Ride along with the team fueling the NJ State PBA’s Special Services trailer and truck that has extended the thin blue line for miles and miles
By Mitchell Krugel, Photos by Ed Carattini Jr. and John Hulse
When Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe observed officers from across the country uniting around the NJ State PBA Special Services trailer at the funerals for two state police pilots in August of 2017, he wanted to personally express his thanks. McAuliffe told Berkeley Heights Local 144 State Delegate Pat Moran, “The thin blue line really does travel.”
When the Fort Myers Police Department lost New Jersey native Andrew Jobbers-Miller in the line of duty in July 2018, the PBA dispatched its Special Services truck-and-trailer detail to Florida. Nearly a dozen retired PBA members living in Florida and even more members of Jobbers-Miller’s family gathered at the trailer prior to the funeral. Retired Bergen County Sheriff’s Department Local 134 State Delegate Andy Pacucci recalls, “Some people were asking us, ‘Why are you guys are here?’ Why aren’t we here? To us, we should be here.”
The Special Services trailer typically packs gallons of coffee and pounds of donuts whenever it goes on duty. But for several years now, it has shown up when Police Unity Tour chapters have departed from New Jersey. Coffee and donuts are not needed at this event. But as Vernon Township Local 285 State Delegate Keith Curry reported, just the sign of support it provides for riders “shows the power and magnitude of the union.”
On its most recent run, the Special Services team took the trailer to Mooresville, North Carolina for the funeral of Officer Jordan Sheldon on May 10. Three days later, the truck and trailer provided support at the funeral for Biloxi, Mississippi Officer Robert McKeithen, who was assassinated right in front of his police department. Afterward, the following post showed up on the NJ State PBA’s Facebook page:
“I’m a deputy from northern Mississippi, six hours from Biloxi. Today, I attended the service for Officer McKeithen. Thank you for coming out and helping with everything. Your guys in the trailer provided food to anyone who was hungry and water and Gatorade to anyone who was thirsty. Honestly, this helped a lot of us. Thank you again!!!”
By going on multiple missions to line-of-duty-death funerals, other memorials and events that inspire officers to join forces since 2016, the NJ State PBA’s Special Services support center has become an oasis or even a cathedral that brings mega doses of benevolence, honor and comfort wherever it rolls. With its relentlessly patriotic exterior, the trailer and truck and the crew that mans it have generated a national presence for the thin blue line more recognizable than almost any other entity in law enforcement.
“It’s like a visible, tangible representation of the brotherhood of the law enforcement family that allows us in New Jersey to bring our level of fellowship anywhere we are needed,” declares John Hulse, the State PBA’s special projects coordinator and the leader of the Special Services pit crew. Hulse has been in every iteration of the Special Services since it made its debut supporting first responders who worked at the World Trade Center site following the attacks on 9/11. He has seen up-close how the trailer-and-truck impact has grown to nationally renowned status.
“People gravitate to it because they can take refuge. This is family, and they get around it and feel safe,” Hulse continues. “We ran into people in North Carolina and Mississippi who said, ‘You guys again?’ We feel we have created a meeting place for those who come to help comfort the families and co-workers of the officers who have made the ultimate sacrifice.”
The inside back wall of the Special Services trailer displays the message, “The patches we wear may be different…but they are all cut from the same cloth.” It has a thin blue line running right through the letters. Officers from across the country who see it try to give the NJSPBA one of their patches to post there as if the trailer is a mobile museum or hall of fame on wheels.
All requests are denied. This wall shows patches from departments where the trailer has ventured to lend support honoring a fallen officer. Mooresville and Biloxi joined Yarmouth and Weymouth, Massachusetts, the Virginia and Delaware state police, Georgia State Corrections, Florence, South Carolina, Fort Myers, NYPD and Dallas, and Baton Rouge, where this all started in July 2016. The NJ State Police, Summit PD, Jersey City PD, and Paterson PD are also represented.
