Deputy, Pierce County (WA) Sheriff’s Department
I could tell you a story about what it is like to be a member of a Police or Sheriff’s Honor Guard that would put images in your head of police officers marching in parades, the presenting of the nation’s flag for an official ceremony, or greeting the public as an ambassador from our agency (all this I have done before). But this story I’m about to tell you isn’t going to be as cheery, though it is very much an important part of being and representing our department as an Honor Guardsmen.
I have been a member of my department’s Honor Guard for 12 years. And when I first signed up for this additional duty assignment, I was looking forward to doing the details I had seen other Honor Guardsmen doing, what I like to call the “Mayberry” assignments (as in the old TV show “The Andy Griffith Show”). They were the happy, make the public smile about law enforcement things. Whether it was marching in the local parades with the Nation’s and State’s flag flying, or being the backdrop for public events where the mayor or the state governor is giving a speech.
But being in the Honor Guard, I found out, is so much more. I had been to a few memorials and funerals for Deputies that had passed on from old age after they had retired. These types of services I knew I would be performing. As an Honor Guard we met up every other month for a day of training and practiced how to properly fold a casket flag, how to march, salute and how to conduct a 21-gun salute using blank ammunition. And when it came time to render Honors, we did it well, without a hiccup. But when it came to Line of Duty Deaths, that was something different.
I can still remember attending my first Line of Duty Death memorial service. It was for Deputy Steven Cox from the King County Sheriff’s Department (WA). On December 2nd, 2006, Deputy Cox was investigating a shooting in an area south of the Seattle city limits where an individual had been shot and killed. Deputy Cox was with other officers at a house nearby when he started interviewing a suspect that might be involved with the murder. As Deputy Cox talked with this individual, the suspect pulled out a gun and shot Deputy Cox in the head. The other Deputies returned fire as the suspect retreated to a back bedroom, where the suspect then took his own life.
About five days after this senseless act occurred, I was assigned as a representative of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department to attend and render Honors in my Honor Guard Uniform. As this was my first Line of Duty Death service, I did not know what to expect. All of the Honor Guard members from around the State had gathered at a local “mega” church at 700 a.m. to get assignments and to practice our details before the 1 p.m. service. Sounds simple, I can do simple… I was assigned the basic function of standing in the isle of the church, along with several other officers, as a member of the “cordon.” We were there to line the isle and salute when the family and coworkers enter the church and have a seat in the front pew. Easy, right? That is when I found out that learning protocol and being able to salute at the same time as the other Honor Guardsmen was the easy part. The hard part was being able to stand stoic and not show any emotion. Even when standing right next to me is a salty senior King County Sergeant that is crying as taps and Amazing Grace is played. Then comes the last radio call. I was not prepared for that. Calling out Deputy Cox’s unit number over the police radio with no one there to respond. Not once, but twice, and then followed with the dispatcher’s broken voice saying, “Deputy Cox, out of service… Gone but not forgotten.” It’s been over ten years since that service, and I have been to many since, but I remember this one well.
As time went by, and this may sound insensitive but it’s an integral part of working in Law Enforcement, I was able to put up my “Wall” and block out many of my emotions during these services. And as the years went by I attended many memorials for Line of Duty Deaths from Washington State along with a few in Oregon and Idaho. Each one was hard to attend, but I knew I was doing my duty and in some small way helping the family and their department get through a tough time. It wasn’t until our neighboring police departments and our own department suffered SIX Line of Duty Deaths within a two-month period that I was taken to the edge of my duties as an Honor Guardsman, and my new-found devotion to remembering our fallen.
On October 31st, 2009, Officer Timothy Brenton from the Seattle Police Department was on duty with a student officer. As they were going over the traffic stop they just performed, a Datsun 210 pulled up next to the patrol car where the driver fired several rounds from an AR-15 striking and killing Officer Brenton, but thankfully missing his student officer. When I went to Key Arena in Seattle for the memorial service 5 days later, they had not yet captured and arrested Officer Brenton’s murderer. As I stood outside the arena in a cordon waiting for the Brenton family to exit at the end of the memorial service, all of the Honor Guard noticed something was happening. There was a lot of squawk on the police radio, but we could not hear as we were all standing at parade rest and unable to move. Then the news helicopters above suddenly flew off into the distance. This was the first time I really took into consideration that I might have to use my Honor Guard sidearm and did a “what if” scenario, not knowing what was going on and knowing the suspect was still on the loose. Come to find out, at that exact moment, officers were arresting the killer of Officer Brenton, having to fire on him as he reached for his gun, but taking him into custody none the less. That was something I had not dealt with yet as an Honor Guardsmen. But it was nothing to what happened less than a month later.
The folding of the flag over the casket of a fallen Deputy.
