We owe front-line responders a deep debt


Andrew Gillette went to work Tuesday morning. It was supposed to be a regular day for the Sumter sheriff's deputy: Patrol, serve an eviction notice, protect the public. At 11:30 a.m., it was no longer a regular day. For Andrew, it would be his last day.

Andrew was serving an eviction notice to Terry Hasty. Two other deputies were there to assist. For reasons we will never know, Terry Hasty opened fire on the deputies. Andrew was struck in the chest. Though he was wearing his bulletproof vest, his wounds were fatal. The officers returned fire, and Terry Hasty was killed.

Andrew is survived by his wife and by his 11-year-old son. According to those who knew him, he was a follower of Jesus, active in his church. He was a true public servant.

In tragic irony, it was 24 years ago, minus one day, another Sumter sheriff's deputy was killed in the line of duty, Charlie Kubala. I remember that day. One of my friends served in the department with Charlie. The loss of his friend hit him hard.

There's a term for this kind of grief: survivor's guilt. Fellow officers ask, "Could I have done something different?" There is a weird mix of grief and relief. Officers realize "It could have been me."

Every spouse of an officer on patrol has a fear that lingers near the surface, the fear that the kiss goodbye might be the last kiss. The headlines never talk much about that. When a fellow officer is killed in the line of duty, that fear comes out, roaring. Sleepless nights follow. There are hard conversations about changing careers. Children, who can smell agitation, ask, "Mommy, could that happen to you?" Teenage children withdraw, reluctant to be vulnerable with their own fear. It takes a while for normal rhythm to return, if it ever does.

One of the hardest things I have ever done as a pastor was to tell a young woman she was now a widow because her husband, a law enforcement officer, had been killed in the line of duty. As we walked together through those intense few days, she asked me, "Why do people say so many stupid things to me?" I understood what she was saying. People forget when tragedy strikes, presence matters more than words. Acts of service speak louder than explanations.

I live in a town full of front-line responders. We have the usual array of law enforcement, fire protection, EMTs, doctors, nurses and other assorted professions devoted to protecting the public and responding to crisis after crisis. But we also have a military base with thousands of airmen and soldiers, who at a moment's notice deploy to hostile territory to protect our country. I'll never forget the night of 9/11, when an Air Force pilot came up to me at a community prayer service, already in uniform, and told me he was leaving at 4 in the morning. I prayed with him and asked God to bring him back safely to his family. The next time I saw him was a year later. He missed a whole year of his sons' lives, flying over the front lines.

We owe these front-line responders a deep debt. While most of us get the chance to run for cover, they run toward the danger. They never know when someone with a grudge and a gun will shoot, when a burning roof will collapse, when the cord between life and death is held by their CPR reps, when the rocket will find them on the battlefield.

I know front-line responders are not perfect. They are like the rest of us, failing to be the spouses they would like to be, the parents they hope to be. None of them, not even the ER doctors, are paid enough. I've heard enough stories about officers who handled the tension with an addiction to know that front-line responders are not super men or super women. I am regularly surprised when I talk to front-line responders to find out their agency offered them no post-trauma care, no opportunity to debrief. Humans are emotional beings. No one can seal off the emotions permanently. One thing we can do and should do is make sure every front-line responder can get the mental health care they need. We owe them that much.

Being a person of faith, I can do one more thing: When I see a law enforcement vehicle, a fire truck, an ambulance, a Humvee, or an F-16, I can remember to pray for the person flying the plane, riding the truck or turning the steering wheel. I can ask God to protect them, watch over them and go with them. When evil lashes out and takes the life of someone on the front lines, I can pray for that family. I can pray that God will comfort them with his presence, which goes beyond words. So, this week, I will pray for the Gillette family, for God to be their refuge and strength, their peace and their hope. After all, God is our first and best front-line responder.

The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.