When Howard County Sgt. Jordan Buckley talks about the morning of March 20, he is sure to make one detail particularly clear - Deputy Carl Koontz saved his life.
It happened the morning the two officers were shot serving warrants at a trailer park in Russiaville, an incident that cost Koontz his life. And it’s that morning Buckley will remember as the day he lost a friend, but gained a hero.
“Without a doubt. Deputy Koontz was able to provide some suppressive fire that undoubtedly allowed me not to get struck more times,” he said Thursday morning in the parking lot of the Howard County jail, clutching the Purple Heart Sheriff Steve Rogers recently awarded to him.
“Without him doing that, I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be here.”
Buckley stood Thursday alongside the full force of the Howard County Sheriff’s Department for the agency’s annual inspection day, which doubled this year as a memorial for both active and fallen officers.
Speaking at a podium placed in front of officers, department personnel, dispatchers, public officials and family members, including the Koontz family, Rogers referenced the tragic events of March 20 and highlighted the impact they have had on those sitting and standing before him.
“Deputy Koontz giving his life in the performance of his duties brings an emphasis and meaning to this day of tribute that we have never seen or felt before,” he said, looking up sporadically at the officers lining the back of the parking lot, many wiping away tears.
“This has been a difficult time for all of you, and for me as sheriff, the most dreaded of my law enforcement years. I am proud of this agency and I want to thank you for who you have been throughout the past weeks,” he added later, asking the officers to recommit themselves to the community that grieved alongside the officers.
After providing commendations to officers and dispatchers for their actions during various urgent situations - including an incident where Koontz helped extinguish a garage fire with other officers on Sept. 14, 2015 – Rogers and Russiaville Town Marshal Roger Waddell recognized those who played crucial, yet publicly unknown, roles on March 20.
The first of those officers was Russiaville Deputy Marshal Randy VanNatter, who attempted to serve warrants alongside Koontz and Buckley to 25-year-old Evan Dorsey, who killed himself after exchanging gunfire with the officers.
As told by Waddell, VanNatter continued to provide assistance to both Buckley and Koontz until they were extracted from the residence, actions for which he was provided a Medal of Merit. Also recognized was Deputy Chaos - Russiaville’s K-9 officer - who searched the residence on West Chandler Street to enable an extraction of Koontz, then injured from a gunshot wound to the pelvis.
Rogers went on to provide commendations and service medals to a number of dispatchers, each of whom worked the early morning hours of March 20, and various deputies, including Joseph Underwood and Dewayne Dehart, who helped extract Koontz, secure the trailer and transport the injured officers.
The most emotional recognitions came when Rogers called forward Buckley, who received the department’s Medal of Honor and Purple Heart for a gunshot wound to the upper thigh, and the Koontz family.
Following Buckley’s honors, Rogers presented the Koontz family with a Medal of Honor and a Purple Heart for the young deputy giving “the ultimate sacrifice.” In addition, a plaque created by Hartford City-based ADM Custom Creations was given to Koontz’ parents, Allen and Jackie Koontz.
A bench highlighting Koontz’ end of watch date and various aspects of his life was also dedicated in the jail parking lot, and will soon be moved to the front of the facility.
“I think it means everything; I’m glad the family was here,” Buckley said during an interview. “These are the awards that nobody wants. Nobody wants to get these types of awards, but when they do it is honorable and I’m just glad that it happened.”
Following the ceremony, Rogers and Buckley both gave their thoughts on the tragedy, specifically the impact it’s had on their lives and the department as a whole.
In fact, it is Rogers’ hope that Thursday’s event can serve as an opportunity for public closure, even if that may never be possible for those directly involved.
“I think over the last few weeks, I think everything we have done has provided some type of closure,” said Rogers. “I think we will use this as kind of the punctuation point here, that this is closure for us, officially closure that we are going to get as to talking about the incident publicly.
“It is never going to go away, it’s going to be with us for the rest of these officers’ careers. That is not all negative. It is a terrible price to pay, to have a hero like this, but it is also something very good that really brings to light what all American law enforcement faces every day.”
From Buckley’s standpoint, there will never be true closure for those attending Thursday’s event. Instead, the weight of Koontz’ death will always live on in memories and hearts throughout Howard County.
“I don’t think it’s going to be closure, per say. I think it is starting the path to recovery for all of us,” he said. “I don’t think there’s an end point. I think it is something we are all going to carry with us on a day-to-day basis.”
In relation to that fateful morning, Buckley said no one has second guessed the actions of March 20 more than those involved, calling law enforcement “the biggest critics of ourselves,” and sounding like a man coming to terms with the tragic outcome of what should have been a routine police action.
“It’s easy to sit down and go could’ve, would’ve, should’ve on things, and second guess ourselves,” he said. “But in our profession, that’s just not something you can do. You just have to do the best you can with what you've got at the time being, and sometimes people are going to change that. You can’t control every outcome.”
Finally, Buckley spoke about the healing process for a tragedy he never expected to visit Howard County, even if he’s watched time and again similar situations take place across the country.
“It’s just been getting back out there and getting to it,” said Buckley, who returned to full-duty service Monday. “We are already a close family to begin with, but I think that this has brought us even closer.
“We read in the newspapers and see on TV that these tragedies are happening all across the United States, and you never think it’s going to be in your town, and you never really think it’s going to be you. It’s just made us more vigilant and we are going to move forward with that information.
“It’s only been a short six or seven weeks but it just seems like yesterday,” he continued. “It was a surreal experience for sure.”