They started on their mission individually, only to find out they were not alone.
Five Fort Worth officers, all learning to play the bagpipes. All with the hope of someday playing in honor of the fallen who had served before or beside them.
Some, like Sgt. Mike Cagle, became inspired after watching bagpipers pay tribute to fallen police officers at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial ceremony in Washington, D.C.
“When I saw that, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Cagle said.
Others, like officer Jason Back, noticed that outside bagpipers were being brought in to play at police funerals. He wondered why the department didn’t have its own corps.
“I just felt it was a need,” Back said. “These officers gave their entire lives for us, so I should be able to give 30 to 45 minutes a day to practice and be able to do this for them.”
Through their instructors’ word-of-mouth, the five learned about one another and joined forces four months ago.
On Wednesday morning, the Fort Worth Police Department Pipe Corps debuted at the department’s annual Peace Officers Memorial Service, playing Amazing Grace as butterflies released by children of fallen officers fluttered about.
The ceremony honored the 56 Fort Worth officers and three deputy marshals who have died in the line of duty.
‘Really proud of them’
The pipes are historically linked with battle and those who have fallen in battle. But around the turn of the last century, fire and police departments along the East Coast began using them because a large number of arriving Irish immigrants took such service jobs.
Soon, the tradition of commemorating a fallen comrade with the haunting melody of bagpipes spread across the country. Several fire departments in Texas have pipe corps. And Fort Worth is now among a handful of police departments in Texas that have followed suit.
Before Wednesday’s ceremony began, Police Chief Jeff Halstead handed out chief challenge coins to each of the bagpipers.
“They have done all of this on their own,” Halstead said. “They funded all the equipment on their own. They just went totally above and beyond what’s expected, but that’s typical of our officers. I’m really proud of them.”
Officer Cathy Fowler said she didn’t intend to use her bagpipe skills until after retirement but changed her mind after discovering that other police officers were learning the instrument with the same goal in mind.
“I wanted to give something back after I retire to all those officers and even firefighters that have died in the line of duty,” Fowler said. “They brought me with their journey a little earlier than I anticipated. We were all on our individual journeys, and we just kind of all came together.”
Halstead has given the officers one on-duty hour a week to practice together.
The officers pay for their own instruments. Their uniforms, including kilts ordered from Scotland, were bought with donations.
“It is a financial investment,” said officer Walt Watkins, who has played bagpipes for 3 1/2 to four years. “Each one of the officers here … spends about $5,000 of their own money.”
Three other officers who play drums are in training, hoping to make the group a Pipe and Drum Corps by its next performance.
‘It’s the least I can do’
Retired fire Lt. Steve Creed has been the Fort Worth Fire Department’s official bagpiper for more than eight years but also plays at other funerals and memorials, including for police officers, locally and nationally. He has served as a mentor to the Pipe Corps and led the group in Wednesday’s ceremony.
Back said Creed and other bagpipers have been vital in teaching the police group the ropes, including marching formation and etiquette.
“It’s new to us. We’re learning,” Back said. “I didn’t grow up in a Scottish home or an Irish home. This is stuff we’ve had to learn from ground zero. You do not want to tarnish that at all.
“I’m German. That’s where my heritage is. I wouldn’t want somebody taking my heritage and doing it wrong, so we make sure that everything we do is correct.”
Creed, who can perform at memorials up to 58 times a year, said he was ecstatic about the start of the police group. He has had to rely on help from a statewide group, but now he can get it in his hometown.
“They’re a tremendous amount of help to me logistically, but also they’re dedicated, and that helps,” Creed said. “When we have an officer go down or a firefighter go down, we need all the help we can get.”
For officer James Gray, a college music major who already played the piano and guitar before picking up the bagpipes last summer, being part of the Pipe Corps is an honor.
“For those who have fallen — those doing the same jobs we’re doing — it’s the least I can do for these folks and these families that are still here,” Gray said.