In memoriam

1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

Well, National Police Week has come and gone. Perhaps you noticed. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy proclaimed May 15th as National Peace Officers’ Memorial Day and the calendar week in which May 15th falls, as National Police Week. I made my annual pilgrimage to visit the Memorial Wall at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center (GPSTC) in Forsyth (just this side of Macon) this past Friday. The Wall is dedicated to all of the Georgia police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians who have lost their lives in the line of duty from 1794 to present. There are currently in the neighborhood of 900 names on that wall.

I had a good friend and colleague named Steven R. Medeiros who was killed in the line of duty on September 26, 2008. Steve was a big man… and a cop’s cop… who took his oath to serve and protect very seriously. Policing wasn’t just a job for Steve, it was his ethos… his life. And not only was he dedicated to the public he served, he was also dedicated to his brothers and sisters in uniform. Steve held the rank of “staff sergeant” on the force, which meant that he reported directly to the Chief of Police on matters pertaining to the needs and concerns of rank-and-file members of the Department… kind of like a “Senior Enlisted Advisor” for those of y’all with military backgrounds. Steve was a born mentor and was particularly good at coaching newer, less-experienced colleagues to help them become successful in their jobs.

And that was why, after having already worked his regular forty hours for the week, Steve put on his uniform that Friday morning, cranked up his beloved Harley Davidson Springer Softail, and headed down to the regional police academy firing range to help a bunch of recruits qualify with their sidearms. You see, that day was make-or-break for these new officers… who hailed from a variety of departments around the state.  They had been at the range all week and were tired and sunburned and stressed out. They were about three weeks into the 11-week academy curriculum, and weapons handling and marksmanship was coming easier for some than for others. And if you failed firearms, you went home… bye, bye career… that was that. Steve had a reputation for being able to help tentative students become safe, accurate shooters. In fact, he was the academy’s “go-to guy” in these sorts of situations. So, when he got the call, off to the range he went, on his day off, to help a bunch of newbies make the grade.

But Steve never made it to the firing range that day. And he never made it home, either. We’ll never know what caused the crash. Steve was a careful rider… he wasn’t speeding… the road was familiar to him… and dry. I won’t go into detail about how we made the case that Steve’s death should be considered a line-of-duty death… as opposed to simply being a traffic accident on the way to work. The only thing that matters is that the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Foundation (NLEOMF) in Washington, DC agreed, and Steve’s name was etched into the marble on that memorial wall in 2009. Georgia was harder to convince, however, and it wasn’t ‘til 2017 that Steve’s name was placed on the statememorial… Steve’s, and those of fifteen others. I remember the ceremony: the Governor said a few words… proclamations were presented to surviving family members… bagpipes played, bells tolled and a 21-gun salute was rendered. Steve would have been pleased, I think.  

It’s a good time of year for storytelling… and for remembering. Monday week is Memorial Day. Y’all may know that this national holiday got its start as “Decoration Day,” back in 1868… an occasion to honor UnionCivil War dead. Over time, the day of remembrance was expanded to include all Americans who have died in military service. So, only ninety-four years after the establishment of Decoration Day, the Country had to set aside a particular day to remember law enforcement officers… Peace Officers… who gave their last full measure of devotion in the cause of safety and protection for neighbors. It sometimes grates on me when folks conflate Memorial Day with Veterans’ Day. It’s no wonder, I suppose… in both cases, we fly the flag, hang out the red, white and blue bunting, eat barbeque and buy stuff on sale. When people go out of their way to thank me for my service on Memorial Day, I normally acknowledge the compliment… but then add, “I didn’t do much.” The ultimate sacrifice was never required of me… and I’m OK with that. There are many ways to serve. I remember back in my early days in the Coast Guard, looking at all of the ribbons and medals service members wore on their uniforms, wondering what they were all for… and whether I’d ever have as many. Over the intervening years, I learned a lot about military decorations… and I earned a few. But there’s one medal… at the very top of the list… that no one ever wants to receive: the one with a gold or bronze five-pointed star, suspended on a light blue neck ribbon with thirteen stars at the center: The Medal of Honor. Those are usually given posthumously.

So, another story: Douglas Munro grew up in the small town of Cle Elum, in Washington state. He enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1939 and served on the Cutter Spencer, home-ported in New York City. Munro worked his way up through the ranks pretty quickly, pinning on his first set of crows (that is, earning the rank of Petty Officer 3rd Class) within a year. After Pearl Harbor, Munro continued his advancement to 2nd and then 1stClass Petty Officer, and eventually found himself driving 36-foot Higgins Boats (landing craft) in the WWII Pacific Theater of Operations. And it was during the Battle of Guadalcanal that Signalman 1st Class Douglas Albert Munro earned the medal that no one ever wants to receive. The date was September 27, 1942 and the invasion of Guadalcanal was well underway. Munro was transporting a detachment of Marines to their assigned landing point on the island when he passed a beachhead, thought to have been secured, and noticed an entire battalion of Marines pinned down by enemy fire and in immediate danger of being overrun. After offloading his current boatload of Marines, Munro returned to see if he could help the ones who were in trouble. Here is his Medal citation:

