Journey to Help Arizona Police Families Started on 9/11

Posted By Mike Padgett

Nov. 9, 2011

PHOENIX, Ariz. – If a meeting 10 years ago in the World Trade Center in New York had gone as planned, Michael Coogan and others might not be volunteering at the funerals of Arizona police officers today.

Coogan’s story begins on Sept. 11, 2001. He and his sales manager, Bill Brown, were to meet with clients at 9 a.m. that day in the lobby of World Trade Center II. When the meeting was rescheduled to 2 p.m., Coogan and Brown planned to have breakfast that fateful day in midtown New York, several blocks from the World Trade Center.

At the precise time when Coogan and Brown were to meet their clients in the World Trade Center, terrorists flew two hijacked airliners into the buildings.

It was 8:46 a.m. when the first airliner sliced into WTC I, the north tower. At 9:03 a.m., a second airliner was steered into WTC II, the south tower.

Michael Coogan says his experience on 9/11 in New York City, where he was to attend a meeting in the World Trade Center, helped change his life.

After the attack, Coogan and Brown rushed 20 blocks to a local hospital to donate blood. But soon after they took their places in line, ready to roll up their sleeves and give blood, they learned there were no survivors.

Many office workers and visitors in the two WTC buildings escaped, but about 3,000 workers, visitors and their rescuers died when the burning buildings imploded.

Cross Country Trip

Coogan needed to return to his job in San Francisco, but all airline flights were grounded. He found his way to a New Jersey airport and rented a car. His drive alone for nearly four days back to California gave him time to think about his luck in dodging death.

“I would say it was definitely a pivotal point in my life where I kinda went, ‘What am I doing,’” he says. “I’d done a lot of things for other companies and worked really hard for other companies and made other people a lot of money but I wasn’t really happy.”

“So the ride back was very rewarding. It was kinda like I said, okay, there’s a reason why you are here.”

Today, Coogan credits his near-fatal brush with history as a factor in his decision to help the families of Arizona police officers killed in the line of duty.

Police funeral

Coogan, 49, was one of the many volunteers helping in Friday’s funeral of Glendale Police Officer Brad Jones. Coogan and others gave small American flags to bystanders and mourners lining the funeral route to the cemetery in Peoria. Jones was shot Oct. 29. He was accompanying a probation officer to a meeting with a parolee. The parolee allegedly shot Jones. The suspect was caught later that night. Within hours, Jones, 26, died in a Phoenix hospital.

Coogan, who today is a reserve deputy with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, has become familiar with police funerals. It’s part of the new journey he promised himself to start, after dodging the terrorist attack in New York on 9/11.

Last year, Coogan and others launched a new Web site, www.azhighwayofheroes.com, to help Arizona police families and strengthen the connection between the public and law enforcement agencies.

Coogan says the Website is a collaborative effort that includes Joe Monthie, also a reserve deputy and a master sergeant at Luke Air Force Base; Brien Tapley, another master sergeant at Luke; and Jason Swencki, who also is a reserve deputy and in the computer industry.

The Website’s background is a waving U.S. flag. Its graphics include photographs of police funeral processions. Soft piano music plays in the background.

Photos on the Website show a flag-draped casket, an officer saluting the passing motorcade, and a long line of motorcycle officers in front of a white hearse.

The Website includes links where visitors can donate to memorial funds or visit other public safety sites. When an Arizona peace officer dies in the line of duty, the Website will feature details about the officer’s upcoming funeral.

Coogan, in an interview before the Glendale officer’s funeral, talked about his experiences on 9/11, his background and the Arizona Highway of Heroes program’s formation and goals.

Born into police family

Coogan’s day job is high-tech sales. He’s been doing it for more than 20 years. But on his personal time, Coogan is a reserve deputy with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. He was named MCSO 2010 Reserve Deputy of the Year.

Michael Coogan’s family has been in law enforcement in Denver since 1908 – his great-grandfather was a patrolman, his grandfather was a police captain, and his father was chief of police. Coogan says his father has remarried, and his wife is police chief in Littleton, Colo. Photo courtesy of Michael Coogan

After 9/11, Coogan’s life underwent many changes. His marriage ended. He changed jobs. He and a friend, William Burton, self published a tongue-in-cheek humor book, “Know Your Pig: Playful Relationship Advice for Understanding Your Man.” Coogan says the book can help women understand men. Coogan recently was invited to become a trustee with the Arizona chapter of C.O.P.S. (Concerns of Police Survivors).

Idea came from Highway of Heroes in Canada

In 2009, Coogan’s application to attend the MCSO reserve academy was accepted. But classes didn’t start for several weeks. He was still working in Canada, selling computer software. One day, Coogan and his girl friend were driving in Toronto when they saw people lining up to stand on highway overpasses. Many had small Canadian flags. Cars began pulling to the side of the road.

