All eyes were on the Oregon City police officers in dress uniforms, standing in near-rigid form as they slowly and deliberately lifted an American flag from the coffin below the stage at Portland’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Members of OCPD’s Honor Guard then folded the flag into the time-honored triangle shape that recalls the cocked hats worn by Revolutionary War soldiers who sacrificed their lives to make America free.
The Honor Guard then watched respectfully as Police Chief Jim Band presented the flag to Wendy Libke, widow of Reserve Officer Rob Libke, who was killed while on duty.
Then, with the Portland Highland Guard pipe band playing, the Honor Guard walked off in formation. Each precisely measured step, to the sad drone of the bagpipes, signified the reverence they wished to convey.
The Honor Guard has been a mainstay for the Oregon City Police Department since it was founded in 2006. The team regularly takes part in Memorial Day ceremonies at Mountain View Ceremony, as well as flag postings and proceedings conducted by the Parents of Murdered Children.
But the Guard was placed in the regional spotlight at memorial services for Rob Libke, fatally shot by a gunman who had just set his own house on fire in November 2013. Libke was the first Oregon City police officer killed in the line of duty since 1906.
“I’ve always liked seeing the Honor Guard,” said Chief Jim Band. “But its role really became most meaningful for me at the ceremony for Rob Libke.
“How else can you convey the honor and reverence for the sacrifices made?” Band asked. “The Honor Guard is representative of the value everybody puts on that sacrifice.”
OCPD’s Honor Guard was created by Sgt. Justin Young, Sgt. Matthew Paschall and Capt. Shaun Davis, who quickly recruited like-minded members Nick Ennis, Greg Johnston and Chad Weaver to the inaugural unit. Young wrote the original proposal to create the Guard, presenting the idea to then-Chief Gordon Huiras.
“I remember that a former Police Department employee had passed away at that time,” Young said. “When I attended the funeral, I felt the need for way to honor his service in a formal way.”
If the Honor Guard seems to draw a lot of its form and function from the U.S. Marine Corps, that’s no coincidence. After active service, Young served many years in the U.S.M.C. Reserve.
That’s why the OCPD Honor Guard is dressed in the same neatly tailored, midnight-blue shirts, slacks and campaign hats used in Marine Corps dress uniforms. The form-fitting, high-collar tunics are set off by braided silver shoulder rope that fits under the epaulettes. The same silver appears in the cord that encircles the hats. The special look is completed by white gloves, patent-leather shoes and patent-leather duty belts.
Meanwhile, the Honor Guard is issued specially designed badges modeled after the first badges used by the OCPD – silver stars in the center of a silver circle. The silver buttons are found only on Honor Guard uniforms.
Riflemen in the Honor Guard carry M1 Garands, the U.S. Army’s infantry rifle so successful in World War II. The rifles, loaded only with blank cartridges, are on loan from the Army Reserve.
Once the unit formed, the members began practicing in earnest. They regularly drill with the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Honor Guard, the Lake Oswego Police Honor Guard, the Gresham Police Honor Guard and the Portland Police Honor Guard. Sometimes, the OCPD Honor Guard’s riflemen carry the U.S. Army’s Korean War-vintage M14s used by the other guards – also loaded only with blanks.
“We practice so much so that what we do becomes second nature,” said Capt. Davis. “It’s all about being crisp, about being respectful.”
Over the years, the Honor Guard has expanded its appearances to five to 10 events every year, including Veterans Day and the State of the City Message, along with special ceremonies in May to honor fallen police officers. The Guard regularly travels to the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training memorials in Salem and has sent a delegation to Washington, D.C., where ceremonies are held at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.
“None of this would be possible without support from the administration,” said Sgt. Matthew Paschall, Honor Guard commander. “We are fortunate to have enjoyed a good relationship with our chiefs, city managers and the City Commission.”
Besides Paschall, today’s Honor Guard includes founders Young and Davis, as well as Officer Mike Day.
“We work to pay attention to the smallest details,” Paschall said. “We want our appearance to be as perfect as possible -- whatever we are doing.”
To make sure the bases are covered, the Honor Guard practices flag presentation, flag folding, salutes and rifle handling.
Sometimes the riflemen join riflemen from other honor guards for so-called “21-gun salutes” – actually three shots by seven riflemen. In some ceremonies, the shots punctuate “Taps” played by a lone bugle.
The effect, though sad and final, is respectful, a fitting and reverent way to honor loss by an officer’s family, the Police Department and the community it serves.