What it means to serve on a police Honor Guard
Honor Guard officers must have the strength to withstand overwhelming emotions when they’re called upon to serve in times of tragedy
National Police Week, which this year runs from May 10-16, honors those officers who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Anyone who has ever witnessed a memorial service for a law enforcement officer who died in the line of duty is struck by the magnitude of the symbolism and ceremony of the event. This article details the honor and privilege of serving on a police Honor Guard.
Reprinted with permission from the King County Dept. of Adult & Juvenile Detention InDepth Newsletter
By Linda Robson
The sudden blare of the dispatch radio jolted the silent crowd inside the packed auditorium. The words crashed down like giant shards of glass from the arena’s loud speakers, cutting and wounding every ear.
“Pierce County Unit 4-8-4…”
“… Pierce County Unit 4-8-4…”
“…4-8-4, no answer…out of service.”
“…Gone, but not forgotten.”
As the final radio call for Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy Daniel McCartney still echoed, an audible gasp rose up from the family section of the crowd – a loved one was just hit by the terrible truth that Daniel was never coming home.
Her cry was a split-second sound that pierced the heart of every law enforcement officer in the room who had come to honor a comrade and brother who lost his life in the line of duty.
The rows of dress uniforms and mourning badges seemed almost infinite – dark blue police uniforms, brown and green deputies’ tunics, the characteristic French blue uniforms of the Washington State Patrol, and the unmistakable shocks of red of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Sprinkled among the crowd of thousands were a few officers from the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD). They may not have known Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy Daniel McCartney, but in these moments of tragedy and loss in the law enforcement community, there’s an undeniable feeling of kinship with other officers there, even if they’ve never met before.
Along with a handful of DAJD officers and civilians in the audience, several members of the DAJD Honor Guard were also in attendance to lend their talents to the funeral ceremony.
Anyone who has ever witnessed a memorial service for military personnel, a firefighter or law enforcement officer who died in the line of duty surely has been struck by the magnitude of the symbolism and ceremony of the event. It is at once awe-inspiring, achingly beautiful, impressively intricate and charged with emotion. Being a part of the event is a sacred and heavy burden to bear for those who wear the Honor Guard uniforms and who must perform with the utmost precision, reverence and respect.
“When you come to take care of a lost one, a lost brother or sister, you do the best you can to support them and do anything you need to do,” says Officer David Henry, who represented DAJD in the vast honor guard contingent at Deputy McCartney’s funeral service. “Casket watch, standing by the family, escorting the family – it’s about honor and respect, and that’s the biggest thing for me.”
“It doesn’t get any easier. No, it gets harder and harder and harder,” says Officer Ramil Pagulayan, the longest serving member of DAJD’s Honor Guard. “But we all know what we have to do, and we all know why we’re there, and we’re all there for the right reasons. For me, the bottom line is honoring the family and paying my respects. And, like I said, it doesn’t get any easier. There’s nothing routine about any kind of funeral or service.“
When DAJD Honor Guard officers don the full dress uniform, they know the full weight of the expectations that come with the position.
“I would offer that they represent not just everybody in the department, they represent all of King County,” says Cmdr. Gordon Karlsson, who heads the King County Correctional Facility in downtown Seattle. “And they represent law enforcement in general – they are in blue, and that brotherhood is nationwide and even worldwide.”
At first blush, one might think being an honor guard member requires little more than an eye for detail, smart fashion sense and a knack for precision movement. But there’s much more that lies underneath the razor sharp wool tunic, gleaming golden braids and badge, and shoes with a crisp, mirror shine.
Officers must have the strength and character of forged steel to withstand the overwhelming force of emotion and symbolism when they’re called upon to serve in times of tragedy.
“You can imagine knowing the fallen officer, and then representing the department and caring for the family, caring for the kids – that kind of stuff can wreck you,” says Cmdr. Karlsson. “I think it takes a certain mindset.
“Don’t get me wrong, when you sign up for Honor Guard, we don’t expect you to be devoid of any kind of emotion; it’s despite that emotion, you still have an obligation to perform, in a sense. You have an obligation to conduct yourself in a certain way,” says Karlsson. “There will be some services that will be much harder to attend and to be effective in, and you can’t pick and choose which ones those are. Some might come out of left field, and just affect you so profoundly…something just strikes a chord and touches you. But I think that’s why the Honor Guard does what it does. If they didn’t have that touch, I would question whether they should be on the Honor Guard.”
For the members of DAJD’s Honor Guard, the reasons for serving go far beyond the superficial trappings of the position. If anything, it’s a deep sense of duty and commitment that compels them to serve and gives them the strength to endure the difficult times.
Capt. Kenneth Lollie, DAJD’s Honor Guard commander, didn’t have previous experience as an Honor Guard member, but he’s keenly aware of how important the unit’s role is to the organization.
“When I was asked if I would consider the position, I took it as an honor,” says Lollie. “I have no experience as an Honor Guard member, but, as has been mentioned, the support of the families, and to honor the family’s wishes – that’s the most important thing.”
For many Honor Guard members, as it is with many of DAJD’s officers, a connection to the military and its traditions and customs is the bond that drives them to continue to serve.
