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Honoring Police Officers: Sacrifice, service and reflection

Lt. Col. Michael Speck, 50th Security Forces Squadron commander. (Courtesy photo)

Lt. Col. Michael Speck, 50th Security Forces Squadron commander. (Courtesy photo)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- On 5 July 1983, shortly after midnight, Shane Patrick Richie and John Eric Lockhart broke into the Super City Sporting Goods store in Burton, Michigan. As Officer Terry Lee Thompson responded to the disturbance, Shane shot him multiple times, killing him almost instantly. This police officer murder rocked the small Burton community, bordering Flint, Michigan, to the core… a city known for its high murder rate.

However, back then police officers, even in Flint, were not targeted as they are today. In this case, an outraged community demanded a teenager, barely 17, and his partner, just shy of 17, be held accountable in the adult criminal justice system for murdering a veteran, a hero.

Thompson was married, and only 32 years old. He was a U.S. Marine Corp veteran with eight years on the police force. He was remembered by family and friends as a 6’5” tall gentle giant who would give all of himself to help others.

Officer Thompson’s End of Watch occurred just a few hours after the 1983 Fourth of July fireworks silenced; however, his sacrifice, like so many other police officers and military heroes, continues to positively impact the lives of the young and the old to this day.

My service in the Air Force security forces is directly related to Officer Thompson. When I heard Shane and Eric murdered a police officer in that store … it hit me that I would have been there.

Under different circumstances, I would have been there. I was the youngest of the group, three years younger and malleable at my age, I followed Shane and Eric sometimes without question. We were unsupervised kids from broken homes who spent our time doing delinquent activities, but nothing ever this serious.

Their plan that night was to steal, not murder.

I thank God we moved from that neighborhood a few months prior, or my life would have taken a very different, dark path. I never knew Officer Thompson, but I think of him, and his influence on me constantly. He is a hero.

His death set me on a path of service almost immediately. My goal was to simply become a Michigan State Trooper, and I had planned to use the Air Force security forces experience to achieve that goal.

Like so many, I found a sense of home in serving my country and being a defender of the small base communities I was assigned. I found a family in my combat cops who ran to man battle positions while rockets were still exploding, as everyone else found cover.

Cops are unique. Some may dislike or maybe even hate each other; however, threaten a cop and all come running regardless of personal risk.

Everyone has their own unique story as to why they choose to serve others, to place their lives in danger protecting others or serving something greater than themselves. Police work is a tough business of dealing with elements of society most of us cross the street to avoid. It demands attention kept from family, with long hours, odd work schedules, exposure to horrific crimes and the ever present threat of not returning home, pushing some officers to commit suicide.

We tend to forget that our police officers came from and were raised in our society, they are not just some adult figures who magically appear. They are us.

My security forces defenders live a similar life to our civilian counterparts. Their job can be extremely rewarding and the responsibility, especially for our 18 year olds, is awesome and demanding.

Our garrison law enforcement mission demands we remain vigilant for hours standing guard at our installation entry points. My defenders smile at our customers as they scan their identification for base access, and it’s a cordial exchange most of the time. What customers don’t recognize is the defender’s eyes scanning - looking for possible threats. Most assume it’s a safe duty until the day a gun is drawn.

For those not in law enforcement, approaching a car to talk with the driver is no threat; however, to a defender, it could turn into a violent interaction with the potential to end their life.

Tech. Sgt. Robert Butler was shot in the face and murdered instantly by another Airman during a “routine” traffic stop at Edwards Air Force Base, California. When base personnel witness my defenders approach a vehicle cautiously, even here at Schriever Air Force Base, it’s because traffic stops are never routine.

The unique aspect of a security forces defender is he or she is also dual-hatted as a combat cop. Many of my defenders have deployed to the combat zone, patrolling the streets of Baghdad or other outside-the-base boundary missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During my command tour at Bagram Airfield, most of my 400 defenders begged me to place them on my Reaper Teams patrolling outside the base boundary, even after one of our Reaper Teams and our sister squadron’s Reaper Team was struck by improvised explosive devices on the same night.

The requests to patrol “outside-the-wire” continued even after we lost one of our own.

Staff Sgt. Todd “TJ” Lobraico, Jr., was killed while on a dismounted combat patrol outside of Bagram Airfield. TJ’s call to service began with his two grandfathers, his Lieutenant Colonel Mother, and Master Sergeant Security Forces Father … he and his dad even served in the same New York guard unit.

TJ had his reasons for serving, and ultimately his sacrifice, just as most defenders do.

The 14 pictures hanging above our police Blue Line in the command section staircase are constant reminders of those defenders’ sacrifice and service … dual-hatted as police officers at home and combat cops abroad. Their call to service is not always known, but many came from police or military families, some were civilian police officers when not in the Air Force uniform.

I pause occasionally to look at our fallen Defenders’ Wall and reflect on their sacrifice, service, and why they served.

National Police Week is an opportunity to honor those who serve, who have served and paid the ultimate price. Those of us in the profession will celebrate with various activities from a shooting competition to a motorcycle ride. For those not in the profession, consider thanking a police officer, especially those in our civilian departments, and take the time to understand the sacrifices and challenges they face daily. Their service is the only thing between order and chaos.