WASHINGTON – Four Northeast Florida law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty last year are among 371 fallen officers honored for their bravery, courage and sacrifice Wednesday on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Jacksonville Officer Lance Whitaker and Clay County Deputy Ben Zirbel died in separate crashes while on duty. Gilchrist County Sgt. Noel Ramirez and Deputy Taylor Lindsey were ambushed while eating lunch at a Trenton restaurant.
During the ceremony, President Donald Trump addressed an audience that included many family members of the fallen -- including those of Deputy Zirbel.
"We're here to remember their noble lives, to thank God for their profound courage and to express our love, respect, everlasting gratitude for the heroes of law enforcement," Trump said.
The president took a hard line against anyone who kills a police officer, saying "criminals who murder police officers should immediately with trial, get the death penalty."
The names of 228 law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty last year were read, along with more than 100 added to the National Police Memorial Wall this year who died of health-related causes after responding to the World Trade Center attack on 9/11.
"It was hard to see Ben's name on there. But at the same time, it's so much respect for those names -- the men and women that are on that wall -- it was very honoring at the same time," said Anna Zirbel, the widow of Deputy Zirbel. "It's amazing to see us all together, all having the same feelings and emotions and going through this same experience."
Nick Zirbel, Deputy Zirbel's brother, traveled from Iowa for the bittersweet ceremony.
"It gives you closure," he said. "It doesn't make you feel better that he's gone, it makes you feel better that the time he spent here and what he did, he really made it happen, he made it work and he did it well."
The Clay County Sheriff's Office raised money to send Deputy Zirbel's motor unit and the honor guard 800 miles to Washington for the memorial
"It meant a lot to all of us," honor guard Sgt. Matt Williams said. "Ben was here with us at this service last year. In fact, he and I got to stand up on the red carpet when the president came through ... and being able to do that this year in his honor meant a lot.”
"It’s an honor for us to be here to honor him the way he should be honored, show the respect to his family like it should be shown," Sgt. Donald Sutherland said. "And, hopefully, we can put this behind us but never forget him.”
The national monument now contains the names of 21,910 fallen law enforcement officers from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories, federal, corrections, as well as railroad and military police agencies who died in the performance of duty throughout U.S. history.
May 15 is Peace Officers Memorial Day, first designated by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. It is one of only two days each year during which government agencies, businesses and residents are to fly their U.S. flags at half-staff. The other is Memorial Day.