Feb. 14-- Among the thousands in that sea of blue on Wednesday, Feb. 13, who showed up from police departments across the country for the funeral of Milwaukee Police Officer Matthew Rittner was an Aurora, Ill., cop who knew first-hand what a hero this man-buried on his 36th birthday-really was.
While serving a warrant on a suspect who allegedly manufactured and delivered narcotics, Rittner, a member of Milwaukee's SWAT team, was fatally struck by several rounds of gunfire.
Aurora Police Officer Josh Horton was "shocked" when he heard the news. At the same time, he was not surprised "Matt had been the first through the door," even knowing the bad guy behind it had a large stockpile of weapons.
As Rittner's squad commander in Iraq with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Marines, Horton saw multiple examples of this "bravery and selflessness"-including the day Rittner and several other Marines went out under sniper fire to rescue an Iraqi interpreter who had been wounded. And the then 19-year-old college kid did so, Horton recalled, "with that trademark grin" on his face.
"No matter what we were going through," Horton told me in a phone interview from Milwaukee, where he was attending memorial services for the fellow Marine and police officer, "Matt always kept us laughing."
Which leads us to the part of this story that becomes even more personal for the Aurora officer.
On the third day of an operation near Fallujah in October of 2004, Horton, positioned on a rooftop, was hit at close-range from the blast of an 82 mm Russian-made mortar, unaware of how seriously he was injured until "I noticed I could smell my own blood."
It was Rittner-he'd always volunteered for every additional training, including combat lifesaving-who helped keep the Oswego man from bleeding out by putting a tourniquet on his leg ... and by cracking jokes, as he was known to do, "to keep me from going into shock," said Horton.
Rittner then helped carry the severely wounded sergeant through enemy fire, to secure the landing zone for the Blackhawk helicopter that flew the now unconscious Marine to safety.
"I really do owe my life to him," said Horton, who awoke a week later in what is now The Walter Reed National Military Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where he was treated for a brain injury, severed artery, broken and pulverized bones and shattered leg muscles and eardrum.
After being resuscitated during surgery when his heart stopped, and then spending months learning to walk again, Horton wrote letters to Rittner and others in his squad while they were still in Iraq. He was finally reunited with them in California in April of 2005, and since then, the platoon has also gotten together once or twice a year.
So Horton was well aware Rittner had gone on to get married, become daddy to a 1-year-old and earn a "chest full of medals" as a cop working rough Milwaukee neighborhoods. Those honors included two Medals of Valor, one for rushing into a burning building to rescue trapped residents, another for rescuing hostages from a gunman.
We all know the word "hero" gets thrown out there a lot these days, but this man was undoubtedly the real deal. When they finally deployed to Iraq, Horton said Rittner became "one of the most dependable Marines in my squad," always volunteering to walk "point" or drive the Humvees, "another death sentence" because they had no armor to protect those inside from incoming fire or roadside bombs.
Rittner's courage and humor were legendary among those Marines, noted Horton, adding that all but one platoon member-who is currently stationed in Iraq-joined the thousands of police officers and community who turned out to say farewell to this fallen officer.
"I struggle to try to make sense of it, as I think of how many doors Matt rushed through in Iraq, with bad dudes armed with explosives and machines guns waiting on the other side, to come through it all unscathed, only to have his life ended by an American citizen in his own hometown," wrote Horton in an internal memo to his APD colleagues.
Horton wrote that memo, which the brass later posted on Facebook, to remind his colleagues that when they visit the Officer Down Memorial Page website, "there is so much more" to those stories than a face and a name.
"I want people, including the greater public, to understand who Matt was," he said.
A man who truly should be called an America hero.
"If anybody deserves it," added Horton, "he does."
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