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What Makes a Hero?

What makes a hero? I found myself contemplating that question as my agency struggled to come to terms with the sudden death of one of my own officers. At age 47, a 16-year veteran of my department died peacefully in his sleep on Saturday, December 13th, 2008.

He was discovered by his wife of 24 years, who checked his vital signs, called 911, and then met the paramedics in the driveway, bravely confirming to them that her husband was indeed gone so that he would not have to suffer the indignities of a pointless resuscitation attempt. The local police department called our agency and reached a midnight shift sergeant at 5:28 AM, two minutes before shift change, and gave him the shocking news over the phone. Despite having just learned about the death of his fishing buddy and former FTO, the night shift sergeant ushered my watch commander and the other three on-duty sergeants into an office and gave us the news in a gentle, dignified manner.

After taking about five minutes to compose ourselves, a fellow sergeant and I – thankfully, a close friend and long-time confident – headed to the officer’s house to be with his family. My watch commander went to roll call to break the news to our shift and set into motion the endless duties and responsibilities that would become our world for the next five days. The other night shift sergeants asked their officers to hold over indefinitely despite having already put in their 12 hours, and they continued to work the street as the sun came up on another Saturday morning in the Chicago suburbs.

As my old partner and I drove west, I contemplated how this giant of a man, six feet, five inches, salt and pepper hair, and a big cop’s mustache, could be dead. He had worked with me for the last six years on the same patrol watch, most of the time on my team, working a permanent beat on the south side of town. Before that, we were on the Honor Guard together and made quite a contrast when we stood together at attention, him towering over me by more than a foot, always trying to make me laugh at the worst possible moment.

His death was incomprehensible to me and would be for days to come.

As I write this, 130 American police officers have died in the line of duty this year. They died in gunfights and car crashes and during investigations and rescues and foot chases. They all died as heroes, they were buried as heroes by their communities, and they will be celebrated as heroes when their names are engraved on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial wall next year. All the accolades are well-deserved and appropriate; after all, as the Bible says, “Greater love hath no man than this, than a man lay down his life for his friends.”

But what about the hundreds of police officers who die each year the same way everyone else dies; of illness or in accidents or during some sort of personal tragedy? Do we consider them heroes too? Are you a “hero” because you’re a cop and you’ve died, or is there more to it than that? What exactly makes someone a hero? I began to find out as the week progressed.

My fellow sergeant and I met with my officer’s wife, his widow now for less than 90 minutes, at their home. We hugged and cried and met with the police officers and firefighters who had responded to the 911 call. I had called another close friend from my police department, also a fellow sergeant, who lived nearby and met us at the house. We were all given time to see our officer before the coroner took his body away; something I desperately needed to do to begin absorbing this unthinkable tragedy.

We didn’t say “goodbye” to him yet—there would be time for that later. For now we just needed to see him and say, “don’t worry, we’ll take care of everything.” Its what cops do best. We take charge.

The days moved quickly, we had to take care of our officer’s family, of so many details and logistics, of each other. In four short days we found ourselves at the church, saying our final goodbyes. As I walked behind my friend’s casket, as we loaded him into the hearse, as we came together as an agency and a community to say farewell, I thought again, what really makes someone a hero?

A hero is a wife who thinks to preserve her husband’s dignity moments after discovering that he’ll never wake up again; two sons, both barely adults but in their own military uniforms, the oldest commanding the younger, issuing their father a final salute after watching hundreds of cops and firefighters do the same; they are heroes. Six uniformed pallbearers, uncomfortable in their long sleeves and ties, carrying their friend’s casket in the sub-zero Midwestern weather down the steep church steps even while they are racked with sobs and nearly paralyzed by sorrow; they are heroes.

A hero is a commander who, after the long days and sleepless nights of planning his own officer’s wake and funeral while attending to an entire shift of grieving crimefighters, is still able to call out the final “end of watch” on the police radio in a voice clear and strong, full of purpose and dignity. Community members who take the time to attend the funeral, write a note or post a kind comment about the tall, friendly officer who had worked their side of town for years and years, they are heroes.

A young husband and father, hoping to give his family a more stable existence while he continues his life of service, leaves the Navy after nine years (and many long-term deployments) and begins a career in law enforcement. He becomes a field training officer, a favorite with recruits because of his patience and good humor. He joins the department’s Honor Guard, using his military experience to teach others how to execute turns and give proper salutes. He volunteers as a “reading buddy” to needy kids and asks to be assigned permanently to an area of town, becoming a fixture in the community, known for his respectful treatment of even those he puts in jail. He mentors new recruits, provides leadership to his teammates, and makes people laugh in the toughest of times. And during it all he does something cops find it so hard to accomplish, he balances. He rarely misses his sons’ sporting events or musical gigs, he see his wife through her own medical hardships, and he moves through life as a husband, a father, a friend, and a police officer, always serving, always looking out for others, always smiling. An officer who once told his mother “I don’t go into a situation asking ‘what’s the problem here,’ instead I ask ‘how can I help?’”

This man is a hero, just like all those who take the oath to uphold the law, to protect the rights of strangers, and if necessary, to lay down their own lives to protect another.

Police officers perform heroic feats every day, we save lives, catch bad guys, and sometimes we make the ultimate sacrifice; but most of us just work day-to-day, doing what we can to help, to serve, to keep order, to protect. Live your life, it is precious, and every night when you go home, remember that you are not only a cop, you are a mother, a father, a sibling, a parent, a friend, a neighbor and yes, a hero.

This is dedicated to Officer Donald “D.J.” Andries, EOW: December 13, 2008.

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