The Stuff of Dreams

A Proper Tribute fulfills all expectations to give fallen officers the honor everyone had been waiting for

By Mitchell Krugel

A procession of nearly 70 vehicles stretched from the PNC Bank Arts Center to the Epic Church for A Proper Tribute

At 3 a.m. on April 26, NJ State PBA President Pat Colligan had a bit of a rude awakening. About two hours or so earlier than his usual wake-up call, Colligan quipped about stirring from a dream that families were beginning to arrive for A Proper Tribute, but no law enforcement officers had shown up yet.

Together with leaders from New Jersey’s first responder community and a group of PBA members, Colligan led the planning of A Proper Tribute as an event to honor first responders who were lost to COVID during the pandemic and never had the chance for the salutary line-of-duty death funeral. He hoped that agencies throughout the state would come to honor the 45 fallen first responders, starting with a processional with family members of the 45 and police vehicles from the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel to the Epic Church in Sayreville where a memorial tribute would be held.

“Yeah, I had a dream that families were starting to arrive, I was looking for people and nobody was taking my calls,” Colligan shared. “Only 30 departments RSVPed that they going to send cars to the site, so I didn’t know what to expect.”

But like the scene at the end of “Field of Dream,” a line of first responder vehicles stretched more than three miles long. Departing PNC Bank Arts through a gateway created by two fire department ladder trucks set to hang a massive American flag – like you would see at any line of duty death funeral – patrol units, motors, first responder vehicles and cars filled with family members of the 45, more than 70 vehicles set out for the Epic Church.

It was the start of an epic day. And after five months of intricate and passionate planning, A Proper Tribute turned out to be more than Colligan could have ever dreamed.

“You got to love it when the plan comes together,” Colligan commented with a well-deserved exhale after the event concluded. “Everybody did a phenomenal job. I didn’t realize how much it would mean to the families when this started. And now, having heard from the families, we’re glad we did it.”

A Proper Tribute provided the long-awaited recognition to what first responders endured and overcame during the pandemic. The first days of having to wear construction masks before truly protective gear had even been invented, members living in garages and campers after worrying that they caught COVID from a response and the missing of babies being born were part of the maladies that of course culminated with loved ones being lost in the line of duty.

And so as a box of tissue cast an ominous presence when family members and officers who lost sisters and brothers at the entrance to the church, there was a sense that the event gave them a chance to have a long-awaited therapeutic cry. All that was proper about this day was confirmed when New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin stepped to the podium and stated, “For those of you who lost loved ones, it robbed you of unspeakable gifts. But the cruelest thing is that it robbed us of that moment of solidarity, of being together when someone is lost.”

The many dignitaries who attended A Proper Tribute offered heartfelt messages of support for what Platkin articulated as law enforcement being asked to do things that had never been asked before. “And God-willing will never be asked to do again,” the AG added.

Speaker of the NJ Assembly Craig Coughlin also emphasized the mission for the Tribute and appeared to speak for an entire grateful state with his remarks from a podium adorned with a backdrop of the specially painted memorial portraits of the 45.

“I hope that each of you are filled with a million good memories of the person that you lost,” Coughlin submitted. “The individual losses must not be forgotten. It’s critically important for the people in public safety, who are no longer with us, to be remembered fittingly and appropriately. Their sacrifices must be remembered, and their stories must be told.”

Perhaps the feeling about the healing of the day was best described by Lisa Preslar, the president of Garden State Concerns of Police Survivors, who noted that the Tribute provided “A way to properly lay these heroes to rest the way you would’ve wanted.” Or perhaps the survivors were uplifted by what Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office Local 171 member Melissa Rose said she intended when belting out a truly inspiring singing of the National Anthem at the beginning of the Tribute.
“Personally, there were people that did not have that time where they could share words and be with the family,” she said. “Although this isn’t the same thing, hopefully it was something to come together for everybody that lost somebody in the same respect.”

Family members of fallen officers enter the Epic Church through an escort line of honor guards from New Jersey agencies.

A Proper Tribute went above and beyond to generate line-of-duty-death respect. A big part of that came from the now-renowned portraits painted by artist Elle McCarthy. Made possible through the efforts of SupBro, a group of New Jersey and Pennsylvania-based police officers devoted to fundraising for families of fallen law enforcement officers and other first responders, the portraits were gifted to family members or departments as part of the Tribute.

