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Lakewood Ranch man retires after 41-year career in law enforcement

Army veteran Eric Onstad, a Country Club resident, worked in Customs and Immigration, U.S. Marshals Service, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

U.S. Army veteran Eric Onstad of Lakewood Ranch waves while riding in Lakewood Ranch's 2023 Tribute to Heroes Parade.
U.S. Army veteran Eric Onstad of Lakewood Ranch waves while riding in Lakewood Ranch's 2023 Tribute to Heroes Parade.
Photo by Jay Heater
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Through 41 years of law enforcement, Lakewood Ranch's Eric Onstad has several searing images that he can still see when he closes his eyes.

Onstad, who retired Aug. 13 as an ATF intelligence research specialist, talked about how his "days of adventure" included 26 years in the U.S. Army's military police.

It was 1994 when Onstad was deployed to Haiti during Operation Uphold Democracy. The military intervention had a goal of removing the military regime headed by General Joseph Raoul Cédras and reinstating exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

U.S. forces were trying to keep peace in an island country in anarchy.

"When we got to Haiti, the people there so wanted to have peace," Onstad said. "They wanted to get on with their lives and they wanted police who would protect them. They were hardworking, wonderful people who had been constantly getting shortchanged.

"But if there ever was an apocalypse, that was it. People in Port-au-Prince were being murdered in the street to the extent where they weren't picking up the bodies anymore."

It all led to what he called "the most ridiculous mission of my life."

Eric Onstad shows off the Bronze Star he earned for his service with the U.S. Army in Iraq.
Photo by Jay Heater

The country's instability had led to abject poverty. He said many people were living in cinderblock, mud houses that would collapse in heavy rains with the residents trapped inside.

Food was nearly impossible to obtain.

The mission for Onstad involved guarding the Army's trash trucks, and drivers who were going to the Port-au-Prince dumps.

"It was like we were guarding a gold shipment from Fort Knox," he said. "When people would see our trash trucks, they would go out of their minds, and would surround the truck."

The U.S. Army military police began surrounding the garbage trucks with barbed wire to keep people back.

"We would empty the truck and there would be a huge mound of trash," he said. "These people so badly wanted to get to that truck ... they were desperate. We would remove the barbed wire and blow a whistle, and they would hit that trash. I remember seeing this kid eating whatever he could find."

A different life

Onstad has quite a different environment these days. His wife, Monaca Onstad, is the owner of OnPlace — a community amenities and lifestyle planning business — and her duties cause her to fly around the country. Eric Onstad has traded in law enforcement for the title of house husband, watching their sons, 14-year-old Garrett and 2-year-old Alexander.

"This had been a balancing act since Alexander came (into the family)," said Onstad, a North Dakota native. "There was a lot of stress with two careers, and it was more cost effective for me to stay home. Right now, I am just building a foundation in terms of being a dad for our two sons. I am going to be there for my wife."

He said Monaca was there for him when he retired from the military in 2008.

"It's very difficult," he said of transitioning to public life. "You have to find your way. We were in San Jose (California) and I was going to be a stay-at-home fiancé for Monaca. She kept saying, 'Everything will be OK.'"

At night, Monaca Onstad would send her husband's resume to different law enforcement agencies that had openings. He landed a job with Customs and Immigration as an investigative assistant.

"I don't remember applying for that," he told his wife.

Of course, she had.

He went on to work for the  U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Call him house husband

Now he is doing the work that needs to be done around the house.

"He is finding his way, and he is so interested in our boys," Monaca Onstad said. "He is going to be just fine."

Monaca Onstad has nothing but respect for her husband's service in both the military and the law enforcement agencies.

"What strikes me the most is how much he cares about our country," she said. "He has taken such pride in it, knowing that he is helping. This always has been more than a job to him."

Monaca Onstad, who moved the family to Lakewood Ranch in 2017 after landing a job with Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, said all her husband's travels with the military makes him appreciate the U.S. even more. He concurs, and tells a story.

"I was in Baghdad, at the Green Zone, which was the U.S. Embassy area. I was sitting outside, having a coffee when two rockets came flying over head. I hit the ground. When I looked around, nobody else in the cafe area had blinked an eye."

Rockets had become part of everyday life.

Eric, Alexander, Garrett and Monaca Onstad are loving life in Lakewood Ranch. Eric just retired after a 41-year career in law enforcement.
Courtesy photo

It wasn't long after, though, when a 120mm rocket exploded near him and caused a traumatic brain injury.

"He doesn't compute things as fast as others," Monaca Onstad said. "But he gets there."

He said he takes the most pride in targeting criminals who were in the U.S. illegally.

"With Customs, I was with the Counter Gang Group," he said. "It was my job to identify those in the country illegally who were connected with criminal activity. We would do operations arresting those guys and we deported more than 150 criminal gang members."

Monaca Onstad remembers him telling Garrett as he would leave the house for work each morning, "Daddy's going to catch bad guys."



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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