“When I was active duty Army, I was in Honor Guard,” says Officer Lance Mcintosh. “I did that for a year and a half, so it was just a natural progression for me to come here and be part of this unit for all the same reasons. It’s a respect and honor type of thing.”
For Officer Michael O’leary, the military tradition is intertwined with family tradition as well.
“I grew up in the military – my father was in the military and he was a Vietnam vet,” says O’leary. “He used to play the bagpipes, so he did a lot of parades and memorials. I remember how much emotion and how much patriotism he had when doing things like this, and that I was always very impressed. It’s one way that I knew where I could assist those who are having a hard time, especially with the memorials. It’s a good way of showing respect and showing honor and your emotions.”
Officers Henry and Pagulayan also had military careers before joining DAJD. Even Cmdr. Karlsson spent time in the Marines prior to his time at DAJD, and it’s that common bond that many of the department’s officers and staff members share with the military that played a part in spurring the creation of DAJD’s own in-house Honor Guard nearly 20 years ago.
It was early December in 1999, and the huge protest against the World Trade Organization meeting in downtown Seattle had resulted in mass arrests. After violent clashes between police and some protest groups had centered near the site of the meetings at the convention center, the protestors’ ire shifted to the facility where their fellow protestors were jailed. Both Cmdr. Karlsson and Officer Pagulayan witnessed the events as they unfolded.
“The tiled courtyard out in front of the [KCCF] building became the focus of a lot of protestors,” said Karlsson. “They brought the protests to our front door.”
“And in that area, there’s a flagpole with the American flag flying proudly,” said Officer Pagulayan, “and somebody decided that they were going to take it down, and take over.”
“The symbolic nature of that flag being lowered was profound,” said Karlsson. “We had officers and staff inside the building who took great offense to that flag being lowered. And there were even people in the protest group who took offense to the way it was being done.”
Despite the efforts of a few courageous citizens who tried to intervene, the flag was brought down. While it was eventually recovered, it had already been somewhat weather-beaten, and now had suffered even more damage. It was decided that the flag should be retired, and DAJD leaders looked to the department’s military veterans to complete the task with the proper procedure and with the dignity and reverence it deserved.
“When we lowered that flag, it was properly folded by the impromptu Honor Guard – we had officers with prior military service in their [corrections] uniform with basically white gloves and baseball caps,” recalls Karlsson. “At the time the officers and even command staff did not have full dress uniforms, we did not have proper covers – that is, proper hats for rendering that kind of stuff. But I was glad at the time that the department gave us the latitude and gave us the freedom to do what we thought was right according to military custom and proper protocol for the American flag.”
“And that’s when it was decided that we needed to form an Honor Guard and formalize it,” said Pagulayan, “that was the spark.”
DAJD’s Honor Guard unit is now 10 members strong, with stately campaign caps and finely trimmed tunics. It took a number of years to piece together a handful of budget dollars here and there to outfit the unit properly, but now the DAJD Honor Guard is admired, and even imitated, throughout the law enforcement community. “I can think of three agencies I’ve seen who have changed or, I would say, even kind of copied our uniform, because they say that looks good, that looks sharp,” says Pagulayan.
It may seem like an undue amount of attention is given to outward appearances. But there’s nothing superfluous about it. It’s the symbolism that gives it all a deep significance – the uniform, the flags, the salutes, everything. These symbols matter. It is the outward expression of the officer’s professionalism, pride, integrity, and honor. Wearing it well and representing DAJD’s best is also a symbol of the respect and honor they have for each other, and for all of their sisters and brothers in uniform as well. There is a time and a place for symbols and ceremony, tradition and ritual – and Honor Guard members are the chief stewards of these, serving without hesitation or complaint.
“An example of how deep our commitment is and what it means to be part of Honor Guard is the Lakewood Four,” says Pagulayan, recalling the memorial service for the four Lakewood, Washington police officers killed in November 2009. “It was 18 degrees outside, and we were out there for three and a half hours, standing, waiting for the family; 18 degrees in our tunics and out of 1,400 honor guard personnel, not one of them complained.”
There are hardships, to be sure, but the honor and privilege of serving on Honor Guard far outweigh them. When the chips are down, they answer the call.
“I think everyone who gets into public service, police work, law enforcement and public safety, they recognize that there is always that inherent risk,” Cmdr. Karlsson muses. “But I wrestle sometimes when someone says that they sacrificed their life for their duty. To be blunt, I think the lives of the fallen are stolen from us, they are not relinquished and sacrificed for the common good. I think these lives are regrettably taken. So, simply put, I think those who are willing to step up despite that risk, to serve in public safety, that it needs to be recognized and honored when their lives are taken from them, taken from their families, and taken from all of us. “
“That’s what I think the Honor Guard is about,” says Karlsson. “Just like the military, what we are doing is serving our country, I think. Because it’s not about a uniform and waving a flag and all of that, it’s about looking out for each other, and I think the Honor Guard’s work to honor folks and pay the respects for a fallen officer, and taking care of ourselves, and how we treat one another – that’s the measure.”
About the author
Linda Robson is a communications specialist with the King County Dept. of Adult & Juvenile Detention in King County, Washington.