It’s All About the White Chairs


By Patrick Yoes

National FOP Secretary Patrick Yoes offers the real meaning behind Police Week and pays tribute to the families of fallen officers.

In West Memphis, Arkansas, a widow and her young children and the parents and the young children of her husband’s partner pack their bags for an early morning flight to the nation’s capital to attend a series of memorial services and workshops. Each event is carefully designed to not only memorialize their loved one, but also help the families cope with their loss and hopefully help them find closure in a seemingly endless nightmare that replays in their minds each and every time they close their eyes at night.

They are not alone; the wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and partners of fallen police officers during 2010 are making this same trip, each for their own healing.

Across the country, some 1,000 miles away, a delivery truck arrives on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol and begins unloading chairs — hundreds of them — some white, some blue, some red. Each is placed in rows according to color as sketched out on a diagram, a diagram painstakingly developed by dedicated volunteers and the result of months of countless hours of planning and sleepless nights knowing the significance of their work in the lives of those who have given so much.

The next day, as the families board their plane headed for Washington, D.C., work crews begin erecting stages and installing sound systems, railings and security parameters. Other volunteers begin developing transportation needs for the survivors, printing programs and arranging meals and first-aid stations — all the special needs that a crowd of this magnitude brings.

The grieving families arrive in Washington, as do those with whom they will share their grief, for their loved ones have fallen, too. It is their nightmare as well, and together they will find ways to deal with their emptiness. They sit in a room and cry, laugh, talk and listen. They attend workshops put on by those who understand their pain firsthand. They attend a Candlelight Vigil at a solemn place where their loved ones’ names are forever engraved on granite walls. They are overwhelmed by the support of thousands who share in their remembrances, their healing and their sorrows.

Across town, the site begins to take shape. Fifteen-hundred white chairs are set up directly in front of a stage bearing the presidential seal. An even larger number of blue and red chairs flank them on each side. To the rear, a large standing area takes shape; tents rise at the entrances as security checkpoints and media stands appear. At the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial only blocks away, a handful of runners complete their journey from Philadelphia to honor their fallen, as do bicyclists and motorcyclists accomplishing their own long journeys.

A small army of volunteers go down their checklists and become tired and frustrated with the last-minute changes and budget constraints. Yet, in the background, the sounds of “Taps” can faintly be heard from buglers practicing in the shade. Their somber sound is occasionally drowned out by the bellowing of bagpipes practicing “Amazing Grace,” determined that every note be perfect. The sights and sounds of so many remind them why their work is so important. Police Honor Guard teams from hundreds of agencies, from the largest to the smallest, practice under the sometimes brutal mid-spring sun to ensure that their every step and turn occur with pinpoint precision.

As the survivors begin to find peace with a series of events over which they had absolutely no control, they board buses for the Capitol escorted by what seems like miles of motorcycle officers. As they arrive, thousands of uniformed officers stand side by side, creating a cordon of honor leading to the white chairs.

Ask any volunteer why they give their all to this service; ask any FOP member why they spend a large portion of their dues for this service; ask any corporate sponsor why they contribute to this solemn service; ask those who travel from near and far to attend this service. They may all articulate their reasons differently, yet every one of their messages is consistent in one aspect — it is all about the “white chairs.”

Each one of those “white chairs” represents a hero who has fallen and, equally as important, heroes who must carry on. Their lives have been forever changed and through the efforts of so many, they know they are not alone, for we never forget our fallen and the contributions they and their families have made and will continue to make.

When the days grow long, the temperature rises and the site-preparation work seems endless, remember … it’s all about the “white chairs.” When you are running or cycling to the Memorial in honor of our fallen, remember … it’s all about the “white chairs.” When you arrive at the service and can’t get the view of the stage you would like, remember … it’s all about the “white chairs.” When there isn’t enough seating for last-minute VIP seating changes, remember … it’s all about the “white chairs.” When the service extends longer than expected because the most powerful man in the world, the President of the United States, takes time to ask survivors how they are doing and asks them to tell him about their loved ones, remember … it’s all about the “white chairs.” When you can’t get close enough to shake the President’s hand, remember … it’s all about the “white chairs.” When egos get bruised and tempers flare because the task seems overwhelming and thankless, remember … it’s all about the “white chairs.” When participating in the evening parties and gatherings to celebrate life, remember … it’s all about the “white chairs.”

As long as there is a need for “white chairs” to be set up on the lawn of our nation’s Capitol on May 15, a date set aside by Congress in remembrance of our fallen, our work is not done. Nor should we lose sight of the reason we do what we must all do … to remember. Take pride in your efforts, for the FOP National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service doesn’t just happen, it evolves out of our respect and admiration for those who have given far more than we have.

To read the full article, check out the Summer 2011 issue of the FOP Journal.

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