My View: Windermere mayor reflects on trip to honor fallen officers
Editor’s note: Windermere Mayor Gary Bruhn, representatives of the Windermere Police Department and family members of Officer Robert G. German attended National Police Week 2015 from May 11 to 16, in Washington, D.C. They were there to honor the life and memory of officer German, who was killed in the line of duty March 22, 2014. German’s name was added to the memorial this year. What follows is Bruhn’s account of the trip.
It’s something you hope you never have to attend, but it’s something that everyone should attend. It’s an honor no one wants bestowed upon them, and it’s an honor that comes at the highest cost. It is the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial Service and the addition of an officer’s name. And every year, family and friends, co-workers and fellow law enforcement officers gather in Washington, D.C., to remember and honor those law enforcement officers who made the ultimate sacrifice and were killed in the line of duty.
This year, some of Windermere’s elected officials, staff and officers joined the German family to honor and remember their son, who made the ultimate sacrifice March 22, 2014.
I decided to chronicle the events and the emotions that accompanied our trips to Tallahassee, the Orange County Memorial Service and the events of the week of May 11, when 131 law-enforcement officers’ names were added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in our nation’s capital.
THE FLORIDA LAW ENFORCEMENT MEMORIAL SERVICE
A week before our trip to Washington, many of us made the trek to Tallahassee, where we would join other family members, friends and co-workers as we recognized and remembered Florida’s fallen officers. We were joined by the widow and three children of Orange County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Scott Pine. You will recall that Windermere Officer Robert German had been shot and killed only six weeks after Pine was killed — and less than a mile away from where he had lost his life.
We traveled Sunday so we could attend the barbecue in the park that evening. Then around dusk, we gathered at the Capitol square. As darkness fell, the bagpipes played, the lights of the police vehicles and motorcycles were turned on, and everyone lit their candles.
The next morning, we gathered again many blocks away to begin the march to the Tallahassee Capitol. A motorcade of motorcycles led the procession under the huge American flag flying from the twin hook-and-ladder trucks. Bagpipers and drummers followed the hundreds of family members, friends and co-workers who marched to the square. Once we arrived, we were seated and joined by law officers from across the state. Our own Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings delivered the keynote speech, and I thought his message was one everyone should hear. He was concerned that with all of the recent media attention and scrutiny of officers, they may be hesitant to make the split second decisions that they are required to make that keep them, and those that they protect, safe.
And then the names of the seven officers who were killed in 2014 were called out one by one as their families came to the Capitol steps and placed a rose on the Florida Law Enforcement Memorial Wreath. As they approached the wreath, they would announce, “My son,” “My daughter,” “My husband,” “My daddy” or “My brother.”
It was a very heartbreaking moment.
THE ORANGE COUNTY LAW ENFORCEMENT MEMORIAL
Four days later, on May 7, we once again gathered to honor Orange County’s law-enforcement officers who made the ultimate sacrifice. We gathered at the Orange County Courthouse and for those who wish, you can catch a bus to take you where we will once again march in solemn procession, led by a motorcycle motorcade and bagpipes and drums. Again a huge American flag blew in the breeze as we entered the Courthouse Plaza.
Every year, I grow more and more amazed that there never seems to be a year — not a single year — that we don’t lose an officer in Orange County. Last year, we lost two — German and Pine. If you have never attended one of these events, you should do so at least once in your life.
This was my 12th.
Every year, I would tell the sheriff how fortunate I was to not have one of our officer’s names on that memorial. That ended last year.
Every municipal police agency is represented, as well as other agencies, such as the University of Central Florida, which lost an officer 10 years ago, and the U.S. Marshals and the U.S Secret Service. One by one, they pay their respects.
Perhaps one of the most solemn moments is near the end, when a dispatcher announces via a radio message to all officers on duty and those of us in attendance: “Attention all personnel.” She announced that today is the day we honor our fallen officers and she asks for a moment of silence. The radio transmission goes silent and then after about 15 seconds, she goes back on line and the world of emergency calls and requests for back-up return.