“I said, what’s going on. She said turn on the radio. There’s probably a fallen (Canadian) soldier returning.”

Coogan said he pulled to the side of the road. His friend told him that in Canada, the bodies of Canadian soldiers killed in combat receive recognition from the public.

“It’s almost like society just stops. The noise level goes down. All you hear is just nature. You might hear the odd car or two. It’s deathly quiet. You hear birds chirping or something.”

Society’s Fabric Stronger

Coogan says the Highway of Heroes in Canada strengthens the connection between the public and the military.

“I think it makes them appreciate the jobs that soldiers do, and how it impacts what they’re doing. It ties totally into the fabric of society.

“Their kids come out and they’re quiet and they’re listening and their parents teach them about it.  It teaches them to understand how fragile life is. And how one minute you can be here and the next minute you can be gone. So live your life with integrity and honor at whatever it is you’re doing, but do it as an honorable thing.”

Coogan says Canada’s Highway of Heroes program later sparked his idea for a similar program to honor Arizona police officers killed in the line of duty.

Monthie, whose father was a police officer for 32 years in Illinois, says he supported Coogan’s proposal when he first heard about it. He says encouraging the public to line up along a police funeral route strengthens the community.

“I think what it does, just like in the military, it shows a sign of respect,” Monthie says. “It shows a willingness of the community to accept what the officer or officers, or the first responders, have done and sacrificed for the good of the community.”

Arizona Highway of Heroes

Coogan, Monthie, Tapley, Swencki and other volunteers typically give away a couple thousand U.S. flags at police funerals. They also may join other officers at the gravesite.

When Coogan and his group launched their Website in July 2010, they hoped it would be up and running long before it was needed to publicize a police funeral.

But three hours after the Web site went live, a Chandler Police detective was killed. The shooting was in south Phoenix where the Chandler officer was working on a case with Phoenix police.

“We didn’t even have flags,” Coogan says. “We were scrambling to get flags because three days later was the funeral.”

Whether they are rookies or veterans, tough-skinned or not, some police officers struggle with their feelings at a fellow officer’s funeral. The funerals might remind them of their own close calls, or that bad things can happen to good people.

“There’s some officers who love what they’re doing, but they won’t do it (go to police funerals),” Coogan says. “They won’t even stand on the side because they’ve had friends killed.”

Children saluting police

Coogan related a situation in the West Valley last year in which children along the funeral route brought adults to tears.  He said a teacher who heard about a funeral for a policeman arranged for her 30 kindergarten students to line up along the funeral route. The youngsters, each holding a small U.S. flag, saluted as the hearse passed.

The emotions felt at the funerals of police and soldiers represent an overwhelming experience of sights, sounds and feelings. Whether the combat was on a distant battlefield or on a city street, mourners realize that one of the good guys is gone.

Sheriff’s Detective A.J. Jackson says the Arizona Highway of Heroes program “gives the people that love police officers and love the jobs that they do a chance to come out and show their support, when there’s so much negativity and so much emphasis put on the negative side of things.”

Jackson and Swencki say attending police funerals is emotionally draining.

“There’s a (police) brotherhood that’s just hard to explain,” Swencki says. “We’re all drawn together to protect each other’s life and help those in need. And when we hear that one of us has been lost, it’s like a piece of you is gone.”

Emotional experience

“The police funeral is nothing like anything you’ve ever been to,” Coogan says. “It’s one of the things that if you go to it once, you’ll never forget it. It’s a significant event.”

Mourners at a police funeral may struggle to block the thoughts of how they would cope if they lost a spouse. They find themselves standing in silence with a hand over their heart or saluting as the hearse with its police escort passes.

They likely will see dozens of police motorcycles rumbling in slow motion, two by two, leading the hearse and its motorcade to the cemetery.

They may see one or more public safety helicopters hovering along the route.

Sometimes, the funeral procession will drive under a giant U.S. flag that firefighters suspended from the extended crossed ladders of two ladder trucks.

Several police officers on horseback may wait at the cemetery gates to greet the motorcade and lead the hearse to the grave. There, an honor guard and the lone bugler will meet mourners.

“Police and fire and military all represent a piece of us, individually,” Coogan says. “So when one of them dies, whether you admit it or not, it’s part of you because you’re part of that system that they’re protecting.”

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Nov 9th, 2011

One Comment to 'Journey to Help Arizona Police Families Started on 9/11'

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  1. Carol Romley said,

    Mike: What an outstanding story to honor to our brave men and women who put their lives on the line for us every single day. Ever since I was a little girl I have looked at our police officers as very strong and brave and they were so special in my eyes and still are. Thank you for this touching story.
    Carol Romley

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