When Christina arrived Saturday morning outside the B-Quick convenience store that was the scene of a deadly ambush against Baton Rouge police five years earlier, she felt an instant kinship with the women gathered there.

Like Christina, who asked to withhold her name because she's received online harassment in the past, they were wives of law enforcement officers across the country. And like her, they were there to honor the men who were killed in the line of duty when a lone gunman opened fire on July 17, 2016.

The gunman had traveled to Baton Rouge after the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling a few weeks earlier, which had ignited nationwide protests. Baton Rouge police officers Montrell Jackson and Matthew Gerald as well as East Baton Rouge Sheriff's deputy Brad Garafola were killed in the attack.

Sheriff's deputies Bruce Simmons and Nick Tullier, along with BRPD Officer Chad Montgomery were also injured. 

Mayor-President Sharon Weston-Broome has declared the anniversary Law Enforcement Memorial Day.

The National Police Wives Association organized a walk Saturday morning from the B-Quick convenience store on Airline Highway where the gunman ambushed officers to Baton Rouge Police Department headquarters a mile away to honor their memory. 

The organization was in Baton Rouge this week for their first annual summit after what many described as a difficult year for families of those in uniform marked by protests against police. 

Christina, the wife of a Los Angeles police officer and member of the NPWA, had seen her husband attacked on television and received threats to her family, and so felt strongly about showing up for the wives and loved ones of the officers killed. 

"We all have our own trauma, but coming together you see that no matter what part of the country we're from, officers and wives are going through the same thing," she said. "It's a beautiful thing to get together, support each other and just come out stronger."

Dozens of wives, community members and local law enforcement crowded the convenience store parking lot in the sweltering July heat in sneakers and sunglasses, balancing cups of coffee and energy drinks as they greeted and hugged each other.

Many of the women spoke of the value in bonding together as a group to show each other they are not alone in the challenges facing law enforcement families. 

"You don't feel like there's anybody who understands," said Krista Daugherty, the wife of a Columbus, Ohio, officer. "Now it's like I have a bigger extended family."

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Elena Branzaru, a Marine Corps veteran, stood off to the side holding an American flag as a representative of Flags to the Finish. The group attends races and walks bearing the colors to support law enforcement, military and first-responders.

“It's a part of the community and lets people know they're not alone," she said. "It can be a struggle, so we want to let people know we're behind them. We share happiness as well as grief.”

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III, BRPD Chief Murphy Paul and East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux were also in attendance. 

"I'm here to show respect for our heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice," Chief Paul said.

"We never forget. This created a lot of trauma — not just in our police office but in the community as well. When you see family members, wives and police officers who worked side-by-side (with the fallen officers) — it's as real as if it's just happened." 

Moore added that the day was a celebration of their lives and recognition of their bravery. 

"It seems to be that every time an officer gets killed, it's always the best — the person with the best disposition, who was in the job for the right reason," he said.

While organizers and local leaders focused on the lives lost and forever changed that day, they also underscored the importance of addressing trauma many in the law enforcement field experience long after such events. 

After the walk to the police station, organizers announced that, along with Baton Rouge General, BRPD will construct a new wellness and fitness center for officers' at HQ. It will offer everything from improving officer simple sleep behaviors, to helping them schedule therapy, in addition to allowing them access to personal trainers and workout equipment.

The center's insignia bore a teal-and-blue ribbon, recognizing officers who have taken their own lives. More police die by suicide than in the line of duty each year, according to a report by the Police Executive Research Forum.

Rendy Richard, former BRPD peer support team coordinator and NPWA vice president, said the vision for the center began after they reached out to a widow of an officer who had died by suicide.

"The tragedy from 2016 was so big and it just left so much trauma within our city, within our agency, but our officers really have not had the opportunity to heal," she said. "To say that we're giving back on a day when we felt like we lost everything is a huge tip of the hat of appreciation for the men and women who serve this community every single day. It's a message that we see you and we’re here to help you."


Email Jacqueline DeRobertis at jderobertis@theadvocate.com