So, What’s Your Excuse?

Where were you? What If No One Showed Up to Your Funeral?

Contributor to Officer.com
(This article was originally published in Officer.com)

You should have been there. You owed it to them. It was the very least you could do.

POLICE WEEK 2008

It was as moving, as profound, as beautiful, and as incredible as any have ever been. The Candlelight Vigil is the emotional peak of the Week – maybe of my entire year. There were tens of thousands of cops and survivors there, but I didn’t see you and I wondered: why?

I was asked to speak to a national audience of seasoned veterans on Wednesday. There were some who still choked in tears when the issue of the Vigil came up. I shared what I had been taught in the academy with that prestigious group: we have two duties to the 18,271 officers whose names are etched in that Memorial.

First, we owe them our best. We must conduct ourselves in a way to never brings dishonor to them or the badge they wore as they gave their life.

Second, we must never forget.

I intend no disrespect for the officers from bygone years whose names were just added. However, my heart and my focus went out to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in 2007. I felt like I was attending the funeral for 181 of my brothers at one time.

BRINGING THIS INTO PERSPECTIVE

As active cops, our presence at the Vigil is important to many. It makes a great difference to the surviving family. The family of officers who directly suffered the loss will be affected in ways we hope never to know. Our presence bolsters all of the other cops who are there and reaffirms their faith in The Brotherhood. Maybe most of all, it reassures each of us and our decision to join the fight for what’s right.

This year, I traveled with a long time friend named Joe. It was Joe’s first time. It was my eighth. I saw the wonder in his eyes as this experience unfolded before him. I shared in his awe and tried to make the experience even better for him.

Prior to the Vigil, Joe and I were walking along the Wall, looking at the newly inscribed names and the mementos that had been left in their tribute. We came upon two females who seemed to be studying and poring over one name that was new.

We stopped and asked if they had lost someone who had been close. They both nodded as they choked back tears. Joe asked who he was to them. The first replied, “We worked together. He was my best friend.” The second followed, “He was my big brother. I miss him so.”

They told us of how this fine young officer had been taken out in a tragic event. His sister then talked about The Brotherhood. While he was alive, the family often felt cheated because they had to share their cop’s attention and love with his fellow officers. It was a part of his life that they somewhat resented and certainly didn’t understand.

On that day, in that place, at that time, they understood. They had no concept of what being part of The Brotherhood meant prior to his death. They do now. They told us how they felt surrounded, enveloped, and cared for by thousands of cops from everywhere. While the names of the cops weren’t known, their love and concern resonated deep within the souls of the family.

Now, they know. Now they realize why their brother / son had been drawn so tightly to this bond of our Brotherhood.

THE VIGIL – A MOMENT IN ETERNITY

I want to paint a word picture for you. It’s nearing dusk at the Memorial on the 13th of May. There is a large stage set for speakers and singers to use at one end. There is row after row of chairs neatly set, anticipating the arrival of the surviving family members. The grounds around are swarming with cops. Cops of every size. Cops of every shape, age and color. Uniforms, plain clothes, and honor guards are everywhere.

At the other end of the Memorial, hundreds of honor guard members from departments from everywhere stand at attention as the first of many buses arrive carrying the grieving family members of fallen officers. As the bus door opens, a family steps onto the walk and they are greeted by the honor guard from the agency where the fallen officer served. That family is escorted to a seat prepared just for them. It is done with the utmost love and respect for those who carry this awful burden.

One can witness family after family. Bus after bus is arriving and bringing those who mourn.

Joe nudged me. I looked up and see a small child – maybe 4 or 5 years old. He is walking just ahead of Mom. She is being escorted by the honor guard. That child is carrying the single rose that the guardsmen have given him. He walks proudly, but slowly, and with tears streaming down his face. He is looking around in total awe.

He is learning a lesson for which he’s much too young. He’s also learning a vital lesson, as well: The Brotherhood will never let that family stand alone. We will respect their fallen officer and always remember to honor what he (and his family) has given our great country.

But, I still wonder: where were you?

I guess that I must have missed your face in the crowd.
EXCUSES, EXCUSES

There are some who just couldn’t make it. A couple of years ago, I had to choose. My daughter’s graduation from college was in conflict with Police Week. I had to make a choice. I did. I chose to be with my daughter. It was the right choice. Yet, I missed being in D.C. terribly. Sometimes it just can’t be avoided.

