How my Iowa town grieved after the deaths of two police officers
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The sun was setting behind the line of American Legionnaires standing at parade rest as the crowd gathered near the hastily assembled speaker stand.


Dennis Murphy, a friend who had served in the Navy on a submarine in the early 1960s, waved me over to where he stood to tell me about a Vietnam "Hanoi Hilton" former prisoner of war who was coming to town — Pleasantville, Iowa — to give a presentation.

I work for the local radio station, KNIA/KRLS, and Dennis knew I would help him get the word out about the visitor.

I listened to Dennis and watched the crowd grow, and thought about the last time I saw the Legionnaires together. It was in 2012 when Sgt. Eddie Viers came home. Viers was killed in action in Korea in 1953, his remains only recently identified, and brought home after nearly 60 years.

Pleasantville had gathered to honor Viers four years ago, and Wednesday they gathered to hold a candlelight vigil in memoriam to two police officers murdered in the Des Moines metro area. 38-year-old Des Moines Police Sgt. Anthony Beminio and 24-year-old Urbandale Police Officer Justin Martin had been killed early Wednesday morning, and a 46-year-old man named Scott Michael Greene has been arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

It's about a 30-minute drive from Pleasantville to downtown Des Moines, but the loss of the officers hurt us almost as much as if they were our own.

We live in the shadow of the metro, and much of our shopping and entertainment dollar is spent there. Many of us commute daily to work in the "big" city, and I saw several commuters in the crowd who had apparently just returned home from work.

I looked around to see who else I knew. It's harvest time, and I spotted a friend who appeared to have just climbed off his combine to come to the memorial. The school superintendent was somber, his children gathered around him. A lawyer, a teacher, a tractor repairman. Friends all, waiting for the memorial to start, many of them holding lit candles.

Pastor Clinton Wallace with Fairview Christian Church greeted the crowd of about 150, and we stopped our quiet conversations and turned toward him. A slight blonde girl led us in "God Bless America," her voice thin and hesitant at first, then growing stronger as our voices joined hers. Wallace and other church leaders addressed the tragedy, and urged those present to take comfort in the Bible and leave judgment to God as we prayed.

Pleasantville Police Chief Joe Mrstik, Marion County Sheriff Jason Sandholdt and two Pleasantville police officers and their families were asked to come forward. Prayers were offered for the safety of the men and their families, and appreciation was given for their service. "Amazing Grace" was sung and we dispersed.

A line formed that reached to the law enforcement officers, and like a receiving line at a wedding, we passed through it, offering our personal thanks. Both Mrstik and Sandholdt are good friends of mine, and I went through the receiving line with everyone else, not as a reporter, but as a citizen, telling both men of my appreciation for their sacrifices.

Sandholdt looked directly at me as he shook my hand, his resolve strong, but with tears welling. "These people are why I do it, Bob. They are why I do it."

Wallace had pulled together the vigil in just a few hours, through phone calls, Facebook postings and contacting the radio station.

I asked him why he had organized it.

"My mother called me this morning in tears ... it was just like she couldn't take it anymore ... she had seen enough and she felt that we had to do something ... because our officers do so much for us. It's important that we show them how much we need them and care for them ... these aren't the circumstances necessarily that we should always be doing that, but it's moments like this that we appreciate most the sacrifices that those who protect us make."

It was fully dark by then, and people began to leave to go to one of the nearby churches, where women had prepared a chili supper for all. Begging off, I went across the street to a coffee shop with Wi-Fi so I could send the audio I had captured to our studio to be produced and ready to air the next morning as part of our coverage of the vigil.

I sat in the comfort of the familiar coffee shop, tapping at my computer keys and drinking coffee as I downloaded and sent the files.

Nearly finished, flashing red and blue lights drew my attention to the front window of the shop, and Chief Mrstik's squad car and then Sheriff Sandholdt's sped past, toward danger, somewhere in the night, while their dinners cooled and their families waited at the church supper behind them.

Leonard is an anthropologist. He works for KNIA/KRLS in Knoxville and Pella, Iowa. Follow him on Twitter @robertleonard.

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