This Pastor Packs a Punch

Now that Tom Iannucci is no longer involved with the police commission, he has even more time to devote to teaching Kaua'i youths martial arts through his Breath of Life church, which by the way is looking for a larger home. Amanda C. Gregg photo

 

Just call him Pastor Tom now that he’s retired as head of the police commission, and looking to grow his ministry

He’s not your typical ex-special ops Marine, and certainly not your typical pastor. In fact, Tom Iannucci, most recently chairman of the Kaua’i Police Commission his term ended last month is a contradiction of terms. The man who was carrying rocket-propelled grenades in Beirut in the 1980s is still out to fight for what’s right in the world, though now it’s with God in mind.

“I was in a lot of trouble as a Marine,” Iannucci says. “It’s a long story, but the short version is: I saw where I was heading, and that was dead or in jail. I was drinking heavily, fighting, and I knew I needed to get right with God.”

Not your typical, “I found God” story, in which a less-than-law-abiding citizen finds oneself, Iannucci says his epiphany came following a knife fight one night while on tour in Tokyo.

“I didn’t get stabbed it was in an international bar we weren’t supposed to be as Marines. It was off limits, after curfew, and I was out-of-control drunk,” he says. Part of an elite sector of the Marines who should have been acting with diplomacy and respect, Iannucci says it finally occurred to him that he shouldn’t have been “partying my face off and fighting in a bar in a country that was so peaceful.” So he prayed to God for a wife.

“I believed in God, but I didn’t know why I wouldn’t serve God,” he says. “I summed it up to what I really wanted in life was a wife. So I prayed for one.”

Pastor Tom Iannucci. Amanda C. Gregg photo

Iannucci says it was four days later that he spotted his wife, D’Lissa, among a gaggle of wahine visiting from Hawaii.

“I fell in love with her the day I saw her,” he says of his wife, who was a 24year-old model and at the time TV co-host on the show Do! Sports, in Japan, where she would do everything from karate and parasailing to motocross and skiing.

“She was real famous in Japan,” he says. “I don’t know how she wound up with me, but I’m not gonna complain. I did good. I don’t know how good she did, but I did.”

Iannucci says the couple of 25 years and parents of three children, Emily 15, Dondi, 17, and Thomas 19 has been a team since the beginning. “We went out on a date and I just knew,” he says. “Through a process of time, we did go to church and became Christians, and I realized I had been spending life leading people into sin. At that time, I knew I wanted to be a pastor or leader in a church, so that’s the path I began to pursue. But anything and everything is nothing without my wife.”

The Iannucci ohana in Times Square (from left): Emily, 15; Thomas, 19; D’Lissa, and Dondi, 17. Photo from Tom Iannucci

Laughing while calling himself an “island boy,” (he’s from Long Island, though he has lived on Kaua’i for 23 years longer than anywhere else) the ‘Ele’ele resident and senior pastor at Breath of Life Christian Ministries is also a certified black belt and co-founder of the Christian Martial Arts Academy on Kaua’i, a free, nonprofit martial arts program that teaches Kajukenbo as part of his youth program, IMPACT. The program currently serves about 40 youths, and is made up of “musicians, surfers, bookworms, all different types,” Iannucci says. “They’re hip.” The program doubles as an antidrug effort of sorts, as it offers an alternative to youths who might otherwise be getting into trouble.

Recognizing the impact Iannucci was making in the lives of both youths and adults, former Mayor Bryan Baptiste reached out to Iannucci during a particularly contentious time in the history of the Kaua’i Police Department, and asked him to be a commissioner. At the time, KPD was mired in scandal, some rumor-based and some based in fact, and the county was in dire need of a straight-shooter with a fresh perspective on the commission.

