What is a hero?
It’s someone who does what needs to be done, in spite of the cost.
But in Vandergrift, the borough council is arguing that doesn’t apply to late police Officer Robert Kirkland. Three weeks ago, a Hometown Hero banner was put up in the name of the local law enforcer who died in June of sepsis. You wouldn’t think that would be a problem.
That’s what the council did, deciding despite the fact that the banner was already bought, already paid for, already up on a pole that this hero wasn’t really a hero.
They decided to change the rules in the middle of the game, voting to make the Hometown Heroes banners specifically for military veterans. Councilman James Rametta went so far as to call Kirkland’s banner an “insult to veterans.”
Let’s think about the difference.
A soldier wears a uniform. He follows a chain of command. He does a job that involves carrying a gun, following orders, protecting others. He is willing to put his life on the line to do that job. His family knows when he puts on that uniform and leaves for work that he may never come home.
If he does fall, his brothers in uniform grieve for him in a way that those who have not stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the trenches will never fully understand. Flags may be lowered. There are rituals and honors accorded that show deference to the fallen and give comfort to those who still stand.
How does that differ when a police officer dies?
It is not a question of whether an officer dies in the line of duty. In 2015, State College police Officer Bob Bradley died. Officers from various Pittsburgh area departments were among those from across Pennsylvania and other states who came to say goodbye, standing in the cold in a Bellefonte parking lot packed with patrol cars.
Is it that one serves his community while one serves his country? I would argue that serving your community does serve your country.
Is it that a soldier’s commitment is somehow larger? Grander? More important? But every police officer chose to make that commitment, where for many in the military, the choice was made for them with a draft notice.
It is ridiculous to say that one service is so different, so dissimilar, so separate from the other that it is offensive to compare. Military service and law enforcement seem like two shoes from the same very polished pair.
That is especially so as American law enforcement grows more militarized. We are not talking about crossing guards being compared to SEAL Team Six. We are talking about men and women who use similar equipment to face all too similar threats.
The Vandergrift council’s decision is the offense, something that should be objectionable to police, military and civilians alike.
And the most tragic part is the idea that Kirkland’s family, just three months after losing someone they love, will watch a banner with his face be discarded like trash while the people he worked for call him unworthy.
Heroes come in all shapes, all sizes, all stripes and all creeds. Some heroes are easy to identify, while some are quietly heroic every day.
It seems like the ugly decision of Vandergrift’s council did identify one hero, though. Councilman Casimir Maszgay voted against the decision to strip Kirkland’s banner from the streets he patroled.
Lori Falce is the Tribune-Review’s community engagement editor. You can reach Lori at [email protected]