Then there are the kinds of reasons that I hear most of the time:

My wife wants to go to (fill in the blank) on vacation and I just can’t go to D.C.
I forgot to put in for the time off at work.
I can’t afford it this year.
I’ve decided that I’d rather spend the time at the ocean this year. The list goes on.
Suppose, just suppose that your life was given in the line of duty next week, next month, or next year. God forbid it happens. But, let’s just suppose. How would you feel if everyone was “too busy” to pay their respects at your funeral? How would you feel if no one checked in on your family to make sure that they are OK? Would you expect the other cops in your life to find time for your family, or would their excuses of being too busy suffice?
Feeling guilty? I hope so. We can all find a few bucks to go for beer, to play cards, or other do stuff when we choose to. Do you realize that throwing $10 a week ($20 a pay) into your “locker fund” cup would produce enough cash for a trip to Police Week?
OK, if you live a long way off or will only stay in 4-star hotels, you’ll need a little more. What would you spend if your partner’s name were being added to the Wall next year? That’s what I thought. No amount would be too much.
Can’t get the time off? Come on. You want to go do D.C. for the Candlelight Vigil and the guys you work with can’t or won’t trade days or make it possible for you to go? Are you really trying to sell that one? I suggest you come up with a better story than that.

Joe and I decided that after we’d had a few barley pops at the FOP beer tent, we’d walk by the Memorial one last time before heading back to the hotel for the night. We bumped into a guy who’s a Fed. I forget the agency right now. The
y lost a guy last year and like us, our new friend wanted to stop by the Wall to see and touch that name once more before bed. He began to tell us the story, when tears began to flow.

We tried to bring him comfort. It was then that we learned that our new friend had lost his 18 year old son to suicide just a month before. What can anyone say to that? I didn’t know, either. We stood together. We talked. We smiled. We told stories. It was so very much like the experience one goes through during the visitation process at the funeral home when a loved one has died.

Just being together helps us to feel better. It’s therapeutic. It touches the soul. It gives us a few good memories to hang onto in an otherwise horrible time in our lives. You need to be there for those who need you.

I found this letter taped to the Wall this year. It was handwritten on loose-leaf notebook paper. I copied it down so that I could share it with you now.

Dear Daddy,

The past two years I have missed you so much! Sadly, there are many things in life that you missed.

But, I will cherish the months spent with me and I will never forget.
You loved the band, Rush, so much that you went to a concert and took me. You bought a tee shirt there and you loved to wear it.
On the last day you and I spent together, you wore that shirt. Now, every night, I sleep with it, thinking about you and how much I miss hearing your voice.

Every night you would tuck me in and say, “I love you baby, Goodnight.”

Daddy, there are so many things that I miss about you. The thing I miss the most is seeing you and hearing your voice.
You went to every soccer and baseball game I had. Now, I am on a swim team like you were in high school.
As I read this letter to myself, I cry. But, that’s OK. If I had one wish in life, I would wish that you had never died.

I love you and miss you. You will always be in my heart.
Love,Your Daughter, Lauren

That, my brothers, is why I go. It’s why you should go.
If you were there: Thank you.
If you were not: What’s your excuse? Where were you?
The Candlelight Vigil will happen on Wednesday, May 13, 2009. What will you do today to guarantee that you’ll be standing there next year?
We owe the fallen two things: conduct ourselves in a way that honors them and their service, and always remember them and what they did. Are you doing your part?
Your comments are always welcome. Click on my name below.

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Jim Donahue is a native of the Midwest, getting his education at Michigan State University. He is now training patrol officers on Technology & Tactics. He has responsibility for training cops around the country to use patrol car computers – safely. Jim has worked with police departments across the country on process improvement at the patrol car level, focusing on technology to improve tactics, safety, and productivity. He instructs in a variety of police academies and having taught “Technology and Tactics” to thousands of cops in-service nationally. He is an accomplished grant writer. Jim is a certified ILEETA member. Jim has worked as a reserve officer, initially with U.S. Customs & Immigration at the Detroit/Canada border in the year following the attacks of 9/11. He has also worked as a patrolman on the street in a suburban Detroit community. Contact Jim.

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