More than 20,000 are expected to attend the ceremonies honoring those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in 2010 while protecting their communities.
Photo credit: By Susan Nicol
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Thirty years ago, 125 people turned out for a memorial service to honor the nation's fallen law enforcement officers.
This year, more than 20,000 are expected to attend the ceremonies honoring those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in 2010 while protecting their communities.
One of the people responsible for establishing the memorial -- Suzie Sawyer -- will be stepping down as executive director of COPS (Concerns of Police Survivors).
After two Prince George's County, Md., police officers were shot and killed in their police station, Sawyer and other wives pitched in to do what they could for the families. They cooked meals, cleaned houses and sent them cards monthly to tell them that they weren't forgotten.
"We thought we were doing something. We were doing something but we would learn later it just wasn't enough."
They didn't ask about how they were dealing with the horrific loss, the indescribable grief.
Sawyer said like many people, officers don't know how to handle grief.
"When 10 grieving widows showed up at a function in 1983, they weren't welcome by the officers. They didn't stay long at all," Sawyer said, adding that she and the women left. "They weren't getting support in there."
"What the widows told me is that no one talks about grief or wants to listen. Their pain was so intense. I just sat back and listened about the living hell they were going through."
Sawyer said what she was hearing made sense, but upset her immensely. "One said police officers are being killed or dying every year, and nobody talks about it."
The women were adamant to do something about it, and Sawyer said she was right with them as they forged ahead. It wasn't long before they came up with the perfect name: COPS.
"No, I don't have the education to do this," Sawyer admitted candidly. "I had a passion to do this."?
Over the years, she's had the opportunity to help thousands.
"You can give money, lots of money, but you have to help heal the heart and head. You have to let people talk, encourage them to share their feelings."
There are now 52 COPS chapters across the country serving 38 states.
"It's important to be here," she added. "We're helping them on the road to hope."
Survivors who return year after year to lend a hand, give a hug or simply sit quietly say they admire Sawyer for what she's done, the lives she's touched, the encouragement she?s offered.
Jennifer Thacker, whose husband Brandon, a Kentucky alcohol beverage control officer was killed in 1999, said the relationships she's made through COPS has made all the difference.
"I was able to talk to someone who could relate to what I was going through. They had the same experiences and thoughts. I realized I wasn't crazy."
Thacker added the support is still there, strong as ever.
When her husband's killer was released from prison after serving less than 12 years, she got calls from fellow survivors from across the country.
She's also on a mission to change procedures about how victims are notified about prisoners being released.
"I got a phone call three days after Christmas. It was a recording telling me that inmate 123 had been released from prison. I couldn't believe it. What I found out later that morning was that he was released at 4:30. I got the call at 8:30. I wasn't even warned."
Thacker said her daughter, Katherine, 14, has thrived, and actively participates in retreats for children who've lost a parent.
She was asked by a school counselor to help another girl who lost her father to illness.?
She also will be speaking to COPS survivors at a large conference later this summer.
Debbie Geary can't get away from cops, and she wouldn't have it any other way.
Her husband, Pete, is a retired Broward County Sheriff's deputy. Her son, step-daughter and step-son are now on the force as well.
"He's the youngest," she said, pointing to her other son. "He's in college, but he'll be a police officer too."
Geary's association with COPS started when her first husband, Metro-Dade Officer Dave Strzalkowski, was shot and killed.
"I was pregnant at the time, and was advised not to travel. I missed the memorial service. I missed putting a carnation in the wreath. I felt I had missed out."
A few years ago, however, another young woman found herself in the same situation. ?
"I told her how I felt about not participating when they honored my husband. She asked me to do it for her."?
On the night of the ceremony, her escort didn't know the circumstances.
"As we were walking up, he looked at me and said: He loved you too."
Geary said she stepped forward and pushed the flower into the wreath.
"I pushed hard but it wouldn't stay. So, I had to do it a second time. I thought that second time was for Dave. I felt I had finally honored him."
She met her current husband at a police fund-raiser in Florida.
"It's nothing to have five police cruisers in the driveway. I'm sure people who don't know us think they must be conducting a raid."
Pete Geary had never been to a memorial service before he came with his wife one year.
They asked him to help with the kids trip to the FBI Academy where they are encouraged to share their feelings.
Geary admitted with a laugh: "I told them I'd try it for a few hours, and if it wasn't going well, I'd leave. I didn't, and I come back every year. I love being a mentor."
Sawyer said sharing stories is part of healing.
And this week, there are plenty of them as well as tears and hugs.