A gentle breeze stirs the massive American flag hoisted high above the street by local fire departments, and, one by one, vehicles navigate through a maze of traffic deputies tasked with ensuring that each automobile is sent to its designated parking spot. The always beautiful property of the Moosehaven Community in Orange Park feels more like hallowed ground as we walk slowly past the watchful eyes of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team and towards the pavilion where today’s ceremony will take place. On this day, we pause to honor those who lost their lives in the line of duty while serving their community. There is no agency competition today—no jurisdictional lines or displayed ego. Deputies, officers, elected officials, and supporters huddle together as they speak in hushed tones. The moment is solemn, yet there is evident camaraderie on this beautiful Florida morning. Today is about unity, and the scores of men and women gathered along the St. John’s River are a testament to the love and respect that Northeast Florida has for its fallen heroes. The conversations quickly end as all uniformed officers are called to attention and the bagpipes begin to sound in the distance. Soon, the families of fallen Clay County law enforcement officers dating back to 1894 are escorted to their seats by deputies assigned to them for the day. The families are greeted with sharp salutes and sincere hands-over-hearts as they make their way through the officers and civilians. Standing in the shadow of the three crosses next to the pavilion, CCSO Chaplain Joe Williams opens the ceremony with an invocation, the National Anthem is sung, and members of surrounding agencies lower the flag to half-staff as a reminder that this day comes at a great price.
As the memorial ceremony continues, Clay County Sheriff Michelle Cook introduces the agency director of Concerns of Police Survivors of Northeast Florida, Charles Shinholser, to the podium. Though more than thirty years have passed since the loss of his son, Sgt. Charles “Ray” Shinholser, Jr., the emotion and significance of his son’s line of duty loss is still apparent as the elder Shinholser shares his story with the crowd. Indeed, Mr. Shinholser’s comments are a reminder that a surviving family member can be incredibly proud and terribly heartbroken simultaneously, yet the guests and families present on this day are reminded that life continues to move forward. When Ashley and Cooper-White, the surviving children of Detective David White, are brought to the stage to perform a powerful and inspiring song of faith, tears and smiles in the crowd reveal and celebrate the perseverance that is so often found in the families of those who have lost loved ones in the line of duty. As the song ends and silence settles over the large group, U.S. Navy Master Chief Mack Ellis steps to the microphone and shares (boldly) a poem entitled The Final Inspection, a reflection on a conversation between God and a fallen officer.
As hearts are lifted and challenged by the reading, the names of the fallen are read and responded to as “absent!”
A single rose is placed as a memorial to each fallen officer, and then every uniformed officer snaps to attention, and every civilian quietly pays their respects as a 21 gun salute shatters the silence of the moment. As the report of the gunfire fades, the ever heart wrenching “Taps” is played. Even an older gentleman confined to a portable scooter with an American flag on one side and a Marine Corps flag on the other struggles to his feet next to the scooter, removes his hat, and places a hand over his heart in honor of these loved and respected officers. As stillness again settles over the venue, a lone bagpipe plays “Amazing Grace” as the cool river wind gently filters through the ancient oaks.
To stand in the back of this crowd and take in the scene, one may wonder what was going through the minds of the officers, deputies, and Troopers as they observe this solemn moment.
Are they missing their fellow officers? Some served closely beside the fallen.
Are they thinking about the surviving families? You cannot overlook them today—their hurt is on display directly in front of us.
Are they thinking about their own mortality and their own families and wondering if their own name might be called out as “absent” one day? Law enforcement is dangerous work, and there are no guarantees of a safe return home at the end of a shift.
The sheer burden of the badge beckons every citizen in Clay County to honor those who fight and serve to keep our families, streets, and homes safe from those who would do us harm. While agencies and law enforcement officers can be competitive, today, in this special moment of remembrance, there is only unity. This is what family looks like.