Joe Abernathy, current HPD officer serving on the Honor Guard, wears the same badge as his late father, Bobby. Joe sat down for an interview recently with CityBlog’s Mark McCarter.
This week marks National Police Week, an observance signed into law by President Kennedy in 1962. Each day this week, CityBlog will have a story focusing on the Huntsville Police Department. Today: The HPD’s Honor Guard.
Joe Abernathy was barely a week into training at the Huntsville Police Academy when he watched the Huntsville Police Department’s (HPD) Honor Guard at a funeral. He appreciated their precision and dignity. Mostly, he appreciated the care and devotion to the family.
That’s something I want to do, Abernathy told himself then. “It really struck a chord with me,” he says now.
Bobby Abernathy was a cop for 27 years. He was a coach, a guitarist and a drag racer before his untimely death in 2012 at age 50, after which the Honor Guard served at his funeral.
He was also Joe Abernathy’s father.
He died three days into Joe’s training at the Academy. They had been eagerly anticipating the graduation ceremony in which Bobby would pin Joe’s badge to his chest. Today, after special dispensation by HPD, Joe wears Bobby’s old badge. Says Joe, “He was my motivation for taking this job.”
Last week, Abernathy was in Washington, D.C., representing the HPD Honor Guard along with Chief Mark McMurray and Sgt. Doug Pennington, Officer Jeff Franks and Officer Steven Anderson as part of the National Police Week, participating in the National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service.
To me, it’s symbolic of the support of the department. It’s honoring this person’s sacrifice they’ve made, whether it’s a line of duty death or just the sacrifices they’ve made by dedicating their life to the profession.”
“A complete humbling experience,” says Pennington, making his second trip to the event.
Sgt. Tim Clardy was among the Honor Guard to serve at Bobby Abernathy’s service. He’s now in charge of the unit, which consists of 28 volunteers from throughout the Huntsville Police Department, from every shift and district, from essentially every internal department.
The Honor Guard serves at funerals for retired officers, upon request of the families, and for officers killed in the line of duty. It also provides a color guard for numerous events throughout the year at different venues.
When a detail is needed, Clardy simply sends out a group-wide email asking for volunteers. More often than not, he has more than needed. There is no extra money for serving. As Clardy says, “The pay you get is self-gratifying and it’s out of respect.”
The Honor Guard serves at “post’ for funerals, standing by the casket for a period of time before a changing of a guard. It’s all very stoic, very military-esque.
“The only thing they can do is blink,” Clardy says. “No matter how hot it gets, no matter how much the flowers by the casket are trying to make them sneeze.”
They serve as pallbearers, then at the gravesite, they perform an elaborate flag ceremony in which the flag is presented by the highest-ranking representative in attendance – McMurray has yet to miss a funeral for a retired officer in his 20 months on the job – to a family member. The Honor Guard offers a rifle salute, a bugler plays taps and there is a bagpiper who plays as well.
“It’s like I say when I’m trying to recruit guys for Honor Guard – which isn’t very hard – if somebody gives 25 years of their life 30 years of their life to the City and to the police department, the least we can do is show up and out of respect give them a full funeral,” Clardy says.
“It’s all about paying respect,” Pennington says. “We’re there for the family.”
As a member of a family particularly blessed by that respect, Joe Abernathy has a unique perspective.
“To me, it’s symbolic of the support of the department,” he says. “It’s honoring this person’s sacrifice they’ve made, whether it’s a line of duty death or just the sacrifices they’ve made by dedicating their life to the profession.”