As NJ State Police Colonel Patrick Callahan, the master of ceremonies for the Tribute, called out the names of the 45 with all the reverence of the Candlelight Vigil at National Police Week, pictures of the first responders appeared on the monstrous screens above the podium. Colonel Callahan then capped off this part of the Tribute by quoting some words that Abraham Lincoln included in his Gettysburg Address.

“He talked about those that gave the last full measure of devotion,” Callahan stated. “The last full measure of devotion is giving your life for those that you don’t know.”

If there were any worries from that 3 a.m. awakening that family members would not cherish what A Proper Tribute intended, well, many of the family members attending shared what Michelle Kincade experienced. Her partner and father of their three children, Cumberland County Corrections Local 231 member Luis Andujar, was lost on Jan. 22, 2021. And so the Tribute was certainly anticipated and hoped for.

“It’s been a long time, and we’ve been waiting for this,” Kincade confirmed. “So I’m just very happy that it’s happened and that we’re here to support everyone, too.”

A Proper Tribute did end with more grace than anybody might have ever dreamed. The combined pipes and drums band made up of first responders from throughout the state had a special rendition of “Amazing Grace” waiting. It began with a pipes solo on the first verse. Then, then rest of the band joined in on the second verse for an epic performance that reverberated throughout the church.

By then, A Proper Tribute clearly had reached the high note that everybody who planned the event and everybody who attended had been waiting for.

Going the Extra Miles

NJSPBA members come out in force with a presence that makes for a historic tribute

By Esther Gonzales

Agencies from throughout the state join the historic 12-mile procession from PNC Bank Arts Center to Epic Church to start A Proper Tribute.

One by one, New Jersey law enforcement officers rolled into PNC Bank Arts Center Parking Lot C early in the a.m. on April 26. At the center of the lot stood one of the NJSPBA Special Services trailers, providing members with a hub to gather at and offering a refreshing cup of hot coffee.

And they kept coming. Soon, the parking lot overflowed with hundreds of motors, patrol vehicles, buses and other types of cars from agencies through the state that would be part of a 150-vehicle procession leading to Epic Church in Sayreville for A Proper Tribute.

At the far end of the lot, where the processional would leave from, a large American flag hung from fire company ladder trucks that formed a “V” in front of the road leading to the Garden State Parkway. Here was the gateway where hundreds of vehicles readied to be part of a historic journey.

This was the beginning of A Proper Tribute. A few minutes later, the vehicles embarked on a processional that grew so big it resonated 12 miles away to the Epic Church. There, the Tribute organizers from the many law enforcement organizations waited and heard how epic this participation had become.

“I need to make sure my brothers that are looking at us from up in the sky, that we’re here, we’re proud and we’re going to show them the utmost respect that they deserve,” Middlesex County Corrections Officers Local 152 member Carlos Barahona noted. “They deserve to have the same service that everyone else had.”

Countless members from across the state embraced the opportunity to finally give officers lost in the line of duty during the pandemic the kind of tribute they deserved. The kind of tribute they did not get because COVID didn’t allow it — but which was now happening. Something these officers who had come to central Jersey were not going to miss.

Teaneck Local 215 member Adam Lohsen parked his motors unit beside the dozens of others already in the lot. He was eager to be a part of the procession that would escort family members to Epic Church. A procession of this kind had never been done before. This was the pinnacle of his career, he said.

“It gives you a sense of honor and purpose,” Lohsen explained. “It’s something bigger than just the job. And I know if it happened to me, I would want the same showing. So I enjoy going out there and showing the solidarity between brothers.”

Law enforcement officers walk past the long line of honor guard members into the Epic Church for the Tribute.

As Lohsen prepared for the procession to begin, he expressed that he would be thinking of the families and how much this day meant to them, too.

“I think about how much it means to them to see how many of us show support,” Lohsen submitted. “And that they’re not alone.”

Assigned to detail, Ocean County Corrections Officers Local 258 State Delegate Rebecca Roth was one of the first members to arrive at PNC. As she waited to muster for the procession, she related what this day truly meant for everyone.

