By Patrick Yoes
In New Orleans, the widow of a New Orleans Police Officer, fallen in the line of duty, packs her bags for an early morning flight to the Nation’s Capital to attend a series of memorial services and workshops. Each is carefully designed to not only memorialize her loved one, but also help her cope with her loss and hopefully find closure in a seemingly endless nightmare that replays in her mind each and every time she closes her eyes at night.
She is not alone—the wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and partners of fallen police officers during 2016 prepare for this same journey.
Some 1,000 miles away, a delivery truck arrives on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol and begins unloading chairs, hundreds of them—some white, some blue, some red. Each placed in rows according to color as sketched out on a diagram; a layout painstakingly developed by dedicated volunteers.
The next day, as she boards her plane, work crews begin erecting stages, installing sound systems, railings, and security parameters for the 35th Annual Peace Officer’s Memorial Service, only days away.
The widow arrives in Washington, as do those with whom she will share her grief, for their loved ones have fallen, too. It is their nightmare as well, and together, they will find ways to deal with their emptiness. They sit in a room and cry, laugh, talk, and listen. They attend workshops put on by those who understand their pain firsthand. They attend a Candlelight Vigil at a solemn place where their loved ones’ names are forever engraved on granite walls. They are overwhelmed by the support of thousands who share in their remembrance, their healing, and their sorrow.
Across town, the site begins to take shape. Fifteen hundred white chairs are set up directly in front of a stage bearing the presidential seal. An even larger number of blue and red chairs flank them on each side. To the rear, a large standing area takes shape, tents rise at the entrances as security checkpoints and media stands appear. At the Police Memorial only blocks away, a handful of runners complete their journey from Philadelphia to honor their fallen, as do bicyclists and motorcyclists from their long journeys to do the same.
A small army of volunteers go down their check lists and become tired and frustrated with the last minute changes and budget constraints. Yet, in the background, the sounds of Taps can faintly be heard from buglers practicing in the shade. The somber sound is occasionally drowned out by the bellowing of bagpipes practicing Amazing Grace, determined that every note be perfect. The sights and sounds of so many remind them why their work is so important. Police Honor Guard teams from hundreds of agencies, from the largest to the smallest, practice under the sometimes brutal mid-spring sun to ensure that their every step and turn occurs with pinpoint precision.
As the survivors begin to find peace with a series of events of which they had absolutely no control over, they board buses for the Capitol escorted by what seems like miles of motorcycle officers. As they arrive, thousands of uniformed officers stand side by side, creating a cordon of honor leading to the white chairs.
Ask any volunteer why they give their all to this service, ask any FOP member why they spend a large portion of their dues for this service, ask any corporate sponsor why they contribute to this solemn service, ask those who travel from near and far to attend this service… They may all articulate their reasons differently, yet every one of their messages is consistent in one aspect—it is all about the “white chairs.”
Each one of those “white chairs” represents a hero that has fallen, and equally as important, heroes who must carry on. Their lives have been forever changed and through the efforts of so many, they know they are not alone, for we never forget our fallen and the contribution they and their families have made and will continue to make.
When the days grow long, the temperature rises and the site preparation work seems endless, remember…it’s all about the “white chairs.” When you are running or cycling to the Memorial in honor of our fallen, remember…it’s all about the “white chairs.” When you arrive at the service and can’t get the view of the stage you would like, remember…it’s all about the “white chairs.” When there isn’t enough seating for last minute VIP seating changes, remember…it’s all about the “white chairs.” When the services extend longer than expected because the President of the United States, takes time to ask survivors to tell him about their loved one, remember…it’s all about the “white chairs.” When egos get bruised and tempers flare because the task seems overwhelming and thankless at times, remember…it’s all about the “white chairs.” When participating in the evening parties and gatherings to celebrate life, remember… it’s all about the “white chairs.”
As long as there is a need for “white chairs” to be set up on the lawn of our Nation’s Capital on May 15th, in remembrance of our fallen, our work is not done. Nor should we lose sight of the reason we do what we must all do…that is to remember. Take pride in your efforts, for the FOP National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service doesn’t just happen, it evolves out of our respect and admiration for those who have given far more than we have.