Though the PBA did not plan it way, the wall has become another reason the trailer has such significance. Clearly, the trailer has become a symbol.
“It’s another element that connects everybody,” Moran suggests. “It raises up the level of ceremony and honor.”
There is a practical aspect to all of this. At any event, tents are set up to offer protection from the rain or the sun. It also is a cell phone charging station.
But really it starts with an opportunity to throw out the welcome mat to put all those who have come to embrace the fallen at ease. It’s Jersey’s way of saying, “We’re here and we’ve gone through it ourselves.”
So officers seem to gravitate toward the trailer, perhaps for the all-in-this-together solace. Or perhaps there is another reason.
“They know Saint Michael has your back standing by the trailer,” Moran relates.
The back-to-back shootings of officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge that occurred in 2016 fueled the PBA’s desire to up its Special Services support. The trailer made its maiden run to Dallas, and on the way home, the team heard about the Baton Rouge tragedy.
Hulse called PBA President Pat Colligan to inquire about turning around and heading to Louisiana. Colligan didn’t hesitate. He began to realize the mission at hand.
“We’re probably the second-largest union in the country and we needed a trailer to match our stature in national law enforcement,” Colligan reasons. “We realized we could make an incredibly powerful impact without spending a lot of money. Departments are usually great about giving the members who make the trips PBA time. So we set out on a mission to have the trailer roll for every line of duty death.”
Hulse relates that doing multiple 18-hour days beginning at 5 a.m. leads to a reward like he has rarely seen. People know the “Jersey Boys” – as they have been named – whenever they see the images of the officers saluting and the American and blue line flags that adorn the trailer and truck.
He believes that being part of this mission is a source of pride for PBA members. Pacucci knows exactly what Hulse is talking about.
“You don’t know how to explain it until you have lived it,” Pacucci notes. “When you see the appreciation from the law enforcement community that you’re down there to support, it’s just something that you will never forget and you will want to do over and over again.”
Support trailers have become all the rage in law enforcement. Honor guards roll in such vehicles. Police Unity Tour teams have acquired various versions just to support their riders. Several PBA Locals have purchased trailers that go to events and provide a bit of an RV-like respite for all members.
But the Special Services trailer and truck with its vast resources and national impact has become one of a kind. The Brotherhood for the Fallen, an organization hubbed in Chicago with members across the country sends officers to every line of duty death funeral. The Brotherhood also has a trailer. Looking at its setup with the provisions it provides and its accoutrements of honor, you would think it’s following in the footsteps of the NJ State PBA. Brotherhood leaders have indicated they can only hope to do as much.
“Something is very rewarding that they saw us at these different venues and thought enough to try to duplicate it,” Hulse comments. “I wish people would do that everywhere. That’s part of going out and showing them the heart and soul of the law enforcement community in New Jersey. It’s all about taking care of each other because no one is going to do it for us.”
Take a look inside the trailer: Double-ribbed, aluminum framing. Recessed lighting. Fold-out canopy tents. Angles on the moldings to customize the fit of the doors. A generator that provides a self-sufficient power source. Built-in plumbing and a pump to flow tens of gallons of water to the coffeemakers. Emergency lighting. A viewing stand/observation deck/crow’s nest that provides a vantage point to take photos. Stainless-steal countertops that would make the kitchen at the Brownstone envious.
With its custom-designed exterior that also features big, bold versions of the PBA shield, the PBA trailer and truck is distinguishable from miles away. On the trips he has made recently, Montgomery Township Local 355 State Delegate Joe Sles marvels at how many drivers on the road roll by honking and flashing a thumbs up.
When a fuel stop is needed, Hulse reports that people constantly offer pay for gas. He once took it to a Jiffy Lube for an oil change, and the proprietor didn’t want to take any money for the job. On one trip, the team stopped at convenience store with a gas station, and the employees took up a collection to pay for the fuel.
