By JOHN W. GOODWIN JR.
Bagpipes played, heads were bowed in prayer and roses placed in observance and honor of police officers who gave their lives for the protection of the community.
The annual Fallen Officers Memorial, sponsored by Fraternal Order of Police Youngstown Lodge 28 and Police Lodge 141, was Friday at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.
T.J. Assion, a Mahoning County deputy sheriff and president of Lodge 141, said the annual memorial is a unifying event for the entire community and puts the dangers of working in law enforcement into perspective.
“We do this once a year, and I enjoy it because it is a bonding thing,” Assion said. “You spend a year arguing with politicians and other people over things like funding, but you come here and realize your comrades died for this community. We do this every year, and it reminds us of the importance in the work we do.”
There were 26 fallen officers honored during this year’s ceremony, including the last officer to die while on the job, Robert Conway Sr. of the sheriff’s office.
Conway, 57, of Boardman, died in early February after apparently suffering a heart attack while working at Chaney High School. He worked as a reserve county deputy sheriff beginning in 1981.
A moving speech from the daughter of another fallen officer, John “Sonny” Litch of the sheriff’s office, put the ceremony into perspective for the dozens of people in attendance.
Litch was a deputy in 1981 who was shot and killed when he was ambushed by three suspects as he returned a prisoner from the hospital to the Mahoning County jail.
His daughter, Marlissa Litch, was only 19 months old at the time of his death.
Marlissa Litch told those in the audience how her parents met when her mother was still a college student and how her father worked long hours as a deputy and volunteer firefighter.
She also spoke about how her mother was made to raise two children as a single parent and that “certain something” was missing since the death of her father.
She said she is now a social worker because she wants to help people as her father did. She said her father’s memory lives on through her actions.
“I could have easily chosen drugs or crime and blamed it on the fact that I did not have my father here, but I would never disgrace his name like that,” she said. “He is here with me always. ... His memory lives on.”
Jay McDonald, president of Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio, said there are far too many families with stories similar to the Litch family’s.
“They would recognize that their spirit lives on in all of us. We are here to honor their service and sacrifices,” McDonald said. “We are here to honor these 26 officers, but also the 21,000 officers killed in the line of duty in the history of our nation.”
Judge Diane Vettori of Mahoning County Court in Sebring is married to a retired police officer and attends the memorial event annually.
“Love, honor, duty and sacrifice. I have seen this every day of my life as an attorney and certainly a judge. ... I commend each and every one of you for that and allowing me to be a part of it,” Judge Vettori said.