vineyards in Kenwood.
“We plan on demonstrating how law enforcement in the U.S. support one another,” said Lt. Jeff Rhea, Field Operations Officer for the CHP and a retired Marine reservist. “We will also discuss how crimes initiated in the U.S. may pass through the waters these naval officers may patrol and highlight our mutual interest in combating transnational criminal enterprises.”
For those who know Heras, this story isn’t surprising. She makes friends easily and is comfortable with the armed forces. Her father is retired Chief Petty Officer Eloy Heras, and frequent moves helped her develop the ability to easily interact with strangers.
Helping out and organizing is nothing new to Heras, 47. She is an insurance agent with New York life as well as a founding member of the Rancho-Cotati Rotary, an active member of the Rohnert Park Chamber of Commerce, and raises money for the local YWCA Domestic Violence Services through the Wine, Women and Cheese fundraiser.
In October 2012, Heras welcomed War College students from 38 countries with ranks equivalent to lieutenant colonel.
They spent time with the California Highway Patrol, learned about sustainable farming at the Davis Family Winery in Healdsburg and enjoyed a locally catered meal.
Heras started the planning process by contacting friends. Lt. Rhea was designated project manager for the group’s hour-long CHP visit. Friends Duskie Estes and John Stewart of Zazu Restaurant were tapped to cater lunch at Davis Family Winery, where Guy Davis talked about sustainability practices along the Russian River Watershed.
The CHP visit was valuable for both the students and the staff, said Rhea. “As career military officers, they are well educated, tend to be well traveled, and they ask very intelligent questions. The students were genuinely interested in our functions and our capabilities. Our officers also found the engagement enlightening. Most of us will never go to the places these officers live, so this contact is in many cases a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
With the success of the first tour in October, Heras gladly offered to help the college with another tour over the weekend.
“We rarely use civilians outside of the Department of Defense,” said Capt. Mark Turner of the War College, “but Herlinda’s infectious personality, attention to detail, understanding of the military and phenomenal networking skills made her one of the best decisions in support of the college objectives made in a long time. We attempt to give these international officers not just a flavor of the area but the people as well.
“You could not ask for a better ambassador then Herlinda. The students adored her, and many still stay in touch with her till this day. She has been truly exceptional.”
When asked why she is willing to devote so much time and energy to organize these events for free, Heras said simply, “I’m a Navy brat. I helped because of my love for my dad.
“It was also very rewarding to see these friendships and relationships develop between the officers as they learned to see each other as humans, even if their countries are in a state of near war.
“That gives you hope for the future.”