During National Police Week, we honor our fallen law officers, and there are ceremonies around the country in state capitals and major cities. By far the biggest gathering occurs in Washington, D.C., and includes a ceremony on the U.S. Capitol lawn and a special candlelight ceremony at the National Memorial Wall. I ve made it a point to honor these ceremonies by attending whenever possible. This year, I want to give you a little different perspective by giving you a couple of stories you probably won t hear anywhere else.
Each year, a large number of names go up on the wall. The names are gleaned from historical research by agencies looking through old records and motivated relatives who want to honor a loved one who may have been overlooked. The number of submittals for consideration is high, and there are pretty strict standards involved to qualify a death as line of duty.
Reviewing the materials and helping validate the information is little-known but long-time employee of the National Memorial, Bernie Spence. I first met Spence several years ago and we visited a long time about how much the Memorial meant to her and how she often came back through the grounds on her way home just to make sure all her officers were okay.
This year when I was at the Memorial, I saw Spence sitting on the wall working intently on a list. I reintroduced myself, and she explained she was making last-minute arrangements for engraving the names being added this year.
This isn t as easy as it sounds. The wall has a limited amount of room and lines have a finite length, so the names must be carefully compiled by a computer to make sure the lines look right and that the space is maximized. This means the computer controls name placement, making it random.
I d learned this during our previous conversation and knew the only real exception ever made had been for the officers killed on Sept. 11; their names were placed on adjacent panels where possible.
During my visit with Spence, I asked her about the three officers killed while handling a domestic disturbance in Odessa, Texas, and whether the Memorial was able to make an exception for their situation so they could be engraved together. Spence looked at me and instantly provided each officer s name. Then she said with a smile, The computer did it randomly. Can you believe it, more than 300 names and the computer [put them together]?
This seemed almost unbelievable, and I wanted to know more. Spence explained that when the computer randomly picked the names to place on the wall for placement, two of the officers had been next to each other and the third officer had been placed in another line. But one of the lines looked a little bit long, so the computer was reset and directed to produce run the names again. When the second results came out, the three officers were listed right next to each other, one of the most incredible things Spence said she has ever seen in her 16 years working at the Memorial.
We talked about this for awhile and came to the conclusion that it was just meant to be that these officers who died together would be memorialized on the wall together. You can find Corporal John Scott Gardner, Corporal Abel Marquez and Corporal Arlie Jones forever memorialized as a team on Panel 11, Line W26 at the National Memorial.
I thought Spence might have one more special story, so I asked her for her favorite this year. She didn t disappoint. After a moment reflecting, she excitedly told me the story of how one deputy s death had resulted in saving another deputy s life. Deputy Eric Sikes of the Richmond County (Fla.) Sheriff s Department was killed in a traffic accident in March 2007. His death hit the department very hard, partly because they were also dealing with a life- threatening issue confronting one of their most senior training officers, Deputy David James.
Seventeen years ago, James had been seriously wounded when he was shot five times while making an arrest. His left eye and kidneys had been virtually destroyed as a result. Despite the donation of a kidney from his mother, James had recently been hospitalized with kidney failure and was in desperate need of a new kidney.
This was something Sikes family was aware of, and the family asked that one Sike s kidneys be donated to James. The kidney was a match, and the operation was successful. A man who had nearly given his life in police work was ultimately saved by the sacrifice of a fellow officer.
Granted, these are not typical Memorial stories with grandiose quotes and politicians promises. We ve all heard those, and I wanted to share with you a couple of real stories. I hope they mean as much to you as they do to me.
As it s engraved at the base of one of the entrances, In Valor, there is Hope. (Tacitus)
Dale Stockton is the editor of Law Officer.
Special thanks to Bernie Spence, NLEOMF director of research.