In a room filled with imposing law enforcement officers, Becky Dowell’s petite stature seemed particularly evident Sunday afternoon, but her maternal voice commanded attention.
Her statement was simple but carried with it the weight of a mother’s grief – the heartache of a parent who buried her 28-year-old son in February. Trooper Lucas B. Dowell was killed in the line of duty Feb. 4 when he was shot. Trooper Dowell was a member of the Virginia State Police Tactical Team that was assisting a regional drug and gang task force with executing a search warrant at a Cumberland County residence. The Chilhowie native died a short time later.
Becky Dowell and her husband, Mike, shared hugs, laughter and tears with members of the Cannonball Memorial Run as they gathered at the Virginia State Police’s Division IV headquarters in Wytheville. The Cannonball crew had traveled more than 3,000 miles on a journey from Redondo Beach, Calif., to Washington, D.C., on a mission to honor the service of law enforcement officers murdered in the line of duty in recent months and to offer their support to their families.
The crew, all active or retired law enforcement officers, had paid their respects in Arizona, Texas, Missouri, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Wytheville was their final stop before heading to Washington, D.C., to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and a meeting with U.S. Attorney General William Barr.
John Bannes, one of the group’s co-founders, acknowledged that the crew members “hadn’t had their heads on a pillow since Wednesday.” As he talked with the Dowells, Bannes’ voice shook but his mission commitment seemed to become even more resolute.
Jason Hendrix, the other co-founder, expressed that mission, saying, “It’s got to stop,” referring to the murder of law enforcement officers.
This idea for the Cannonball Memorial Run was born in his backyard, said Hendrix, out of the frustration of the attacks on police in 2016. He, Bannes and another friend decided to get in a car and drive to each agency where officers had been murdered to show support and fellowship.
As they traveled to some of the smaller departments and saw surviving families without adequate support, Bannes and Hendrix vowed to make a difference.
Hendrix explained that 23 years ago he was shot eight times while on duty. After surviving the assault, he said, “I didn’t want to waste that opportunity” at a second chance at life.
They began raising money to create a fund to provide immediate support to surviving families. They also want to show their support to law enforcement families that had sustained a loss. As importantly, they want to serve as a collective voice.
At each agency they visit, the crew collects two patches – one for their organization and one to present to the U.S. Attorney General. When he shakes the attorney general’s hand and makes eye contact, Bannes said, “Don’t think I won’t say something.” While each agency is a single voice, he said, the Cannonball Memorial Run is forming “one giant voice” to raise awareness of the murders of law enforcement.
At that, Mike and Becky Dowell nodded their heads in agreement with Becky declaring, “We need to be the voice.”
Memorial run member Grant Ward told of one sheriff who so supported the mission that he took a pair of scissors and cut the department patch off the shirt he was wearing.
In another locality, Ward said, the entire community stayed up until midnight to greet the crew when it arrived.
The run members find inspiration and encouragement in these actions of support to continue their mission. “It has to stop,” Ward reiterated. “Nobody signs up to be a police officer to be murdered. You sign up to help. Yet it is a reality. We’re reminded oftentimes you don’t go home.”
Ward promised, “We won’t stop pushing back.”
He reflected on Becky Dowell’s entrance into the room and the immediate movement of the officers to hug her. “She’s our mother too,” said Ward.
It’s a comfort to the run participants, Ward said, to “know our moms would get hugs too.”
While their crew included a Presidential Medal of Valor winner, an Emmy-nominated movie maker and other distinguished individuals, Ward said, “We’re here to showcase families.”
While such events do remind families of their loss and may bring tears, Ward reflected, “The more you re-open a wound…, the more it can heal.”
Sgt. Troy Dalton with the VSP’s Division IV, which includes Smyth County, said that many of the division’s officers knew Trooper Dowell and were especially hurt by his murder. “We’re all brothers and sisters in law enforcement…. Trooper Dowell will always be part of our family.”
Dalton said many of the troopers talk about Trooper Dowell every day and they honor him by getting in their cars and going to work.
Sgt. Rick Garletts of the VSP agreed, saying, “We remember him, his commitment to this department by going to work every day and doing our job… to protect the people of the commonwealth.”
The Cannonball Memorial Run team presented the Dowells and the VSP with a plaque handcrafted by one of their members. In part, it read, “It is how he lived and worked that makes him a hero.”
The VSP also presented the Dowells with a Medal of Honor certificate from the American Police Hall of Fame. The certificate noted that the Hall of Fame would honor Trooper Dowell “by engraving his name in the Police Hall of Fame Memorial so that his sacrifice and his dedication to humanity and justice will always be remembered by generations to come.”
Monday evening, at a meeting of the Marion Town Council, Mayor David Helms announced that a flag and cross memorializing Trooper Dowell will be erected during the community’s annual Memorial Day tributes. The mayor said these markers would be given a place of distinction.
The town and VFW erect more than 1,200 flag-and-cross combinations that each remembers a veteran and his service.
To learn more about the Cannonball Memorial Run, visit www.cannonballmemorialrun.org or follow the group on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.