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Romano: Standing in honor of the comrade they never knew

Romano: Standing in honor of the comrade they never knew

  • Honor guards from other agencies have formed a procession leading into the church, and so the St. Pete crew takes its place in line as helicopters fly overhead in a missing-man formation.
  • The officers who have driven from St. Petersburg on Saturday to attend the funeral of Orlando police Master Sgt.
  • You know in the back of your mind that this could be your funeral.”
  • With a cop, you’re looking at a coffin thinking, ‘This isn’t supposed to happen.’
  • The funeral for the Orange County deputy beckons.

With the sound of bagpipes playing in the distance, the job of an honor guard is about to begin.

@TB_Times: Romano: Standing in honor of the comrade they never knew

With the sound of bagpipes playing in the distance, the job of an honor guard is about to begin.

On a good day, the work is completely anonymous and largely thankless. The officers who have driven from St. Petersburg on Saturday to attend the funeral of Orlando police Master Sgt. Debra Clayton would soon be lost in a sea of dress uniforms and agency flags.

And that’s as it should be.

For it’s a job of many traditions, habits and rituals, but only one real aim:

To stand in solidarity.

That goes for the cops from St. Pete. And the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. And the NYPD. And the cops wearing uniforms from Toronto, San Diego and dozens of other agencies in attendance at First Baptist Church of Orlando.

“Anybody who wears this badge knows the risks they’re taking,” said Lt. Ed Borrelli, who heads the St. Petersburg police honor guard. “You know in the back of your mind that this could be your funeral.”

So they gather in a squad room in St. Pete on Saturday morning, and then fall in behind two motorcycles leading a caravan of 26 cops and cadets in squad cars and vans.

Arriving in the parking lot of a McDonald’s across from the church, the four honor guard members change into formal uniforms. Polo shirts come off; ascots and white gloves go on.

At the back of the parking lot, a weathered old car passes by slowly and an even more weathered old man sticks his head out the window.

“Keep up the good work,” he says. “God bless y’all.”

Minutes later, the bagpipes begin to play and the small talk ends.

Funerals vary depending on an agency and a family’s wishes, and so the cops check for their cues from everyone around them. Honor guards from other agencies have formed a procession leading into the church, and so the St. Pete crew takes its place in line as helicopters fly overhead in a missing-man formation.

Meanwhile, Officer Andre Sousa gets nearer the church’s entrance, carrying a flag pole with 15 black banners, one for each of the St. Petersburg police officers who have died in the line of duty going back to 1905.

“I was in the military honor guard, but you don’t realize how different the ceremonies are until you experience it,” Sousa said. “Military funerals are obviously sad, but they usually try to keep their emotions in check. With a cop, you’re looking at a coffin thinking, ‘This isn’t supposed to happen.’ “

Clayton, 42, was shot and killed Monday morning when responding to a call involving a man accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend. Orange County sheriff’s Deputy Norman Lewis died later the same day in a traffic accident while pursuing the suspect, Markeith Loyd, who remains at large.

“Stay strong,” U.S. Rep. and former Orlando police Chief Val Demings said to the law enforcement officers in the church. “Evil will never win because of you.”

As the three-hour service began to wind down on Saturday, cops quietly filed out of the balcony to resume their positions in the procession outside.

At the grave site, there would be a 21-gun salute and the playing of taps, along with the presentation of the flag and Clayton’s final radio call that will forever go unanswered.

Hours have passed since they gathered in the squad room, and the sun has long since gone down as they returned to St. Pete on Saturday night. Goodbyes are brief.

They’re due back on the road in a matter of hours.

The funeral for the Orange County deputy beckons.

Romano: Standing in honor of the comrade they never knew

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