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We understand that, sadly, dying is a part of living. Some have said that the moment we are born, we begin a journey that takes us from the delivery room to the cemetery. The length of our journey is unknown, but the life lived during the journey is what truly matters. When a First Responder loses his or her life, fellow first responders, often from multiple agencies, are duty-bound to honor their fallen comrade’s final leg of this journey with dignity and respect. The coordination and most-public aspect of this mission falls to a specialized team of men and women known simply as Honor Guard. On this chilly January morning, we found the Clay County Sheriff’s Office Honor Guard training in an offsite location. Their ranks temporarily reduced by illness and other obligations, team lead Lt. Matt Williams was having a roundtable discussion with Deputies Altstatt, Tollick, and VanDyke when we stopped in for a visit.

A member of the Honor Guard since 1998, Lt. Williams has served with numerous deputies over the years, and, as we soon learned, he has carried the sad burden of saying goodbye to many great deputies over the years. Names like Seagle, Twisdale, Zirbel, and White are spoken with reverence and remembrance, but today this team is feeling the fresh sting of the recent passing of Deputy and fellow Honor Guard member Sgt. Eric Danella. As the deputies give their background and motivation for serving on this team, Deputy Altstatt laughs at the teasing about her early days in High School ROTC. However, things become solemn as she briefly chokes back tears while speaking of the difficulty of losing Sgt. Danella, “We are a family, and we lost one of our own. This team is really a small family within a larger family for us.” Deputy VanDyke adds, “In our role, we often see people—the families—at the worst time of their lives, but we also get to provide that little bit of pride and comfort to them as they see their loved ones respected for their service to the community.” “A proper sendoff for a deputy gives support and closure for the family,” agrees Altstatt.  When asked what motivated him to join the Honor Guard, Deputy Tollick shared of learning about a funeral for a fellow law enforcement officer when no one was able or available to play Taps. “It really bothered me—a fallen officer should be honored with Taps—so I took my knowledge of music as a former tuba player, bought a trumpet, and started practicing. I’m still perfecting it, but I’m going to make sure that this honor is given when required.” When asked about what drew him to serve in Honor Guard, Deputy VanDyke spoke of being influenced by a family member who served in the Federal Honor Guard and by also being inspired during the service for Deputy Ben Zirbel in 2018.

When asked about his history of service, Lt. Williams pauses and smiles as Deputy VanDyke smoothly interjects, “Four score and seven years ago…” Unfazed by the laughter and promising some type of unseen retribution, Williams shares of a time when he was still an Explorer in Monroe County and attended an annual memorial to fallen officers. “I was certainly impressed with the Honor Guard, and a few years later,     as a young deputy, I founded the Honor Guard for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department. When I became a deputy in Clay County, it wasn’t long before I also became a part of the guard here.”

When asked about the sacrifice involved in being a part of Honor Guard, every team member deflected and shifted the talk to a conversation about service, honor, camaraderie, and respect. While these unsung heroes are quick to minimize the impact, it is important to note that not only do these deputies attend funerals all across the state (the loss during the height of Covid-19 was incalculable), they also 

personally drop everything when there is a loss close to home. Their service doesn’t just start and end at the funeral. Indeed, Honor Guard is called upon to attend the transport of a fallen officer from the hospital to the funeral home, avail themselves to the family around the clock, and stand a post with the fallen officer non-stop until that officer has been laid to rest—also known as Black Watch. I asked one member if it was tough to be away from his family on Christmas Day while standing watch. He replied, humbly, “It’s what they would do for my family if it was me who died.” It is this type of servant leadership that permeates Honor Guard, and that passion is obvious as we speak.

Finally, there is one more story of service (and the toll it can take) that is important to share. One long-time member of both the CCSO and Orange Park Police Department’s Honor Guard is Detective Lanier. When interviewed for this story over the phone the day before meeting with the rest of the team, Lanier stated, “The privilege of being an Honor Guard member is serving with some of the most dedicated individuals in this agency. When a need is requested, we do everything we can to make it happen. With that said, the hardest “privilege” is laying to rest one of our own members. It was best said that we mourn today and get the job done tomorrow to ensure our member’s family observes the honor that it was to serve our community.” As the conversation wrapped up, Detective Lanier shared that she had tendered her resignation from the Honor Guard earlier in the day. “I’ve done this a long time and had the incredible privilege of honoring many great fallen officers and deputies over the years. I have often been told that I would clearly know when it was time to step away from this part of the job, and it was during the service for Sgt. Danella that I knew. I will still proudly serve the community as a deputy in Clay County–it is just time to say goodbye to Honor Guard. I love this team, and I know that they will continue to do a great job going forward.”

Goodbye comes in many ways. Our community is so grateful for the sacrifice of those known simply as…Honor Guard.

CEO Judson Sapp and Clay County Sheriff Michelle Cook

Judson Sapp hosts Clay County Sheriff Michelle Cook to discuss law enforcement issues. From the latest breaking news to cold cases, we answer the questions you have always wanted to ask. Tune in weekly!