The Anniston officer died eight months ago when he was fatally shot during a foot pursuit.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama embraced Sollohub’s mother in front of the Capitol steps. Not a fix for all of the afternoons Jeniffer Morris still longs to see her oldest son pull into her Jacksonville driveway. But a nice gesture, a kind of salve all the same.
“It kind of let you know that what Justin did was appreciated,” Morris said at the conclusion of the 31st annual National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service.
Sollohub’s family and his friends from the Anniston department joined thousands of others Tuesday at the West Lawn of the Capitol to commemorate him and the 165 other officers killed on duty in 2011.
The president served as the keynote speaker for this year’s ceremony, which came as a surprise to Anniston police Sgt. Nick Bowles, one of four local officers at the event.
“He would have been excited that the president spoke for him,” Bowles said afterward.
Still, Obama acknowledged that the events of the day fell far short of healing families and police officers who lost people they loved.
“You carry these burdens so the rest of us don’t have to,” he told the crowd before him. “And this shared sense of purpose brings you together, and it brings you to our nation’s capital today.”
It’s also brought them together for the entire week.
Many of the thousands of law-enforcement officers and police families there Tuesday arrived in Washington days earlier to kick off National Police Week. Each May, the week gives participants opportunities to remember those who died in the line of duty, bond with others who have experienced grief as a result of a law-enforcement death and receive recognition for their own sacrifices. Blake, Sollohub’s 12-year-old younger brother, has attended FBI academies all week. Jeniffer and Byron have sought comfort in grief classes, found respite in connection with others who know just what they’ve been through.
All three of them attended events in which the slain 27-year-old was named a hero: The Saturday finish line of a ceremonial bicycle tour, a candlelight vigil Sunday night and, of course, the memorial ceremony.
“There are so many reminders of all of the details of what happened eight months ago,” Jeniffer said. “It’s been very emotional.”
This year marked the first time Anniston police traveled to attend some of the events; the slaying of their friend spurred officers Emily Randles and William Bostick, Investigator Jacob Kayl and Bowles to make the trip.
As they stood near the 304-foot marble walls that now bear Sollohub’s name, the Anniston officers struggled to put into words how they felt when they first saw the downtown D.C. memorial on Monday night.
Emotional, said Bowles, who had been Sollohub’s shift supervisor.
Overwhelming, Randles added.
They quickly fell back into memories of their friend alive, descriptions of “Sollo” ping-ponging between them: Funny and hardworking. Motivational and smiling. The kind of guy who always tried to make others laugh.
Again the Anniston police tried to put recent feelings from the past week into words:
To have his name read at a ceremony in front of the Capitol, in front of thousands of other brothers in blue. In front of the president. To see the crowds ready to listen. Ready to hear and read Sollohub’s name:
“It was amazing,” Kayl said.
It was more damp than anything else before the Tuesday ceremony began. The rain drove down hard and fast for hours in the morning. It turned the well-manicured West Lawn of the Capitol into mud and puddles, forced honor guard members to tie plastic around their wide-brimmed hats. Thousands of people turned out in ponchos and raincoats, umbrellas and boots. Reporters kept cameras under the bleachers set up for them to keep the equipment from getting wet. The forecast showed rain all day.
But just before hundreds of uniformed officers began to form a line along the entrance for survivors, the weather broke.
The sun came out. It shone bright and hot, falling across the bent shoulders and bowed heads of the family members who opened the service by marching past that uniformed queue.
It shone during remarks from the national Fraternal Order of Police president. During introductions of distinguished guests House Speaker John Boehner, Secretary of Defense Janet Napolitano. The president. The president’s speech – certainly not a fair swap for a slain son but appreciated the way sun sometimes is after rain.
“It was incredible,” Jeniffer said. “It’s so all about Justin; this whole week has been about Justin.”
Star Staff Writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_Star.