“For extraordinary heroism and conspicuous gallantry in action above and beyond the call of duty as Officer-in-Charge of a group of Higgins boats, engaged in the evacuation of a Battalion of Marines trapped by enemy Japanese forces at Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, on September 27, 1942. After making preliminary plans for the evacuation of nearly 500 beleaguered Marines, Munro, under constant risk of his life, daringly led five of his small craft toward the shore. As he closed the beach, he signaled the others to land, and then in order to draw the enemy’s fire and protect the heavily loaded boats, he valiantly placed his craft with its two small guns as a shield between the beachhead and the Japanese. When the perilous task of evacuation was nearly completed, Munro was killed by enemy fire, but his crew, two of whom were wounded, carried on until the last boat had loaded and cleared the beach. By his outstanding leadership, expert planning, and dauntless devotion to duty, he and his courageous comrades undoubtedly saved the lives of many who otherwise would have perished. He gallantly gave up his life in defense of his country.”

Most Medal of Honor citations portray similarly heroic behavior. And of the 3,530 Medals awarded to date, around 60% have been presented to a widow… or parent… or child. And for those recipients who are able to receive their award in person, the occasion is a somber one. The cost is almost too much to bear. No one wants to receive this medal.

Douglas Munro had a close childhood friend named Mike Cooley. The two had grown up together in Cle Elum… attended the same elementary and high school… and worked some of the same odd jobs around town as teenagers. Doug joined the Coast Guard to save lives. Mike served his country as a Combat Engineer in the Army. Like I said, there are many ways to serve. It would be twenty-five years before Cooley returned home to Cle Elum to find that the town’s only Medal of Honor recipient didn’t have an American flag flying over his grave. So, he got one… and put up a pole… and for thirty years Mike Cooley made sure that that flag stayed up and flying… everyday… rain or shine. Since the pole wasn’t lighted, he would walk from his home to Doug’s burial site and back… six miles round-trip… in the morning and at sundown… winter, spring, summer and fall… every single day… for thirty years. As Mike got older and creakier, his daughter would drive him when the weather was bad… or when he was feeling under-the-weather. But Mike never complained. Eventually, the Coast Guard Chief Petty Officers’ Association got wind of the situation and put up a new lighted flagpole… and took over responsibility for maintaining it… as was only proper. But it was Mike Cooley who took it upon himself to serve as his dear friend’s personal honor guard until a more permanent regimen could be established. And that, my friends is, in and of itself, a legacy of service. 

Mike Cooley died on July 20, 1999, just a few weeks shy of the dedication of the new and improved flagpole at Douglas Munro’s gravesite. So close… some might say. If Mike had only been able to hold on a little longer… he would have known that others had stepped up to continue the mission he had performed so faithfully over the course of three decades. But here’s the thing… I think he knows! I think he knows… and I think that he and Doug are together in Paradise at this moment, along with Steve Medeiros and a host of our other dearly-departed, listening to me tell their stories… maybe smiling a little, but also a little sad because they know that there’s so much we don’t know… can’t know… not yet… not on this side of the grave. We try to be dutiful, hopeful Christians… we gather as Church for worship… we read and ponder Scripture. We want to believe Jesus when he tells us that he loves us… and will not leave us orphaned (John 14:18) and that he is going to prepare a place for us with our Father in Heaven (John 14:3). But as much as we try to be faithful followers of the Way of Jesus Messiah, our fears sometimes get the best of us, don’t they? We can only see through a mirror, dimly (1 Corinthians 13:12)… and we allow ourselves to become distracted by the doubts and uncertainties of daily living. We forget that this world is not our home…that this life is not Life. We’re pilgrims on a journey… a journey with a purpose, to be sure… fleeting on one hand, yet which can be oh, so difficult at times. Beset by war, and pestilence and depravity of spirit, we might be forgiven for sometimes losing our way. And we are forgiven, you know.

As the writer of 1 Peter tells us, we are undergoing a fiery ordeal… we are being tested. This testing is not from God… but God will be with us throughout the ordeal, strengthening and upholding us… if we’ll let him. It’s tough to let go and simply trust God, isn’t it? But we must humble ourselves today so that, on that day of days, when we go home to our Father in Heaven, we may all be exalted. Yeah, I know… sometimes it seems like God is taking his sweet time, doesn’t it? I’m with you on that. But this I also know… and I know it in the very fabric of my being: everything is going to be OK. I can’t tell you precisely what OK looks like in God’s plan for our salvation, only that it will be good, and better than good… it will be sublime… more wonderful than we could ever ask for or imagine. After our suffering has run its course, “in the blink of an eye, a trumpet will sound… and the dead will be raised imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:52)… and we will all be changed from glory into glory (2 Corinthians 3:18)… and the God of all grace, who has called us to his eternal glory in Christ, will restore, support, strengthen and establish us…” unto the end of ages (1 Peter 5:10). This is the home to which God is calling you. So, stay the course. Steve and Doug and Mike and a host of others… you know their names… are all watching over us… cheering us on, every day… awaiting the day of our homecoming.

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