The Ft. Myers Police Honor Guard escorting fallen officer Andrew Widman in July 2008.Photos courtesy Cindra Dunaway
Guns and Hoses Pipe and Drums of Southwest Fla.
Chief John McMahon, retired, Guns and Hoses Pipe and Drums of Southwest Fla.
FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
All over the country as communcation centers were beginning the week-long celebration for National Public Safety Telecommunications Week, all eyes were on Boston during the tragic Marathon bombings. Just a short two days later, a devastating explosion in the small town of West, Texas, killed several firefighters and residents and injured more than 100.
These last few weeks have been hell on my public safety family. It’s always hard when we lose members of our family, no matter what part of the country they're in. There's no greater honor than giving your life for another. These family members paid the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty. Having a bad day at work is bad enough, but in our line of work, having a bad day can be devastating.
Honoring the Fallen
I have a LE friend who serves on his department’s Honor Guard. We attended a class together not too long ago that happened to have several civilians in it as well. One of the attendees asked why he joined the Honor Guard and couldn’t comprehend how he could attend so many funerals for the fallen on a regular basis, even for those that he had never met. His answer has stuck with me ever since. He basically told her, “The fallen and their families have suffered the ultimate sacrifice, and for that, they deserve the utmost respect that we can give them in their final days and hours left with us. If they can give their lives, then I could do no less than stand watch over them and stay with them until they are laid to rest. Yes, it can be physically tiring and mentally exhausting, but it is nothing compared to what they gave.”
I will never forget that. Some people may never be able to understand the bond that we have with eachother in the public safety field. It's not something that you can easily explain to people who are on the outside looking in. We had a K-9 who was shot and killed while chasing a robbery suspect two years ago. The funeral was attended by agencies from all over the state and country. He was given a formal funeral with full honors of a fallen officer. This created quite the controversy in the community. Some couldn’t understand how the city could spend money on what they considered “just a dog.” To the members of that department, the public safety community and especially his handler, he wasn’t just a dog. He was a hero. He served unconditionally and paid the ultimate sacrifice for his partner. As far as I'm concerned, a formal funeral is the least we can do for any line-of-duty death.
As I sit here writing this, my thoughts drift to another good friend who is returning from West, Texas, after attending the funeral of several firefighter and EMTs who were killed during the large fire and explosion that left a small town devastated. He's a retired fire chief and a member of the Guns and Hoses Pipes and Drums of Southwest Fla. He travels all over to play at funerals of fallen firefighters and law enforcement officers. His brothers and sisters deserve a proper and formal service, and he wants to send them off with the utmost respect.
I’m sure attending these funerals is emotionally exhausting, but above all else, these fallen deserve to be remembered for how they lived and the ultimate sacrifice that they have paid for all of us. After all, isn’t it the least we can do?
I got to thinking that for as long as I have been in the public safety field, that I really didn’t know the origin of the Honor Guard, so I did a little research and this is what I learned:
The history of the Honor Guard in the fire service goes back to the knights of St. John and the history of the Maltese cross. In the 11th century, during the crusades, the knights of St. John faced a new weapon of fire thrown from the walls of Jerusalem. Hundreds of knights were burned alive, while other knights struggled desperately to help their burning comrades, beating out the flames and dragging them to safety. Their heroic efforts were recognized by fellow crusaders who awarded them with a badge of honor similar to the Maltese cross firefighters wear today. The eight points of the Maltese cross are said to symbolize the virtues of:
- Dexterity in service
- Protection of the weak
- Contempt of death
- Generosity to friend and foe
In 1530, the island of Malta was given to these courageous knights. The symbol they adopted for their flag is the eight pointed cross; the cross of Maltese knights formed a legion of elite troops.
Designated to preserve and guard the burial grounds of their fallen comrades, as it was a common practice of their enemies to rob and desecrate the graves of fallen soldiers. There was no greater call of duty than that of protecting and honoring their fallen brothers and protecting them on their final journey.
It's from that heroic beginning that the modern Honor Guard garners its inspiration. It's our duty to maintain the virtues of the knights of St. John and honor our fallen brothers with the same loyalty, dignity and respect afforded to those who are willing to make great sacrifices and courageously risk their lives to protect their community from the ravages of fire.
What an honorable and noble task. Thanks to all those who participate in honor guards all over the country; no matter what the discipline. You have our gratitude for watching over those who gave their all.
Stay safe, my family.