Nobody really imagined that the PBA’s Special Services efforts would grow to such magnitude. But Colligan had a vision.
“When Pat became president, he had a vison of making a little bit bigger and better,” Hulse reports. “He and the members from the committee designed the new trailer using all the lessons we had learned over the years.”
One of those learning events indicated that an appropriate truck was needed for the long hauls. Colligan and Executive Vice-President Marc Kovar turned to Flemington Car & Truck Country owner Steve Kalafer and his right-hand man, Jerry Sheehan, to see if their unconditional support for law enforcement could provide such a vehicle. Flemington stepped up with a top-of-the-line Ford F-350 that has been wrapped with a design to become the perfect partner for the trailer.
“When you see the trailer on the road, we want it to look spectacular,” Colligan declares. “We wanted it to have a visual impact that people would be wowed.”
Going for the dogs
Moran, Curry, Sles, Pacucci, Summit Local 55 State Delegate Mike Freeman and a few other members have become part of an exclusive group that has become the Jersey Boys. Moran actually prefers the “minutemen” moniker because Commander Hulse will put out the call that the trailer is headed out and they have to be ready to roll.
“We have to assemble quickly, get all the supplies on the trailer and be able to get out of town,” Moran adds. “We travel at night or early in the morning to avoid traffic.”
Another staple of Special Services has become the provisions it carries. Step up for a coffee, a bottle of water, some chips, breakfast bars or whatever else is stocked up. But whoever comes by the trailer cannot leave without sampling one of Hulse’s “dirty water dogs.”
He won’t divulge the exact recipe for boiling these Sabretts. He credits the Rockland Bakery for its contribution of 600-plus Sabrett buns every time they go out as part of the delectability. But there is one magical ingredient that Pacucci says have brought the brotherhood of a country together.
“I tell everybody that I take five-gallon water jugs down to the Hudson River right under the George Washington Bridge, and that’s what I use to cook the dogs,” Hulse deadpans. “They stare at you for a bit. But I want to talk to everyone I can, so I will even put the mustard on for them. That’s part of the brotherhood.”
The troops follow Hulse’s lead. You have to be ready to go at 5 a.m. Curry was not ready one time. He was left at the hotel and wound up finding his own way to the funeral venue.
Moran compliments Hulse for getting the most out of the team. He has been known to ask somebody just standing by to pick up a scoop and start filling up coolers with ice. The trailer, the truck, the endeavor is his, well, you know.
“There are people who don’t care for their babies as well as John takes care of the trailer and truck,” Colligan assures. “John shares the passion that many of us have.”
Pacucci adds that in the 17 years he has known him, Hulse has always been a symbol for the brotherhood.
“It’s an opportunity for me to continue to give back,” Hulse discloses. “At every turn of my career, whether being a State Delegate or doing a contract, I’ve always wanted to leave it better than I found it. I’m fortunate that I work for the PBA and this is part of my duties. We have a core group of guys who are enormous. They will drop everything to do this, and when we go somewhere, they are the good people that other officers want to congregate around.”
Sles shares that being part of the Special Services team is a “dramatic life-altering event.” That was after making his first trip when he hesitated to request a bathroom stop for fear that he might get left behind.
“We’re like John. We don’t do this for the recognition,” Sles adds. “It’s a rewarding feeling just being part of this. There’s something deep down inside that makes you want to be there.”
On one of the runs to Massachusetts, the team got stuck in traffic on the way home and looked for a shortcut. Turned out that the shortcut was through a military base where Curry’s son was stationed. They weren’t able to get in touch with him, so they pulled up to the front gate.
A woman at the gate came out, and Hulse explained where their mission had taken them.
“John told me something to the effect that the woman said, ‘Honey, with this truck you can go anywhere you want,” Colligan testifies. “All she wanted was to take a picture with the truck. That’s the good stuff. That’s everything we wanted this to be and a lot more.”