NATIONAL LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS LAW MEMORIAL SERVICE
At the start of the week of May 11, families of officers killed in the line of duty started to arrive in Washington, D.C. I have been there a number of times when they arrive, and it is always a solemn and tear-filled moment. Honor guards lined the airport waiting areas as they exited the plane. Officers stood at attention and saluted the family members in a long line as they pass by. The families always start to cry, as do a lot of the people just waiting to board their plane. People clapped and honored them. Some of our officers were assigned to this duty on May 14, and they admit it was a tough day. It’s not only physically demanding, but also it is emotionally draining.
But then something special happened on that day that they were serving as honor guards. The remains of Vietnam veteran Master Sgt. James Holt were returned to America after 47 years. And his flag-draped casket arrived on the tarmac accompanied by a military honor guard and soon, through text messages and cell phone calls, a whole squad of police officers joined the procession to welcome him back home. And if you watched CBS News that evening, you would have seen our officers. You can still see it at cbsnews.com/news/remains-of-vietnam-war-veteran-receives-special-salute.
The candlelight vigil was the first formal gathering of everyone Wednesday night. Thousands of people were there covering the area. Law-enforcement officers formed a line as family members entered the area. Everyone left a memento or something they felt was of meaning to their fellow officer. All of us wore medallions of Robbie’s photo attached by a blue ribbons around our necks for all of the events, and one of these was placed next to his name on the National Law Enforcement Officers’ Memorial.
Wreaths surrounded the memorial, and when the event began, there was total silence. The keynote speaker was newly appointed Attorney General Loretta Lynch. One of the most poignant moments came at the end of the event, when “Amazing Grace” was performed on the bagpipes and an intense blue laser shot skyward to create “a thin blue line.”
Thursday allowed us to mingle with other family members, co-workers and friends of officers who had been killed. We attended grief seminars, and some of our staff and I joined one with officers from Charleston, South Carolina; Scottsdale, Arizona; and Phoenix, Arizona. It was a difficult two hours as each person talked about the circumstances surrounding their friend and fellow officer’s death.
It didn’t take long to realize many of these officers will be forever changed because of a single moment in their lives. When it came time for me to speak, I talked about how the death of Robbie immediately after Pine affected not only our town but also the entire area. There was always a presumption that nothing like that could ever happen here.
The psychologists spoke about this being a common belief among all law-enforcement officers: “It’s something that never happens to me and my fellow officers. It’s always someone else.”
I also had the opportunity to meet and talk to a lot of the family members. Some had been coming to this event for a number of years. I shared with them how draining these last two weeks had been for me and asked if they planned to come every year.
“I don’t know how you do it,” I told them.
But for them, it seemed to be some kind of a requirement to be here. It seemed to keep their loved one’s memory alive, and it ensured they had not died in vain. And they were always so open. I was always afraid to ask many questions, but many of them wanted to tell me the details. They wanted to share their personal challenges and the stories of their loved ones. It was like it relieved them and released a burden they always carried.
I met Mario Jenkins’ father and then later his mother one evening. We had become friends before I knew who his son was and then when he told me, I was suddenly silenced with a lump in my throat. I remembered the circumstances well. His son was a UCF officer working undercover at the Citrus Bowl. He stunned me when he told me it had been 10 years.
I met Deputy Barbara Pill’s husband a number of times before he told me of his wife. Pill was shot and killed by a 24-year-old man in a routine traffic stop in Brevard County just two years ago, because the man did not want to go back to prison. He received the death penalty.
He paused and looked at me and said, “Mayor, they are all senseless tragedies.”
I just nodded my head in agreement.
Thursday evening, we were told that we would need to be on the bus by 7 a.m. Friday to be taken to the lawn of the Capitol.
“But the event starts at 11 a.m., right?” I asked.
Yes, I am told. But the president will be speaking, and you will need to go through different levels of security. I was not aware of this until that moment.
The next morning, we were escorted by a police motorcade to the Capitol, and we were the first to arrive at 7:30 a.m. We stood in line for 45 minutes, and we watched bus after bus arrive, all escorted by a police motorcade.
As I stood there, I said, “I bet a lot of people are going to be late for work today,” to no one in particular.
Someone responded: “It’s D.C. and Friday. It probably happens all the time.”