On November 29th, 2009, four Lakewood Police Officers (Lakewood is a small city inside of Pierce County, Washington) were meeting at a local coffee shop at 8 a.m. to go over their activities for the day. An individual (I will just call the suspect as I do not want to use his name) walked into the coffee shop having predetermined that he was going to find some Law Enforcement officers and kill them. The result was that all four of the Lakewood Officers were killed in the Line of Duty and the suspect would later be confronted by a Seattle Police Officer and killed when the suspect tried to pull a gun from his pocket that belonged to one of the Lakewood Police Officers. When I heard of this shooting, it sent shock waves throughout the community. The Lakewood Police Department was, by that time, a five-year-old department. They had their own Honor Guard, but with them losing four officers, and it being a smaller department, they asked our Honor Guard to take the lead. From that point on until the memorial service a week later, I worked Casket Watch at a local funeral home watching over these four officers. This was something I had never done, and the emotions I witnessed that week, I never wanted to see again. It was tough. I was in my Sheriff’s Department Honor Guard uniform, ready to assist individuals that came to view the “Lakewood Four”. They were all open casket and it was my job to escort the family and the coworkers to the viewing rooms so they could pay their respects. I again stood firm and gave comfort when needed, but it was the hardest thing I ever had to do. When you see these fallen officers’ coworkers go into the room and fall to the floor in grief…. what do I do? Of course, I knelt next to them and comforted them the best I could, but even that was not the hardest thing I would have to do while doing casket watch.
On one of the days before the memorial service was going to happen, a mother and the sister of one of the fallen officers came in. I, of course, escorted them to the viewing room and closed the door, standing watch at the door so they could say their goodbyes with their family member. After a while, the sister left and the mother stayed longer in the room. After a while longer, the mother came out. I asked her if there was anything I could do for her. She thanked me for being there and watching over her daughter and I said it was my duty. She then told me how she was thankful she was able to say her goodbyes, and spent time with her daughter. But she said there was one thing she could not do that she so desperately wanted to do for her daughter and asked if I could help. I told her of course, what was it? ……. She told me she wanted to hug her daughter, but knew it was impossible because she was lying in a casket, so she wanted to know she could give me the hug that she wanted to give her daughter. I didn’t say a word and removed my Honor Guard cover (hat) so I could do the one thing to this day was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my 16 years… give a hug to a fallen officer’s mother. I don’t know how long that hug lasted, but I do know it was one of the few times I have cried in my Honor Guard uniform.
On December 8th, Honor Guard members, and Police Officers from around the country and Canada showed up to fill 20,000 seats of the Tacoma Dome for the memorial service. After we were done and the last radio call went out, I was running on empty. It had been a tough couple of weeks. But I wasn’t done yet and I would have to put on my Honor Guard uniform one more time before the New Year rang in.
On December 21st, just two weeks after the Lakewood Memorial, Pierce County Deputy Kent Mundell, along with Sergeant Hausner responded to a domestic dispute in the outskirts of the county. Two brothers had been arguing and one wanted the other removed from his home. When the two Deputies responded they found that both were drunk and still arguing. Deputy Mundell convinced the one brother to leave so he could cool off. But before he left he went upstairs to gather his belongings. When that brother returned, he had a handgun hidden in his clothing and started firing at both deputies. Both Deputy Mundell and Sergeant Hausner were hit by the gunfire, but Deputy Mundell was able to return fire, killing the suspect. Both Deputies were taken to the hospital, but Deputy Mundell had the most severe injury, never regaining conscious and passing away on December 28th. Sergeant Hausner recovered from his injuries and remains on the force today. When I heard the news (I was off duty) on the local news radio channel, I started hitting my dashboard with the bottom of my closed fist. It seemed that the world was targeting all Law Enforcement and this would never end. I was beyond drained, but I knew what needed to be done, and I got my Honor Guard gear ready. We drove up to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where Deputy Mundell spent the last few days of his life. On the way back, as we escorted him in the back of a fire aid car, the State Patrol closed down Interstate 5 and escorted the aid car along with a line of Sheriff’s patrol cars all the way to the same funeral home we were at just a few weeks before. Their again I did casket watch until the Memorial service, and watched as my Sheriff seemed to age before my eyes as he dealt with the grief he could see in his Deputies and the Mundell family. It was at the end of that service that I could see that doing my duty as an Honor Guard member was an important part of healing process.
It’s not that I have some magical powers to make people feel better, but more so I knew that by having all the Honor Guardsmen standing strong and stoic, we were in some small way helping show the public, my coworkers and most importantly the family of the fallen officer that Law Enforcement will continue to stand strong for them in the face of tragedy and we will continue to support them in their time of need. I later talked to a Survivor (what we call the widow or widower) of a fallen officer about what she remembers of the memorial service, and what she said helped instill in me how important the Honor Guard is to be present at these services. She told me that everything turns into a blur, with people there to help her during this time by taking her places and make the arrangements that need to be made. But in that blur during the service she can remember seeing all the Honor Guardsmen standing on each side of the isle as she was escorted to her seat. She said she cannot remember faces, or what departments the Honor Guards were from, but just that there were so many, and in that it gave her comfort during that time. She knew she was surrounded by so many members of Honor Guard that she was with family. We were her family. And that is why I continue to be a member of my department’s Honor Guard over other duty assignments I could do. And I now talk about my experience at Washington State’s yearly Regional Honor Guard training where I am an instructor to help other who choose to put on an Honor Guard uniform how important an Honor Guard is.