Tragedy, community and tears

Posted: Sunday, September 12, 2010

The news that two officers had been shot and killed in Hoonah came as a shock. We had one of our priests, Jean Paulin, in Hoonah at the time of the shooting. Like everyone else trying to get some information about the events, I started texting Paulin while the standoff between the authorities and the alleged shooter was taking place. Paulin was with a group of people at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall and participated in the beginning process of a community trying to make some sense out of such a senseless act of violence.

It was a blessing for me to be a part of the outpouring of support for the Hoonah community and family members of Officer Matthew Tokuoka and Sgt. Anthony Wallace as I attended the memorial service this past Wednesday for those two fallen heroes. We were warned that the ferry trip from Juneau to Hoonah would be packed. The ferry trip to Hoonah that day was filled with men and women dressed in different types of law enforcement uniforms - from different parts of the United States and Canada. Police officers brought their families; families who I am sure were putting themselves into the shoes of the Tokuoka and Wallace families. But all of the different uniforms had one thing in common - a black band across the center of their badges.

In the same way, the sorrow in our hearts is what we all have in common. While speaking to two officers, one of them quickly interrupted the conversation by saying that they had to go and stand watch as honor guards over the remains of the fallen police officers and relieve those who were taking their turn standing guard.

As we arrived in Hoonah, a silence came over the whole vessel as we watched the uniformed officers in attendance stand at attention saluting their fellow comrades on either side of the motorcade as it left the ferry. The procession through town took everyone past the site of the alleged murders which was marked by flowers, pictures, U.S. flags and notes. Upon arrival at the Hoonah Junior/Senior High School, we were directed to the old gymnasium designated for overflow. Closed-circuit video provided us the opportunity to participate from another part of the school.

It was a grand display of support with people from all parts, from the highest ranking of the land to a concerned community member like myself. Gov. Sean Parnell invoked the Lord's presence upon the sadness of this event when he said, "We call upon our Creator... to give us His peace and His love through these neighbors, friends and family in Hoonah, and throughout this great land."

It was impressive to hear Hoonah Police Chief John Millan speak about his affection for Tokuoka and Wallace. His eulogy was powerful as he shared his admiration for these men, offered his insights into their lives of integrity and concluded his message with sign language. And I was amazed by the poise, strength and love demonstrated by Tokuoka's wife who, just a week and a half before, watched the horrors of that event unfold before her eyes along with her children.

Two conversations before leaving Hoonah touched me. I had the privilege to speak to the EMT who held one of the wounded officers while he was dying. He had been amazed at how strong he was and thought for sure the officer would pull through. His eyes filled up with tears as he spoke about the honor of being present to him in those last moments. He told me with conviction how grateful he was to be there. I also listened to a conversation between a state trooper and a colleague of mine, Charles Rohrbacher. The trooper had been a part of the standoff that occurred after the shooting. He expressed his gratitude that another life was not lost in the outcome of the standoff but indicated that not everyone he encountered shared that gratitude. We supported him in upholding the dignity of life, even when our human sinfulness can cause so much pain and suffering.

A lot of emotions fill Hoonah these days and it will take a long time to sort out the effects of this senseless act of violence. The community at large has demonstrated the desire to help - from the secular and religious, as well as from businesses and government - everyone has pulled together to make this memorial moment a fine tribute to two men who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their community. We may move on, but the pain will be remembered. n speaking to one policeman, he said that he had been to memorials of fallen officers before. He grabbed the sunglasses resting on the top of his head and said, "I don't like people to see me cry, so I wear these to cover the tears."

• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.

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