At 8:15, they announced the area had been “scrubbed,” and we were allowed to start entering. Security was high, obviously, and I was one of the first to enter. I moved as close to the front as we could and motioned for the rest of our party to follow. We had great seats. All we had to do now was wait two-and-one-half hours for the event to start.
When we arrived in D.C. on Wednesday, the high had been 69 degrees. Not so today. It was in the 80s and not a cloud in sight, making for a toasty midday, and sitting in the sun wearing black suits and black uniforms amplified the temperature.
The president spoke and concluded around noon. He spoke about the sacrifice of the officers and the burden carried by the families. And then he left the stage and took time to try to meet some of the families in the audience. As you can imagine, many people moved to the front, and some of us took the time to grab a bottle of water and move into the shade for a bit.
The service started back up at 12:25 p.m., and now, one by one, family members accompanied by their police escort moved to the stage area and placed a rose on the National Law Enforcement Memorial Wreath. At the conclusion, this wreath would be taken by processional back to the National Law Enforcement Officers’ Memorial.
It was overwhelming. One-hundred-thirty-one names were called out, and mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters slowly walked to the front of the stage. Partners and squad members of the fallen officers usually attend these events, and I was taken aback that there were 58 law officers from the Los Angeles Police Department and Orange County, California, in attendance. Then I reviewed the program and realized that California had lost 14 officers. Fourteen in one year! I pretty well assumed that many of them were from Los Angeles and San Francisco. When I made that observation, someone beside me asked, “And you didn’t hear much about that, did you?”
The names are called out in alphabetical order by both state and name. When each state was called out, everyone from that state stood to honor their fallen. Thirty-eight states lost officers, along with six officers in Puerto Rico and 12 federal law officers. After California with 14, Texas and New York each lost 10. It was troubling to see so many lives impacted from senseless violence.
At 2 p.m., the service concluded. It had been another moving day. I was glad I attended, but I was also glad it was over. I think each of you can understand the bittersweet closure that this brought. We watched German’s family walk with our chief, and we watched Pine’s widow and children walk with Demings.
We concluded the day with a visit to the U.S. Capitol. Windermere Town Council member Jim O’Brien had contacted U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster’s office, and he arranged to give us a tour. Many of us had been there before, but just as many had never stepped inside our Capitol. We were led by a young woman who had grown up in Windermere, so it made the tour just a little more personal. A highlight for me was when we entered the rotunda under the dome and some of the children looked up and asked me, “Where are we?”
I had taken a photo of the dome and its scaffolding earlier in the day, and I showed them my photo and said, “We’re under here,” pointing to the dome.
“No way!” was their response.
We flew out Saturday and made our way to the same area where, days earlier, our officers and officers from around the country had honored the arriving families. As I neared the gates an orchestra of about 20 to 25 members was performing.
Wow — what a nice touch, I thought.
And then I realized, we were seeing an Honor Flight arriving. For those of you unfamiliar with Honor Flight, these are World War II and Korean War vets who are flown to Washington to tour the memorials. I stood and clapped as they exited the plane. Some with canes, some in wheelchairs, and some walked on their own.
As if this week couldn’t be more emotional, let’s add that, I thought.
There was still another surprise yet to come for me.
I walked farther down the concourse, and the band had moved to the area where we were loading. Another group of veterans arrived, and a large banner was rolled out that said, “Badger Honor Flights … Serving veterans from …” and three counties stuck out to me: Rock, Jefferson, Walworth. This was an Honor Flight from Wisconsin with veterans from where I went to high school and college and served six years in the National Guard. I couldn’t help but think that some of these men could be the fathers of individuals I had known way back then. I learned that eight Honor Flights would arrive that day, and two would be from that area.
As I close this, I hope this somehow gives you a glimpse of what those two weeks were like. Now imagine it was your son or daughter, husband or wife, brother or sister who was being memorialized.
I must also add right now that this trip was paid for by the Windermere Police Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit set up to allow us to do these things for the family and other officers’ families. Like us on Facebook, and if my story has touched you, think about contributing by contacting our police department at (407) 876-3757. They gave everything.
It’s not too much to ask that we give a little. For it’s not how these officers died; it’s how they lived.
Gary Bruhn is the mayor of Windermere.