It would bring back emotions and maybe unresolved feelings. But Roth also hoped the Tribute would serve as a catalyst for healing and closure.

“I hope that this can also be a bright light in a dark part of a lot of people’s lives,” Roth expressed. “I hope that there’s laughter, memories and good times shared, because you have to remember the good times.”

Outside of Epic Church, members stood at attention to welcome the families. Standing shoulder to shoulder, honor guard members lined the sidewalk leading to the entry of the church. Inside, they stood on either side of the long hallway that stretched into the large auditorium.

Whether they were part of the honor guard or just attending to add to the Tribute, there was something special about being involved in this historic event.

“It’s something that’s well overdue,” Ocean County Sheriff’s Department Local 379 member Keith Hardie explained. “It’s a shame what happened and how these families didn’t have the ability to grieve. They put their life on the line every day, day in and day out, and it’s important for the families, I think, most of all. The State PBA, the troopers, everybody came together, they made this happen, and I think the families will appreciate it. I know the men and women in law enforcement do.”

A gentle piano melody played over the loudspeakers inside the church. One by one, family members were escorted past the long line of blue by members of their fallen officers’ agencies. At the doorway to the auditorium, each family member received a red rose.

And there, familiar faces welcomed them from the soft blue glow that illuminated the 45 hand- painted portraits lining the stage. Before the room was filled, one officer approached the paintings. He paced back and forth, pausing at each one.

It was this experience that made so many officers want to attend A Proper Tribute. And their presence had a powerful impact on how much the Tribute meant.

“It means a lot that we are honoring them and that they’re not forgotten,” Sussex County Local 138 member Bennett Milnor remarked. “I think that’s the most important part about this job; if we don’t have each other, we got no one.”

Keep Your Guard Up

Honor guards form a thick blue line that gives the Tribute a memorable look

By Mitchell Krugel

Two lines of honor guards from agencies throughout the state circled through the aisles of the Epic Church creating the illusion of twin spinning wheels. More than 100 officers marched so much in sync that every step appeared to be in perfect single file.

The lines in lockstep then advanced through an immaculately choreographed progression out of the church to resume their position forming a corridor of flags, rifles and best-dressed rows of blue. Family members of fallen officers honored during A Proper Tribute exited the church the same way they had entered: passing honor guards standing at attention and giving the final salute everybody had come here for.

Articulating how this combined honor guard stepped up to bring pomp to the circumstance of A Proper Tribute was almost too spectacular to describe. Manchester Township Local 246 State Delegate Artie Cronk, who helped choreograph this honor guard rendition to create a crescendo to the Tribute, did his best to come up with the words to capture the elegance of this moment.

“It’s very impressive to see that that many honor guards wanted to turn out to represent their agencies and then for the families that are here,” Cronk observed. “The amount of lives that we’re honoring today made a tremendous impact, and that’s why I think we have the turnout that we did today.”

As Stafford Township Local 297 member John Morrin prepared to lead his department’s honor guard through the 21-gun salute at the end of the Tribute, he related how he had seen this before. Or something like it.

He was in the Marine Corps for eight years, and the precision of the progression had a military-like feel for him. The Stafford crew has presented colors at Jets games, at Red Bulls games and many funerals, but they apparently wanted to present something extra special at the Tribute.

“I think of all the fallen in every event we do, and it always means something special for the family and for the individual officer,” Morrin added. “You had these 45 officers that were not given a proper farewell by their fellow brothers and sisters, and it’s nice to see everybody get together now that the pandemic’s over to give them a proper sendoff.”

The sendoff included so many honor guards that their lines stretched out the doors of the church, around the corner down a long haul then a left turn out the door into the parking lot. And about another 25 yards.

A bigger array of flags would have only been found at the United Nations. It was an all-star team of honor guards sporting blue, royal blue, navy blue, dark blue, blue-gray, indigo, periwinkle and almost every other blue on the color wheel.

Can you imagine what it must have been like to be part of this line?

“It means a lot to us that we get to honor our brothers and sisters, pay our respects and stand side by side with these fine gentlemen right here,” described Montclair Local 53 member Mike DeGrazio, who has been with the department’s honor guard for 18 of his 19 years on the job. “Just show your gratitude, show your respect, show how thankful we are for each other. It’s never easy doing any of these events, especially when you see the families upset and whatnot. I’m sure there are some feelings of sorrow, but we’re just so glad we could be here to show them, give them support.”

