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Community Honors Garbarino

He's remembered as a dedicated officer, devoted dad and hero.

Somber songs by bagpiper Garrett McKenzie began and ended last week's vigil honoring MPO Michael Garbarino, the Sully District police officer who died May 17, nine days after being shot by an assailant.

And in between McKenzie's music, police officials, politicians and others gave tributes to Garbarino while more than 1,000 candle-holding residents, police officers and firefighters listened. They were gathered outside the police station where, on May 8, a teen-ager with mental problems mortally wounded both Garbarino and detective Vicky Armel.

AS PEOPLE in the crowd hugged their loved ones close and hot tears spilled down cheeks, Fairfax County Police Chief Dave Rohrer told them they needn't be ashamed.

"There's no reason to apologize for crying," he said. "We cry out of love and because we care." Noting that the entire police department is "grieving and hurting," he said, "I, too, have cried since May 8, and I'm not embarrassed to say that. I loved Mike and Vicky and their families, and I know Mike Garbarino is watching over us here, right now."

The May 18 vigil was the second one in eight days. The first was for Armel, 40, who died the same day as the shooting. But as time passed and Garbarino, 53, seemed to be improving in the hospital, police and the local community pinned all their hopes on his recovery.

Surely, a second officer wouldn't be taken from them. After all, Armel was the first officer killed in the line of duty in the 66-year history of the Fairfax County Police Department. But Tuesday afternoon, May 16, Garbarino took a sudden turn for the worse and died early the next morning.

"I don't think I've cried so much or seen so many people crying in one place in my entire life," said Sully Police Chaplain Tommy Kirk, choking back tears as he addressed the gathering. "We're here to thank God for Mike and how he touched each of our lives. We can only move on and remember."

Kirk then prayed, saying, "God, we don't understand why things happen as they do. But help us to keep our hearts open. We look to you for strength and courage to get through each day. We ask you to watch over the public-safety personnel who guard our streets. Life is short and we're so fragile."

JOHN WERDERMAN, the station's police liaison to the Sully Station Citizens Advisory Committee, said the vigil communicated a strong message of support "to the men and women of one of the best police departments in the nation." And he asked the attendees to continue keeping the Armel and Garbarino families in their prayers.

He said Garbarino was affectionately called "Gabby" by family and friends, and he called him a "great American, loving husband, son and father and a dedicated officer sworn to protect and serve us, the citizens of Fairfax County."

Stressing that both Armel and Garbarino died "because of a confused young adult ... [who] lost his way," Werderman said, "We must honor Mike and Vicky by reaching out to young adults. We must teach our children that violence, disrespect and hatred of life are wrong."

Werderman beseeched parents to make sure their children know the difference between "what is good and what is bad" and to "get them professional help if they need it. And parents, please, please keep guns out of the hands of your children. The police and schools can't do it alone. Together, we can make a difference and perhaps prevent a future tragedy like the one that took the lives of our officers."

Chief Rohrer spoke of Garbarino's "passion for policing," saying he loved his job and did it well. "I'm proud to have known him and called him a friend," he said. "Mike was a whole person — a loving and devoted husband and father, a devoted churchgoer and a member of the community that cared. He made a difference in so many lives, and it's right that we gather to honor, respect and remember him and his family."

Rohrer then thanked area residents for their support "in these difficult times. It makes a difference. To me, the thin blue line weaves through the members of the community; I see that tonight, as I see police and citizens standing next to each other. We will never forget Mike Garbarino; we will always keep him in our hearts and cherish his memory."

GARBARINO WAS part of the first roll call when the Sully District Station opened three years ago. He'd previously served at the McLean District Station, but asked to transfer to the new one because he and his family lived in Centreville. And Capt. Susan Culin, commander of the Sully District Station, said he served the Sully District with "a sense of pride and honor."

She knew him for 21 years and had worked with him at the McLean station, and his death has hit her extremely hard. "Mike Garbarino was a cop's cop," she said. "He worked patrol most of his career because he liked it best. He was a 'Road Dog' and proud of it. He believed patrol was the backbone of the police department, and he was good at what he did."

At Sully, said Culin, Garbarino was also a liaison with many of the businesses in the Westfields Corporate Center. And she said the station was always thanked for how well he performed that job.

"Mike's death has been a tremendous blow to the police department and we are devastated by it," she said. "On May 8, he became a hero. He warned us there was a shooter in the back lot and not to come out that way. I have no doubt that he saved lives that day. Mike Garbarino and Vicky Armel are heroes — and we know heroes live forever."

Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) said he's never been prouder to say he represents Sully District citizens and businesses than in the past week-and-a-half. "This has been the most difficult time, and the outpouring of support has just been nonstop," he said.

In Garbarino's case, said Frey, "We thought we'd turned the corner, so this loss is particularly painful. We'll cry a lot together, pray and support the Sully police and [both families] and, together, we'll grow stronger. But it does hurt."

As far as he was concerned, said Frey, Garbarino didn't become a hero May 8, but already was one because of how he did his job, each and every day. "Mike believed he could improve the community, one person at a time," he said. "People who came into contact with him knew they were the better for it."

FREY SAID people will always remember the great courage that Armel, Garbarino and all the police officers showed that tragic day. "Sometimes, we take for granted what the police do for us, day in and day out," he told the crowd. "So please thank a police officer tonight, shake his hand and tell him you'll say a prayer for him."

Gerry Connolly, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said that "all 1.1 million people of Fairfax County are grieving. We love and care for our police, and [the] county will never forget the sacrifice that was made here. Every day, the police get up and put their lives on the line to protect us, and Michael Garbarino's name will last as long as Fairfax County does."

Leslie Jenuleson, co-coordinator of the Sully Station II Neighborhood Watch, described Garbarino as a role model and said Sully officers and local Citizens Advisory Committee members met May 16 to reflect and grieve. Said Jenuleson: "One officer compared [the shooting] to 9/11, saying they'll always remember where they were when they heard."

When the speakers at the vigil were finished, there was a moment of silence, followed by songs led by the St. Veronica Catholic Church adult choir. They included "Amazing Grace" and "Let There Be Peace on Earth," and then bagpiper Garrett McKenzie played "Going Home" to end the ceremony.

Afterward, though — still needing to draw comfort from each other and their shared feelings about the tragedies — residents remained in front of the police station for another hour, talking, hugging and wiping away tears. Others placed more bouquets on the cruiser and read some of the notes expressing condolences.

County police Lt. Rich Perez said he was impressed by the show of "support and commitment from the community we serve." And MPO Tom Harrington looked back fondly on his long association with Garbarino.

"I KNEW him 17 years," said Harrington. "He trained me as a patrol officer when I first came out of the [police] academy. Mike was a great officer. He loved the road and being with the people. Each day was a different call, a different situation, and he liked that flexibility. He truly loved going to work; the only thing he loved more was his family."

Harrington said Garbarino's caring and devotion to what he did made him one of the department's best officers. As for the vigil, he said it just "reinforces what Mike and I and all the other officers believe: We're out here to protect the people and they appreciate it. If he were here now, he'd say [to his fellow officers], 'I've done my tour. Remember and honor me, but go out and do your job. Go back to work.'"