"The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are as bold as a lion."
- Proverbs 28:1
It was probably the most difficult assignment they'd been given in their careers. They stood in the rain for hours to defend the honor and memory of their friends and colleagues. At midnight, the last two members of the honor guard came to attention. They saluted the memorial wreath and slowly marched away. In their path walked a lone piper, playing "Amazing Grace" to the names engraved on the wall, names that seem to run together in their urgency to be read. The last notes of the bagpipe clung to the misted branches of the trees that protect the wall. The silence that followed was fitting. Observers began to disperse when a lone police siren sounded in the distance.
Midnight May 15 was a somber time. The dismissal of the guard and removal of the wreath marked the official conclusion of the annual National Peace Officers' Memorial Week at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.
This was the first year I attended the services. I was there for my friends who had given everything they had in the service to their communities. Françoise and her partner Piet were killed in the line of duty in August 1999. Brad was killed in December 2000. Philippe died in March 2003.
But I was also there for officers I didn't know. I was there for the 16,000 US officers whose names are on the wall, for the hundreds of officers who died in the line of duty throughout the world last year, for the 20,000 officers who were in D.C. with me, and for all the police officers on duty everywhere in the world. I was there for all the fallen officers whose countries don’t honor them with a Memorial Wall and an annual Candlelight Vigil.
The Memorial is simple, similar in composition to the better-known Vietnam Memorial. It consists of two pathways guarded at each entrance by bronze sculptures of adult lions, one male and one female, protecting their cubs. The statues are not quite right. They imply the strength of a lion protecting its own, but police officers don't protect only their own. Police officers protect strangers, too, and people of different races and religions, and even people they despise. Police officers are lions protecting zebras, and mice, and even poachers.
I spent several hours at the wall. I met members of the foreign departments who traveled across an ocean to remember their comrades the way they should be remembered, amidst a sea of uniformed officers.
I found the names of local cousins who died in the line of duty. I found the name of a female officer who was killed the exact day that I raised my right hand and swore to protect and serve, no matter what the cost.
I left an insignia pin for a foreign officer who was overwhelmed by what he’d seen and heard during a long career on the streets. He killed himself on duty in the station house with his service weapon.
I spoke to a widow who was pregnant with their sixth child when her husband was ambushed and killed on patrol.
I hugged an officer who had responded with his partner to a 911 call. The female caller shot them both as they tried to wrestle her assailant from her home. He returned fire to save his own life, killing the woman before cradling his dying partner in his arms.
I met the mother of an officer who was killed by his friend with point-blank gunfire in a training accident.
I cried with the colleague of an officer who died on a dirty sidewalk before his murderer could perpetrate a final insult, shooting the dead officer through the badge.
Despite all the tragedy that brought people to Washington last week, there was plenty of camaraderie. The shared losses made instant friends of total strangers. Officers and civilian family members shared stories and advice that helped heal some gaping wounds. I made some new friends with a group of officers who invited me to their "hero toast." After dinner, we sat around the table taking turns toasting fallen friends. We laughed when one toast went awry, suggesting we drink a shot for a friend who'd been shot. The people at the next table might not have seen the humor but if they had ever been cops, or soldiers, or firefighters, they would know that everything is funny - because it has to be.
We can't all be heroes; some of us have to sit on the curb and clap as they go by. But we can all support our heroes. Imagine a day when all police officers are on vacation. It might not make too much of a difference in your small circle, in your small town, but society as a whole would crumble.
Some people think it's wrong to honor such a small group of people when so many ordinary people die every day. I argue that it's common to die for nothing. Those who die for something are heroes.
Françoise, Piet, Brad and Philippe, Rest in peace, your colleagues have the watch.
"In valor there is hope."
Jill Wragg is a retired police officer in Massachusetts. She can be reached at JKWragg@yahoo.com