The honor guard presence at A Proper Tribute treaded on becoming one of those moments in the profession that you had to see it to feel it. Almost like seeing the Police Unity Tour ride into the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington D.C. during National Police Week.

The lines carried on extra long most likely to make sure each of the 45 first responders being honored received their due. And ensure the family members received theirs, too.

New Providence Local 132 member Nicholas Guerriero may not have seen or experienced many of those iconic moments with serving three years on the department’s honor guard. But he realized what made A Proper Tribute such a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“I think it means a lot to all of us that we’re all here to support fallen officers who passed away from COVID,” Guerriero confirmed. “For the families to see officers from all over the state come here to support them shows that we still care about them and still want to be here for them.”

Walking tall and looking good enabled honor guards to put their best foot forward for this occasion. Bloomfield Local 32 member Godson Noel seemed to be doing just that when standing with his department’s honor guard, of which he has been a member for seven years.

One of Noel’s training officers was James Peri, who was lost to COVID on Oct. 22, 2021, Noel remembered Peri as someone who was always willing to go the extra mile and lend you a hand.

So the Bloomfield honor guard wanted to bring a little something extra of its own to make it A Proper Tribute.

“Everybody’s dressed up real nice, uniforms look tight, and you can see it on the guys’ faces that we’re ready to go,” Noel declared. “We’re here to look good to honor the fallen.”

Enough for the Eight

Families of State Corrections Local 105 members lost in the pandemic grateful for the ‘Tribute’

By Esther Gonzales

State Corrections Local 105 State Delegate Ray Heck leads family members of the fallen Local 105 members into Epic Church for the Proper Tribute.

Vincent Butler. Maria and Dwayne Gibbs. Edward Jamandron. Daniel Krupa. Robert McCormack. Nelson Perdomo. Erick Whitaker.

Eight State Corrections Local 105 members. Eight officers who made the ultimate sacrifice. Eight heroes who gave their lives serving their state in the midst of a global pandemic. Eight Local 105 members who were finally afforded a Proper Tribute on April 26.

Among the crowd of family members and loved ones waiting for the procession from the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel to the Epic Church in Sayreville to begin, Stephen Jamandron’s eyes welled with tears. Beside him, his three siblings shared his grief. Their father, Edward, had been one of their biggest mentors and role models.

Edward had even motivated Stephen to join the military. He’s now been enlisted in the United States Army for 10 years.

“I’m pretty sure he’d be proud, because I actually just got selected for major,” Stephen remarked through tears.

After waiting for so long, Stephen and his family finally had the opportunity to experience a Tribute like no other.

“It feels pretty good,” Stephen continued. “It will just continue to give us a good reminder about sacrifices that our fallen officers make to protect their community.”

During the pandemic, New Jersey Department of Corrections Local 105 was hit as hard by COVID as any other agency. Family members and loved ones of these eight Local 105 members seemed to embrace the opportunity to pay homage to their fallen officers.

“It’s definitely emotional,” described Rebecca McCormack, whose father, Robert McCormack, was on the job 25 years. “COVID happened so fast, and not really many people knew what was going on. Now that there’s a chance to finally honor him and remember him, it’s very special.”

During the pandemic, COVID restrictions prevented Rebecca from visiting her father in the hospital. But surrounded by members on this day, she described feeling a sense of family. And it was as if her father was looking down from above.

“He would be so happy and proud that he’s being remembered in this way,” McCormack shared. “He loved his job, and if someone needed help, he was there. He was a genuinely good person, and I feel that resembles who police officers are.”

Local 105 member Robert Evers stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of honor guard members. They formed a long line on both sides of the sidewalk, stretching into Epic Church as family members were escorted past them.

State Corrections Local 105 members stand outside Epic Church waiting for the Proper Tribute to begin.

Evers had anticipated this moment to finally honor the 44 fallen officers. They had tried to honor their fallen the best they could during the pandemic with drive-by funerals and honor guard members standing six feet apart. But this was now the Proper Tribute.

“Today, we can give them a better ceremony than they got before,” Evers declared. “It’s pretty significant because we can honor everybody all at one time.”

