It’s not supposed to happen this way, and it goes against most everything we’re taught in the training academy as law enforcement officers; a traffic stop that turns personal.
June 4, 2002 was just a “routine” day of work — a day not unlike thousands of others I’d already experienced in my then 11 years of duty as a state trooper. Not unlike, that is, until I stopped a 79-year-old man for a minor speeding violation. My plans were to let this man know that he was in violation of Colorado law, to check his documentation, and to send him on his way with a warning. “Courteous but Firm.” That’s the motto of the Colorado State Patrol, and a credo by which every trooper is taught to live and die. I had no idea at the time though, that this one traffic stop was about to affect who I was and how I thought, more than any other before or any other since.
As I walked up to the car stopped in front of me that day, I noticed that the license plate was a Colorado “Prisoner of War” plate. Though my curiosity was piqued just slightly, I kept to the business of the moment and issued my standard courteous but firm warning. Then I noticed a ball cap the driver was wearing, which had the words “USS Bataan” emblazoned across the front.
Though I can’t describe it now, something about that man — maybe it was his kind and friendly demeanor, maybe it was the license plate and the hat, maybe a little of both — something told me that there was more to this person than met the eye. Though it went totally against my normal protocol for a traffic stop, and though I felt that it was probably none of my business, I turned the forbidden corner from professional to personal, as I felt compelled to verbalize my curiosity regarding his POW plate. He then looked me squarely in the eye, and with just a glint of humble pride he told me that he’d been imprisoned for three and a half years by the Japanese during World War II and had taken part in something called the Bataan Death March. I remember not really knowing what to say at the time so I just offered a handshake — another violation of safety protocol — thanked him for his service to our country, and told him he was free to go. My “routine” day then continued and later ended, but the thought of that encounter lingered. The words “death march” sounded so ominous and dark that I had to learn more.
My off-duty time in the days following this chance meeting along the highway were filled with library books and Internet searches for topics relating to the Bataan Death March. I was shocked by what I learned, by what these men went through, and by the fact that I hadn’t been taught more about this during my school years — or maybe I had, but I just didn’t pay much attention back then. I then did the unthinkable, something that violated everything I was taught about safety and professionalism: I looked up this driver’s address in the phone book, knocked on his door, and asked him if he’d be willing to share with me his experiences. I was invited in to his living room that day, a room adorned with patriotic paintings, photos and symbols, and he told me his harrowing and heroic story.
As the days and months passed, a friendship grew between us. Once or so a month I’d stop by for a cup of coffee with him and his wife. On many occasions he’d see my patrol car pull into the driveway, and the coffee pot would be on before I even reached the front door. He loved my patrol car parked in his driveway, because everyone passing by his house drove much slower than usual. I submitted his story to the Colorado Trooper Magazine, and it was published a few months later.
The name of the man I met that day on my “routine” traffic stop was John Walker (“Johnny” to his friends) — a man so devoted to his God, and so proud of the country he fought and served and almost died for, that I’ll likely never know another like him again.
I last saw my friend a couple of weeks ago as he was standing on his front porch, waving goodbye to me as I drove away from one of our coffee breaks. This past Sunday morning, I received a phone call from his wife who told me he’d passed away during the night.
In all of my now 18 years as a State Trooper, I’ve witnessed and experienced more than the average person ever will, but none of these experiences will ever affect me in such a way as did the experience stemming from that one simple traffic stop seven years ago. Since that day, I’ve never passed up an opportunity to offer a handshake and a “thank you for serving” to a driver bearing a veteran or other military license plate. There’s now an American flag flying proudly in my front yard. My kids will know that true heroes are not found in the arenas or on the stages, but rather in places like battlefields. That’s how one humble yet heroic man and his life changed mine forever.
Goodbye my friend. For now.