Each year, an American flag billows between two ladder firetrucks at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens. A somber procession of bagpipes, police motorcycles and color-guard units from across the state moves through the Timonium cemetery.
The traditions are part of the annual Fallen Heroes Day ceremony, which recognizes police officers and firefighters who have died in the line of duty, and each year since it began in 1986, more families who have suffered the loss join the ranks.
“Unfortunately, we are joined year after year by others who are survivors of fallen heroes. Over the years, I have met many of you, and I have come to share your thoughts and support, your grief and your ability to move forward,” said Charles Schwenz, whose son Jason, a Queen Anne’s County deputy, was killed in 2001.
Schwenz and Michael Nickerson, an officer with the Centreville Police Department, were fatally shot while responding to a noise complaint at a mobile home in Centreville.
“When Jason died, we spent a long long time in pain and disbelief looking for answers,” Schwenz told the crowd. But after some time, he said, he’s begun to remember his son when he was alive, and not how he died.
“Healing is a journey. It takes a lifetime. There will be many experiences both positive and negative along the way,” he said. But, he told the new faces, “you’re not alone.”
This year, Baltimore Police Detetective Sean Suiter was among those honored. Suiter, an 18-year veteran of the force, was shot once in the head with his own service weapon in a vacant West Baltimore lot in November under unclear circumstances. The case remains under investigation.
His wife, Nicole Suiter, who sat with other family members, accepted a bronze replica of the Fallen Heroes Memorial and a copy of a Maryland General Assembly proclamation and was hugged by Gov. Larry Hogan before she was escorted back to her seat by a uniformed Baltimore police officer.
Addressing the crowd, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz touched on the recent sense of division in American culture, particularly when it comes to attitudes toward police in the years since he’s been an elected official.
“In recent years, public safety, unfortunately, has risen to the top of polarizing issues,” he said. “Eight years ago, no one heard of Freddie Gray, Ferguson, Missouri. The term ‘Blue Lives Matter’ hadn’t been coined. Police officers didn’t wear body cameras, and fire service personnel did not worry about being targeted because of their uniforms.”
While he said the debate around public safety is “worthwhile,” the work of officers and firefighters is critical to all residents, and those who gave their lives should be recognized.
“We are united in reverence for the courage and selflessness for the men and women who pay the ultimate price. The spirit here is one of unity,” Kamenetz said.
Along with Suiter, the ceremony recognized Montgomery County firefighter Charles “Rick” Gentilcore, who was found unresponsive by co-workers at his Burtonsville station; Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Sander B. Cohen, who was struck while aiding a driver who had crashed along Interstate 270 in Montgomery County; Prince George’s County Police Sgt. Mujahid A. Ramzziddin, who was fatally shot while responding to a neighbor’s domestic despite; and LaVale Volunteer Fire Assistant Chief Christopher C. Pryor, who collapsed and died after returning from responding to a vehicle crash in Cumberland.
Baltimore police Officer Norman “Fred” Buchman, who, like Suiter, was shot with his own gun, in 1973, was also recognized. Also honored were volunteer firefighter George Driggers Jr., who was just 16, and Patrick Bauer, 21, who both died in 1976 battling a three-alarm Brooklyn Park rowhouse fire.
The ceremony closed with a wreath being laid at the memorial and 21-gun salute.
Next year, many of the families will return, along with new faces.