Iannucci (center) in Beirut with fellow Marines

“(Baptiste) knew my background and knew I was a pastor, and he wanted a balance someone who had experience in law enforcement and integrity,” Iannucci says. “He didn’t sugarcoat it. He said, ‘There are issues and problems. I need someone I can trust in there who is going to do the right things,'” he says. Despite his attempt not to sugarcoat, Baptiste understated the problems initially for Iannucci, and after six months, he quit the post. “I saw how bad the problems were and I resigned,” he says. “I asked a lot of questions, and I felt that a lot of the response I got was, ‘You’re the new guy, this is how it is.’ It was frustrating. Bottom line, I wasn’t ready.”

Iannucci then returned to become the longest serving commissioner. Following the departure of then-commissioner Mike Ching, Iannucci went on to serve six-and-a-half years, spanning two mayors and one interim mayor, and two police chiefs and one interim chief.

“I remember Rep. Jimmy Tokioka said, ‘I’m glad you’re back, but are you going to stick it out?’ That was something for me; that drove it home. But this time around, I was much better prepared.”

Police Chief Darryl Perry, who was appointed after Iannucci came on board, says, “Through it all, Commissioner Iannucci held steadfast in his belief that we could grow and learn from this turmoil by making positive changes.”

It was love at first sight when Iannucci met wife D’Lissa

As for being the newbie on the commission, Iannucci got certified as a parliamentarian so he’d know exactly how to get to speak and ask questions, he says.

“There was a lot I wanted to know.”

Not that Iannucci was someone who was easily bullied, or someone who lacked choice words. The published author of Beirut: God’s Boot Camp and multiple magazine articles has been known to have somewhat of a sharp tongue, perhaps an attribute one gets from living in a war zone.

Having served as a Marine at the United States’ largest embassy in Tokyo from 1986 to ’87, and later as an embassy Marine at one of the country’s most hostile embassies at the time, in Beirut, Lebanon which had been bombed and attacked three times before his arrival Iannucci says next to becoming a Christian, the Marine Corps was the defining element in his life. Following his time in Beirut, Iannucci served in Rabat in the kingdom of Morocco, ending his tour working with the King’s sister, Princess Lalla Amina. Iannucci also cofounded the Marine Corps League on Kaua’i and was a charter member as its sergeant at arms.

Of his experience as a Marine, Iannucci says it was his time in Beirut that had the most impact.

At the gym where Breath of Life offers free martial arts training to island youths. Amanda C. Gregg photo

“Everybody was dying over there, and I was a fat, spoiled American guy who complained if the drive to McDonald’s took more than 10 minutes, whining when these people were lucky to get food that day,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I’ve always tried to serve and give back, and appreciate where I live.

That set me on the course to want to help people. It was violence so extreme, life has no value anymore.” Iannucci says during that time he was inspired to see others giving of themselves. “I remember going to Mother Theresa’s orphanage, and these young girls were 21and 22-year-olds taking care of abandoned babies, or babies whose parents were killed, and they were in the hot zone. Here I was supposed to be tough, and I felt so weak compared to these girls who gave up their lives to help little babies. I had to rely on God every day for my life, and it changed my perspective.”

Making sure to keep it all in perspective is part of the reason Iannucci took his family to Japan in October, following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disasters, he says. “I wanted them to go work and go see the devastation it’s horrible. It looks like a dump pile.” The family spent a week in Ishinomaki, and in December Iannucci went back with a small team from his church. “We hope to return in April,” he adds.

Tsunami damage in Japan. Photos from Tom Iannucci

Up next for Iannucci is finding a new location for his church, which he hopes he can double as a shelter, thereby helping ensure Kaua’i is better prepared in the event of an on-island disaster.

“When we were looking for a new location (for the church), God was kind of speaking to me and we came up with the idea of looking into a shelter, and started researching shelter designs,” he says.

 

In addition to spending more time with family, running his church and finding a new location, Iannucci plans to finalize a few books he has had on the back burner, which includes A Proverb a Day, based on a radio spot he does on several island stations.

That, and he’s going to make a point to get out and surf Pakalas.

“That’s my stress release,” he says of surfing. “My time to get out and do something for myself.”

Amen to that.

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