BELLEVILLE — Forty-four law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty in St. Clair County since 1908. On Tuesday, police and military officers gathered at the Sheriff's Department for the annual memorial service in their honor.
"We honor those officers whose names appear on our memorial, and most importantly, we honor those families whose loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice.," St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson said.
Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Bob Ellison and St. Clair County Sheriff's Baliff Forest Bevineau belted out songs befitting the tribute and stirred the crowd emotionally. Dale Bode blew taps on his bugle as tears were shed.
Annette Eckert, keynote speaker and former St. Clair County judge, talked about the service that is provided to communities, neighborhoods and families throughout St. Clair County and America by police officers and military servicemen, saying it's "a calling."
"We need not forget to say thank you to theses men and women who serve and protect us," she said. "Service is the key."
She talked about how no one knew that her husband, Congressman Bill Enyart, was a soldier because he was in the National Guard and worked on weekends.
"No one knew except me, the kids (their two sons) and the dog," she said, " because he left home in camouflage in the dark and returned home in camouflauge in the dark. But that changed when he became commander of the Illinois National Guard for five years.
"Service, that's what it is all about. Service for community, country and family," she said.
Eckert also paid a distinct honor to the families in the audience. "No one serves without the support of their family. We thank them, too," she said. Her remarks drew loud applause from the crowd.
Before ending, Eckert said a final thank you to the late Sheriff Mearl Justus, whom she said gave a life of service to law enforcement.
Watson had the flag that draped Justus' casket hanging on the flag pole outside the County Jail. He said every year he plans to do the same thing.
"People don't realize the lives he touched," Watson said. "He brought education to law enforcement. He believed in education, in training and getting degrees. He was a futuristic law man. ... He was an innovative thinker. We won't let him and what he did for law enforcement be forgotten."
East St. Louis Police Chief Michael Floore said East St. Louis lost 23 officers between 1908-1999. Then he read a poem called "Taking Care."
"The most feared words are, 'Shots fired, officer down.' One more fallen comrade and the numbers continue to grow. Waging daily battle out there trying to win the war. ..."
Watson said no names were added this year to the roster and he said he was grateful for that. But, he said those who lost their lives in the line of duty will never be forgotten.
The huge crowd consisted of an overwhelming majority of law enforcement personal and their families and friends. Local and federal political leaders also were in attendance, as well as some Air Force personnel from Scott Air Force Base.
Several policemen carried a lit candle to the memorial wall and sat it down as their fallen colleagues' names were read aloud.
Diane Chambers, the mother of former Cahokia Patrolman Jeremy Chambers, who was killed on April 24, 2007, by a drunken driver while he was on duty, was seated in the audience. On her chest she wore a button with her son's picture on it.
"It's hard every day. I belong to a club that no one wants to belong to," she said. Her husband, Earl Chambers, a former retired Cahokia assistant police chief, said Jeremy Chambers was their youngest son. He said Jeremy's first love was the fire department. His dad said he worked as a volunteer firefighter in Cahokia and then one day he called his father and told him "I want to be a policeman," Chambers said. He thanked those who remembered his son and all of the others who lost loved ones in the line of duty.
Former St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom was among the invited guests. He said police officers serve because "the community has put faith in us. And, our fellow officers depend on us and our families need us. We serve because we can not forget the past."