And Evers, too, felt the presence of his fallen brothers and sisters in blue, and before the service began, he said he hoped this Tribute would bring their families the closure they deserved.

“This will be emotional,” Evers alluded. “One day they’re there, the next day they’re not, and there’s no warning. But it’ll be a nice tribute, and maybe this will provide families with a little bit of closure once they see everyone come out here in support of them.”

Local 105 member Richard Smialowicz reiterated the significance of this day to ensure the fallen are never forgotten.

“I believe it’s very important,” Smialowicz expressed. “We need to be out there and recognize everybody who made the sacrifice. We all went through a very difficult time in the past few years, both inside and out.”

Worth the Wait

Family members of the three fallen Hudson County Corrections Officers Local 109 members feel the power of the Tribute

By Esther Gonzales

The family of Hudson Corrections Officer Bernard Waddell Sr. receives his portrait at A Proper Tribute.

Zeb Craig. Ding. Bernard Waddell Sr. Ding. Shawn Williams. Ding.

After each of the names of the three fallen Hudson County Corrections Officers Local 109 members were called, a bell rang and seemed to echo throughout the Epic Church sanctuary. And one by one, their family members and loved ones approached the podium to receive one of the 45 hand-painted portraits of their fallen officer and a bouquet of roses.

Bernard Waddell Jr. held the portrait of his father, Bernard Sr., in his hands. He was the first NJSPBA member to be lost in the line of duty to COVID on April 1, 2020. This was finally the proper tribute his family had been waiting for — for more than three years. The tribute they had been hoping for and needing.

“This was definitely a beautiful tribute to everyone who suffered a loved one during this loss,” Waddell Jr. acknowledged. “Everyone who had a portrait up there meant something to that loved one that was sitting in the audience, or their colleague, or their friend. These fallen will never be forgotten.”

A Proper Tribute was a welcome day for Hudson County Corrections Officers Local 109, which suffered the first line-of-duty death from COVID among agencies in New Jersey. The losses of Craig and Williams came shortly after that of Waddell Sr. and left Hudson County Corrections as one of the hardest-hit agencies early in the pandemic.

Local 109 member Rashawn Gates, who worked closely with Waddell Sr. and Craig, stood at attention with countless other honor guard members from various agencies during the Tribute. He said he thought about all the memories of working with these two brothers.

Like their pleasant countenance. Like their dedication to their families. Like how they were always the first ones to volunteer for shifts that no one else wanted.

“It could have been any one of us,” Gates added. “I’m going to try to keep my composure and try to be strong for the family and support them.”

After the name of Hudson County Corrections Officer Zeb Craig is called at A Proper Tribute, his family receives the portrait painted in his honor.

On a typical Wednesday when the weather forecast predicted sunshine, Lauren Craig said her father would be car shopping with her. And on this Wednesday, April 26, it still felt as if he was with her.

“It’s bittersweet,” Craig described. “But it means a lot for me to be here today. I feel sad, but I’m proud of my father. My father is a good man, as well as all the other officers. I’m happy to be here.”

Looking around Epic Church, Craig could see Local 109 members who worked closely with her father. Many of them have formed close relationships with her and have continued to help support her.

“In Hudson County, they always show up,” Craig remarked. “They’re always there, ready to help whenever you need them.”

As Hudson County Corrections Officers Local 109 member Shawn Williams is honored at A Proper Tribute, his family steps up to receive the specially painted portrait of him.

Sheri Cooks described her brother Shawn Williams as a man of great compassion. And she felt that compassion extend back to her from Local 109 members during his funeral. They showed up for her then, just as they did for the Tribute.

“It was beautiful how they showed up in numbers,” Cooks related. “It was just amazing to be able to know that the brotherhood was there, the sisterhood was there, the family was there.”

Cooks felt grateful to attend A Proper Tribute. She was there for Williams. And she was there for his son and daughter.

“We miss him, but we feel grateful that the PBA would take the time to honor him, to remember him. That his labor was not in vain,” Cooks expressed. “This helps his children to make sense of the sacrifices that he made. It really just shows that the time that he was away from us meant something. Not just that OK, he’s gone, and he’s forgotten. So that’s the reason why today is extremely important for his children to see that ‘Yes, my dad’s life mattered.’”