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ETHERIDGE: National K-9 Memorial: Remembering fallen canine officers
K-9 Memorial
Attendees of We Ride to Provide's recent ceremony in Porterdale hold their memorials to fallen K-9 officers. (Special Photo | Lou Crouch)

K-9 officers wear a halo and a badge. The K-9s that earned their angel wings in 2020 were honored Saturday at the 13th Annual We Ride to Provide National K-9 Memorial, at the Porterdale Memorial Gymnasium.

There were prayers, music and haunting bagpipes. There was a formal ceremony, presentations, heartfelt speeches and a procession of handlers and K-9s.

My husband Frank and I were privileged to attend, and meet some of the handlers and current working dogs that will someday leave their beloved human partners and family members holding an empty leash.

Police officers and sheriff’s deputies from across Georgia and the U.S. and Puerto Rico converged on the small mill town as they do each year. Next March a number of K-9 handlers from Switzerland are expected to attend.

(The event is normally held in March, but because of COVID-19, WRTP organizers delayed the event this year.)

Volunteers from the non-profit Central Georgia K-9 Search and Rescue also attended to honor four of their dogs that recently passed away. These SAR canines track lost children and dementia patients, and assist law enforcement in recovering human remains.

Porterdale Police Chief Jason Cripps and his wife Holly began the event on the knowledge that their golden retriever Beau – who was Chief Cripps’ remarkable K-9 partner – would someday walk across the rainbow bridge.

Holly said that little ball of fur, an original pound puppy, changed their lives and the lives of countless handlers and other K-9s, forever. Beau was the inspiration for the yearly memorial that is held to honor fallen K-9 officers and comfort their handlers who mourn their passing as they would a human partner or family member. It’s a tightknit group. The Cripps lost Beau in 2016.

The organization also donates first aid kids for K-9s around the world. 

A Walton County Sheriff’s Office K-9 was honored at the memorial on Saturday. Retired Sergeant Falco who lost his battle with cancer in August 2020 was remembered for his service.

Several retired K-9s were named heroes this year, including Jerry Lee formerly of the Austell Police Department who literally lost a leg in the line of fire. Jerry Lee is credited for saving his handler, Officer Edward Reeves’ life, when they were chasing a suspect this past April. The suspect turned to fire at the officers as they pursued him, hitting Jerry Lee in the leg.

The amazing dog chosen for this year’s K-9 Memorial Hall of Fame died in 2011. Her name was Morgan and she served at ground zero after 9/11 and again following Hurricane Katrina, despite suffering from PTSD as did many 9/11 human first responders. 

Captain Morgan was a retired K9 with Southside Fire Department in Savannah, Ga. Morgan apparently kept working in the rubble of the World Trade Towers even after taking a three-story fall.

The annual memorial weekend for these K-9 handlers began with an informal family-style dinner Friday night, where they could relax and mingle, hug, cry, laugh and share stories. It ended with a bonfire and cookout Saturday night, and more storytelling. These people and their dogs serve a public that doesn’t always appreciate their sacrifices. But they can find solace with “like-minded” people, who understand and share many of the same experiences.

For more information about We Ride to Provide, visit the organization’s Facebook page.

Denise Etheridge is a staff writer for The Walton Tribune and a Newton County resident.