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Solemn remembrance for fallen Chicago-area officers

By Dan Campana

Presiding over the annual Illinois Police Memorial Ceremony in Springfield on Thursday, retired Sangamon County Sheriff’s Office Lt. David Johnson offered an undeniable affirmation to Gold Star families that no officer lost in the line of duty will ever be forgotten.

“This is for you,” Johnson, president of the Illinois Police Officers Memorial Committee, said to those gathered inside the Illinois State Library. “When I look out, I remember why I do this. We come here to honor the way they lived their lives.”

The 2018 Illinois Police Memorial Ceremony in Springfield carried a particularly heavy weight of emotion on Thursday as six officers who died last year were remembered for their sacrifice. Their names, as well as two historical honorees, were added to the memorial statue on the Capitol Building’s grounds.

Speaking at an interfaith church service at Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Galesburg Police Officer Dan Williams, the first vice president of the Police Benevolent Association of Illinois, called the annual day of reflection a “sacred obligation” not limited by any circumstance.

“All that matters is that they were one of ours,” Williams said. “May we always pay honor to all the fallen officers.”

The Most Reverend Thomas John Paprocki, bishop of the Springfield diocese, used his homily to talk about feeling lost in the wake of the officers’ deaths.

“We need … somewhere where we will belong, where are not alone,” Paprocki told the audience of family members and police officers from around the state. “Through their living and dying in service to others, they modeled what it means to be Christ’s disciples. One day, we shall greet them again.”

After the service, a procession of police motorcycles, vintage squad cars and current vehicles representing numerous departments made their way to the Illinois State Library for formal recognition of the officers. Rain forced the ceremony indoors for a second year in a row, but did not diminish the significance of the moment. Visibly emotional, family members were greeted with handshakes and hugs of sympathy from state officials in attendance as they received plaques and wreaths recognizing their loved ones.

State Treasurer Michael Frerichs, who had a police officer uncle severely wounded on the job, echoed the sentiment of many when he said he looked forward to a year when no new names are added to the memorial. But, reality being what it is, Frerichs and other state leaders who spoke made it clear the families will never be alone.

“We cannot fill the hole in your hearts,” Governor Bruce Rauner offered. “We owe you a debt of gratitude we can never repay. We have your backs.”

Retired Chicago Police Detective Robert Hehl spoke of the heartbreaking loss of his wife, Illinois State Police Sgt. Erin Hehl, during a1997 helicopter training exercise crash. His emotions rose as he described the struggles that followed his wife’s tragic death, but Hehl said support he felt then still remains today.

“True to their word, they’re all still here with me 20 years later,” Hehl said in reassuring new Gold Star families that support will always be there for them.