It's that time of year again when planning in earnest begins for the trip to D.C. for Police Week. What's all the hype about? Why should you go, if it's at all possible? Simply said: EVRYONE MATTERS.
If you bury your patrol car up to the axles in snow or mud, will you care which link is the best or strongest in the chain used to pull you out? Nope; just so they're all there is all that's important.
If you're unfortunate enough to have to use deadly force to defend your own life, will it matter which of the six rounds that landed center mass actually ended the threat? No it will not matter, just so you go home to your family.
To a winner of $10 million in the lottery, which of those dollars is the most important? All of them can be the only answer.
If you're in a fight for your life, will it matter which of your co-workers show up to bring it to a safe end? Not one bit, but you know everyone on-shift will be there.
On Tuesday, May13th of last year, I was standing with thousands of other coppers at the Memorial. We were waiting for the Candlelight Vigil to start. Large buses began arriving at the rear of the site ferrying surviving family members of fallen officers.
I was particularly taken with a young mother and her son of probably 6-7 years old. They were escorted by an honor guard from the bus to the seats that were being held for them. Each family was given a rose as they emerged from the bus.
The young boy stopped in his tracks when he saw the size and scope of the gathered crowd. He looked about as if in total awe. I could only imagine what was going through his mind after suffering the loss of his dad and the lonely times from Dad's EOW until that night. The look on his face spoke volumes. It showed me his sense of being overwhelmed at how many people had gathered to remember his Dad and share his grief. That alone made the trip worthwhile.
Was my individual presence important to that young boy? Hardly... but the presence of all of us was.
After the Vigil and the obligatory visit to the FOP beer tent, my buddy and I headed back towards the Metro station (underneath the Memorial). We ran into a federal agent from Kansas. In just the past couple of months, he lost his brother - also an LEO - and had come to D.C. for Police Week for the first time.
We stood by the Wall and talked for an hour or more. It was about nothing and everything. It was like the conversations one has at a funeral home about his loss and catching up. We cried and we laughed together.
Was the attendance of my buddy and I critical to the success of Police Week? At that moment, to that one man, we were.
A grieving child will tug at your heart strings like nothing else, and a grieving adult is at a whole different place. He has suffered many of life's disappointments and joys. He knows that life must go on. He needs to know that he is not suffering alone. I firmly believe that God uses that place and that time as a tool to deliver His messages of love to those who are hurting. I believe that we are His messengers.
The whole time in D.C., many are in our midst wearing badges that identifies them as a surviving family member. They want to talk. They want to learn more about the loved one they lost by listening to the stories and experiences of other cops who live on to do the same job. They become part of the "family," and their gratitude is evident.
In a video from the NLEOMF, the widow of Joseph Lanzi talks about how the Police Week experience reminds family members that: we will never forget. She gathers strength from the others in attendance. It sends a vivid message that she is not alone now or ever.
They are not alone. They are surrounded by thousands who share their grief and support them. And, they always will be.
Whose job is it to minister to these people? Answer: yours and mine, personally.
COPS GRIEVE DIFFERENTLY
At my first cop funeral, it was clear that cops do it differently. Grief is not usually expressed with endless hours of blubbering, but rather, it is intermixed with laughter and socializing.
We want to be together, in the same place. That's probably why when there is a local loss, the nearest FOP hall is opened 24 hours. There is food brought by many. There is plenty of liquid refreshment of all varieties.
I'm not sure what the chemistry is. I just know that we feel better when we're together - talking, telling war stories, talking about the incident that took our brother, whatever. The critical component is being together. We feel a void when we're away from the group at such times.
Many times a spouse feels left out because we've turned to one another for the emotional support we need. "You wouldn't understand," has been one of my offerings, or "I can't explain it," is another. Fellow cops know at a visceral level what you're feeling, no explanation needed.
I have never taken my wife to a cop funeral or to Police Week. It would be like her taking me to a knitting convention. Maybe it's because the experience would make the risk of coppery all too real in her head. I'm not sure. She doesn't want to go, anyway.
Cops who have lost someone recently from among their own ranks are often shell-shocked, awestruck, and overcome by the enormity of it all. They need the same kind of time from you that you'd give to guys in a neighboring agency who had lost one of their own.
Others can talk about supporting them and understand what they are going through. You really can and do. Will you be the most important person to someone at Police Week this year? Only God knows.
THE GANG'S ALL HERE
Time spent at the FOP beer tent where we can ooh and aah over thousands of police treasures while consuming that golden beverage is invaluable. Hanging with your buddies in that environment is an experience like no other. It's the best of everything: gadgets/gizmos, buddies and refreshment.
I have made friends there that I 're-meet' every year. We email and stay in touch through the year, but, there's nothing like the annual get together to rekindle those relationships. And, each year there are more. It's like you have been life-long friends at the very moment you meet.
There are thousands of coppers at the beer tent, Kelly's or the Irish Channel. Every one of them is family. There are no angry words. You invite people to get in line ahead of you (except at the porta-john). It is a crowd that is accommodating and caring. It causes me to feel secure and relaxed.
THE TOTAL EXPERIENCE
By the end of the week, I am ready to go home. I am both drained and recharged physically, mentally and emotionally. I can't quite compare it to any other experience. I feel totally cleansed.
My attitude has been repaired and reinvigorated. I see the big picture once again and realize that life is not ruled by some piss-ant supervisor. It's something like spending three days at the funeral home when a close loved-one passes. We often lament that there are some people we only see at weddings and funerals. So too it is with some people we only see at Police Week.
The days in D.C. allow us to be encapsulated in an atmosphere of cop love (dare I use that term) where the outside world cannot affect us. With some 25,000 coppers around us, there are moments when we can lower our guard from yellow to white. We are among family; it is the most safe we will be all year long.
The Memorial is your place and it is filled with your people. Like links in a chain, a $10 lottery winning, or 6 rounds center mass it is not any one of them that takes precedence. EVERY ONE MATTERS.
There is a letter that I found taped to the Wall a few years ago. Every time I speak or write about the experience of Police Week, I share this letter. It expresses the essence of the experience. It was written in pencil on a sheet of loose-leaf notebook paper.
I am 13 now, and am really growing up fast. I'm very different, looking like a young lady. My mouth looks like the front end of a Cadillac because, you see, I have braces.
I am playing soccer this year and I was in the school play. I just had a small part, but I did my best, because that's what you taught me to do.
Johnny is 10 now, and he really makes me mad sometimes. But, Mom says that I have to be patient because he's my little brother and we all need one another. We're doing OK, but I know that Mom really misses you. I see her sitting in her favorite chair looking at your picture. I think she cries sometimes.
We miss you, Daddy, and we wish so badly that you could be here.
p.s. - Thanks for taking the time to paint the pictures of the sunsets, Daddy. They are hanging in the hallway. I see them every morning when I get up. They remind me of you and how lucky we are to have a Daddy like you.
The Memorial needs financial support from all of us. Think of it like chipping in your share of the beer bill at the end of the shift. You can throw is your $5 (or more) by visiting my NLEOMF web page: http://www.firstgiving.com/jamesdonahue.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Stay safe out there.