Fallen Heroes: Tragedies Not in Vain

By Don Karol

National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial

Walking slowly down the tree-lined path, I pause, panel after panel, gazing at the names engraved on the marble wall of remembrance. The names of over 20,000 police officers, killed in the line of duty, adorn the east and west walls of the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial. The peacefulness of the Memorial grounds provides me an ideal place for reflection; a place to remember my many friends and colleagues who made the ultimate sacrifice. Each time I visit, I take out a tattered sheet of paper, a list of the locations on the wall where I can find the names of particular fallen heroes. In toll, there are 48 names on my list, depicting the specific location where I can see the engraving of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers who died tragically during my 21-year CHP career. Many of these officers were my friends; many others I only came to know in death – as the lead crash investigator responsible for identifying the factors that led to their death.

As I reach the 50th panel on the west wall, I glance down at my notes and see 50W-19. Scrolling down the wall to the 19th line, I get choked up when I see the name “John Steel” carved into the bluish-gray wall. John was my friend, mentor, and my first supervisor. For three years, I learned from him and admired him. Over the years, I’ve thought of the morning of April 23, 1993, many times. Memories of the CHP locker room radio blaring, “Officer down, Officer down.” Arriving on scene and finding out that an impaired driver had crossed over a center median and crashed head on into John’s motorcycle. Seeing his mangled CHP Harley Davidson lying in the roadway. The investigation, memorial service, flagged draped coffin, honor guard, a multi-mile long procession to the burial site – imprinted in my mind forever.

So many panels, so many memories:

Handwritten notes of memorial locations on the panels of the National Law Enforecement Officers Memorial48E-20: Officer Saul Martinez (End of Watch 5-15-97) A friend, beat partner, and person who was beloved by the community. Before his death he was named “Latino Peace Officer of the Year” in recognition of his outstanding service in the Latino neighborhoods. Saul died tragically when an impaired driver ran off the road and struck him while he was outside of his patrol car checking on a disabled vehicle. Prior to being hit, Officer Martinez saved the life of his partner by pushing him out of the way of danger. The Governor of California posthumously presented him the “Medal of Valor,” in recognition of his heroism. While visions of Saul’s crash scene haunt me to this day, what I remember most was the tradition of eating fresh tamales at Saul’s house on Christmas day.

63E-20: Officer Dan Muehlhausen (End of Watch 6-1-97) Working in the same CHP office as Saul and I, Dan was killed two weeks after Officer Martinez. Dan had been one of my trainees and had been on the job for less than two years. He was dispatched to assist a disabled motorist on a rural highway near Twentynine Palms, when a pickup truck attempting to pass on a hill, crossed over double yellow lines and struck Dan’s patrol car head on. Both vehicles were immediately engulfed in flames.

28E-20: Officer Noreen Vargas (End of Watch: 11-8-96) Lost her life when a tractor-trailer combination lost one of its trailer’s wheels and the tire bounced onto the opposite side of the highway and landed on Noreen’s vehicle, crushing the vehicle’s roof and killing her instantly. Officer Vargas was the first female officer killed in the line of duty in the CHP.

18E-20: Officer James Schultz (End of Watch: 11-16-96) was checking on an abandoned vehicle on the shoulder of desert highway when a sleepy commercial truck driver drifted toward the right shoulder and hit him.

18W-25: Officer David Romero (End of Watch: 9-23-05) was on motorcycle patrol and stopped at an intersection, when a driver, impaired by drugs, collided with the rear of his bike.

Six panels visited, forty-two more names to locate. . . As I reflect upon each of my fallen colleagues, I am reminded of the sculpture of an adult lion protecting its cubs which adorns the Memorial’s entrance to the pathway of remembrance. Beneath the statute is an inscription, “It is not how these officers died that made them heroes, it is how they lived.” As a highway crash investigator, it is difficult to remove the images of the crumpled patrol cars, debris-strewn highways, and autopsy viewings from my thoughts. But this simple quote helps calm me, and makes me realize that I need to honor my friends by remembering who they were in life, not how they died.

This week, tens of thousands of law enforcement officers from around the world will converge on Washington, DC to visit the Memorial and participate in a number of commemorative ceremonies as part of National Police Week. This week pays special recognition to those law enforcement officers who made the ultimate sacrifice for the safety and protection of others. Sadly, 117 more law enforcement officers died in the line of duty this past year – a nine percent increase over 2013. Traffic-related incidents were one of the leading causes of these deaths, killing 49 officers.

National Police Week is an emotional time to pay respect to the fallen, a time of remembrance, and hopefully time of contemplation. For me, it is a time to rekindle the flames of my passion; a passion to learn from tragedy, and do everything in my power to prevent future calamities. Likewise, when I hear politicians and leaders in the law enforcement community speak at memorial events and say the solemn words, “These officers shall not have died in vain,” I expect they mean it. What does to “not have died in vain” mean? To me, it means that proactive steps are being taken to prevent the situation which led to their deaths. This may mean changing procedures and tactics, strengthening and enforcing safety regulations, or improving vehicle and safety equipment.

Four years ago, when I retired from law enforcement to join the National Transportation Safety Board, I was following my passion. When I first saw the inscription on the glass wall at the NTSB Training Center, I knew I was in the right place. The wall inscription reads: “Dedicated to the victims of transportation accidents and their families – From tragedy we draw knowledge to improve the safety of us all.”

We must never forget the tragedies. And we must learn from each of them. When I push for fatigue-mitigation strategies and science-based hours of service regulations for truckers, Officer James Schultz, and hundreds of other motorists who lost their lives at the hands of a tired trucker, are not forgotten. When advocating for stronger laws, technology and more enforcement to combat substance-impaired driving, I think of John Steel, Saul Martinez, David Romero and the thousands of others who are killed by drunk drivers. If someone tells me that commercial trucks and buses are safely maintained and vehicle inspections are not needed, I gladly share the tragic story of how Officer Noreen Vargas lost her life, and the scores of other crashes I have investigated caused by vehicle maintenance problems.

This week, as we commemorate National Police Week, let’s remember the fallen heroes, and ensure the tragedies were not in vain.

Don Karol is a National Resource Specialist in the NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety and a 21-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol.

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