As the sun sets on another week, a community mourns the loss of yet another Harford County officer. Two, devoted police officers, lost in the line of duty in the span of one week. Harford County Sheriff L. Jesse Bane made a poignant statement during Sgt. Loughran's funeral, "There are critics who believe that to be a hero there has to be drama; that one should die in a gun battle with an assailant or burn in a building trying to rescue a child." He further said, that while there was not this kind of drama in the sergeant's death, he was nevertheless a hero and his passing holds purpose. In my opinion, no truer statement has ever been spoken and this Sergeant's passing hit very close to home.
It was a warm spring day on April 23, 1978 when my young life would be changed forever. My father, Robert Barlow, was a Sergeant with the Baltimore City Police Department. He had devoted 19 years to the department, serving in the crime lab and the tactical unit. On this particular day, he had served his tour of duty at Memorial Stadium for the Orioles vs. Yankees game. It was unusually hot for April and during his assignment several people had suffered heat strokes and heat exhaustion. In the customary attitude of our public servants, he did just that, he served to help assist and carry these patients to first aide. At the end of his shift, while finalizing his paperwork for the squad, an officer under his command, poked his head into his office and asked, "Sarge, you okay?" My Dad looked up and said, "Yeah, I'm fine; just tired. I'm getting too old for this," and he chuckled.
When Daddy got home, he greeted me as I sat on the front porch steps. He rubbed my head and asked how his girl was then made his way into the house. By the time I entered the house, he had changed out of his uniform and sat on the living room sofa reading the newspaper. My Mom was in the kitchen warming his dinner and my friend and I stood and talked with her. During our conversation, my Dad called out my name, but instead of answering him, I continued my conversation with my Mom. Only a few moments later, I turned to go back outside and my life would never be the same. There on the sofa, slumped over and grasping his chest, was my Dad. I screamed, "Daddy!" and I heard the spoon hit the floor in the kitchen. My Mom rushed to Daddy's side and as she struggled to straighten her husband on the couch, in her calmest voice, she instructed me to get help.
From a neighbors house, I watched as rescue vehicles arrived; red and white lights flashing and engines roaring. Paramedics grabbed equipment and rushed through my front door. I stared out the window of the screen door, waiting for my Dad to come out on the porch and wave me home as the flashing lights burned my tear filled eyes. But he didn't. Instead, I watched as he was carried into the waiting ambulance and whisked away. I listened as the wail of the sirens were replaced by the pounding of my heart in my head.
Hours later, I learned that Daddy had suffered a massive heart attack and at age 42, had died. In a brief few hours, I went from being a carefree twelve year old girl, to a little girl trying to grasp the death of her Daddy and my Mom went from being a wife to a widow.
Watching the funerals of the two officers lost this past week, brought back the memories of my Dad's funeral. I remember seeing people lined up with hands over their hearts and firemen and police officers at every intersection. Through my grief, I remember thinking how proud I felt that they cared enough to honor him in that way. The flag that draped his casket, sits in its place of honor, thirty-four years later, atop my fireplace next to his picture.
Declaring his death as a line of duty incident in 1978 was not an easy task. There was a trial and my mother was forced to relive the events of that day. In that era, even the department had a hard time determining whether the events of the day contributed to the death of my father. Ultimately it was decided by the department that his death was considered line of duty. While the paperwork declared it so, the public didn't understand it. How could a heart attack that occurred after work be considered a line of duty incident?
My Dad didn't die as the result of a gun fight or a high speed chase. He wasn't ambushed by a drug dealer and he wasn't killed by an armed robber. Daddy died because the stresses of the day, the heat, the exertion of carrying ailing citizens to care and nineteen years of serving and protecting the city of Baltimore. Each and every police officer that takes to the streets at the start of their shift, does so without any idea of what those twelve hours will hold. They don't know who is hiding around the corner; what horrific sight they will encounter at a crime scene, or how they will find the words to tell a mother that her child is gone. They will close their eyes to sleep and see the anguished face of the child beaten by a parent; they will kiss their children good night and pray that they will not fall victim to the drug dealers littering the community; and they will kiss their loved ones good bye, unsure they will return home safely. Why? Well ,it certainly isn't for the salary nor the appreciation they receive from others. No, they do it because they chose the noble profession of serving and protecting.
Whether a soldier, a fireman, or a police officer, they don't have a red cape or a giant S on their chests; they don't have comic books about their adventures or lunch boxes with their faces on them and people certainly don't stand in line for hours to have their pictures taken with them or get their autographs. Quite frankly, unless you have needed their assistance, they are in a thankless profession.
I once met a tiny, young woman at a gathering who in conversation told me she was a police officer. I couldn't believe it, so I asked, "What made you want to be a cop?" Her response surprised me. She smiled, shrugged her shoulders and said, "Call me crazy, but I believe that one day the world will be a safer place and if I can play a small part in making that happen, then I will count myself a success." Her answer wasn't because she wanted the authority of a badge or the power of carrying a gun but instead was to make the world safer. A selfless attitude indeed.
Jesus, himself, had this similar attitude. No, He didn't wear a badge or carrying a gun and while His focus was not on putting the bad guys in jail, He walked this earth to teach and inspire people. His desire was for everyone to live in love and peace with each other and with God. Jesus started his shift knowing he would face hostility, the possibility of ambush, and the certainty of death but because of his love for people he was undeterred. Jesus took his final roll call on the cross. His death was in the line of duty while protecting and serving God's people.
Imagine for a moment if you will, what our community would be like if we all took these kind of attitudes: What if every person held themselves accountable for their actions? What if each person was in the habit of protecting and serving one another, instead of fighting and being self-centered? What if instead of bullying we befriended or instead of turning to drugs to cope we could rely on one another for support? What if instead of ignoring the down and out with extended a hand to help them up? What if there was no need for gangs because everyone felt important and empowered? What if all parents trained their children up with respect and love? What if our streets became a place for neighbors to talk and children to play instead of drug territories and gang turf? Sounds like a pretty lofty idea but wouldn't it be great?!
Jesus gave us the great command in John 15:12-13, "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down ones life for another."
When our men and women in blue put on their badges, this is what they are doing. They are willing to sacrifice it all for the safety of another. Whether they die by gunfire or the stresses of the job weakens their hearts, they die a HERO and exemplify the great command. So, until we, the community, can fulfill all the "What ifs", take the time to thank our superheroes in blue, our soldiers in camo, and our firemen in gear. Respect their positions and be grateful for their service. Support their spouses and loved ones who sacrifice as much as they do and say a prayer for the safety of all.
Until next time, I say "Thank you for your service and sacrifice and to the families and loved ones, I offer my prayers for your loss." I will rest easier knowing that I am being guarded from the heavens by my Dad and the many who have died serving and protecting...