Waves of blue and black balloons rose over LaPlace on Friday morning, set free to mark the year that has passed since two deputies lost their lives there far too soon.
“Today we are not here to focus on their deaths,” St. John the Baptist Parish Sgt. Michael Hoover told the gathered crowd. “Today we focus on their lives, we focus on what made them living heroes.”
Deputies Brandon Nielsen and Jeremy Triche were gunned down one year ago Friday during a shootout with anti-government extremists.
Their families and friends, fellow officers and total strangers gathered at the New Wine Christian Fellowship church for a memorial service. Triche’s former K-9 partner, Jango, came too.
“They made our lives more bearable, more enjoyable. They gave us laughter. They gave us love. They gave us hope and they seasoned each and every person in this building,” Hoover said. “They were and still are the light that we follow in the darkness. Their light still shines in us.”
Both men were husbands and fathers.
Their families, strangers before, have grown close over the year. Only they can understand each other’s misery.
Both mothers stood on the altar Friday to describe their sons for the crowd, and thank the St. John community for embracing them in the 365 days since their sons were killed.
Nielsen was funny, a jokester who once deposited his own mother into the backseat of his patrol car when he picked her up from the airport, Wendy Nielsen told the crowd. He was big and burly, he loved motorcycles and being a police officer. His young daughter’s first word was “10-8,” police code for “in service.”
He had two daughters and three stepsons, the oldest of whom just became a firefighter. His wife, Daniell, said her husband would have been so proud.
Jeremy Triche’s mother described him as a perfectionist, determined to be the best.
He once planned to play professional baseball, but fell in love instead with his wife and police work.
They had a son named Kade. Triche wanted nothing more than to teach his son how to pitch baseballs and hunt and fish.
The boy was just 2 when his father was killed.
“This tells me that the community hasn’t forgotten,” his mother, Edie Triche said after the ceremony. “But it’s hard coming back. This is the last place I saw my son.”
Triche’s wake was held at the same church, and the caravan to the cemetery where Nielsen was buried began in the same parking lot.
“It was hard to come back here,” Daniell Nielsen said. “It’s like reliving that all over again. But I like the idea of remembering his life. Not just his death.”
Both men have been honored with medals and vigils. Police vehicles have been named after them, and tattoos now adorn their loved ones’ arms. Two fire trucks raised their ladders at the Friday ceremony, and an American flag hung between them.
Nielsen’s mother planned a memorial motorcycle ride for September 2014, on what would have been his 37th birthday.
Their Sheriff’s Office will award each with a medal of honor at a ceremony on Saturday, and they will get the same award from a state commission next month.
Six defendants are charged in connection to their killing. Three have already pleaded guilty as accessories. The two alleged gunmen, scheduled for trial next summer, are facing the possibility of execution if convicted.
But the crowd on Friday intentionally avoided talking of the accused. Their names were never mentioned, the status of their various criminal charges ignored.
“Aug. 16, 2012, was in many ways our Sept. 11, a day that reminded me that life is short. The day that reminded me that things don’t always go our way,” Sheriff Mike Tregre said.
“But it’s days like Aug. 16, 2013, that make me realize that we still are here and there is much more work to be done. We’ve been brought here together by the evil deeds of some. But together we remain strong.”
After the ceremony, each person in the crowd was given a balloon, either blue or black, colors that have come to symbolize the small fraternity of brave souls who lost their lives protecting their neighbors.
Hoover told them all to whisper into their balloon whatever they’d like to say to the fallen men.
Then on a count of three, they all let go.
Wendy Nielsen said she imagined her son somewhere up there, riding a winged motorcycle, directing traffic in the sky.