It’s been a little more than a year since Forest Acres Police Officer Greg Alia lost his life, murdered in the line of duty. It’s been a little more than a year since we were all reminded of what going to work every day means for a police officer, even in a usually quiet town like Forest Acres. It’s been a year since Kassy Alia lost her husband, Sal Alia lost his father, and the Midlands lost a hero.
Greg Alia was not famous. He was an alumnus of Richland Northeast High School and the University of South Carolina, and a founding father of Phi Sigma Kappa Gamma Triton Chapter. He was an Eagle Scout. He was a husband and a father, and loved by his family and friends, but on Sept. 30, 2015, he was simply doing what he did every day, what every police officer does every day. He was going to work. Putting his life at risk for the community he swore an oath to serve and protect was the career he chose.
If you’d asked Greg Alia if he thought of himself as someone special, someone heroic, he would probably have said no. I’ve been lucky enough to know more than a few great police officers, and taking credit is something they prefer not to do. I met Greg Alia only once, and that only for a handshake, but being allowed to be one of the people to share his story and his legacy is one of the great privileges of my career.
Reporters often work closely with police officers, firefighters, and other public servants. We see how hard they work, and how little they’re rewarded. We stand at crime scenes under their protection and see some of the risks they take. We’re only observers, but we have a chance to be close enough to the danger to appreciate the men and women who stand between it and us. I can’t put into words the comfort I felt on one occasion when at a scene thought under control, gunfire broke out and the first sound I heard after the shots was a police officer saying “Get down and stay behind me. I’ve got you.”
Greg Alia told us all to get behind him that morning. A routine day turned into a fight with a murderer: a man who would have done harm to anyone who got in his way. Greg Alia died so no one else would have to.
Things happen so fast in life, and seem to happen ever faster in the age of smartphones and social media. Reporters are often accused of being callous, and the claim is not always without foundation. In times of tragedy, we are often so focused on doing our jobs that we do not, or cannot, take time for emotion. It was that way for me on Sept. 30. Working alongside my colleague, Ali O’Hara, I was consumed with gathering information among the chaos and letting those reading our work and listening to us on the radio know what had happened, know that they were not in danger, and know the name of the man who saved them. We needed to let people know that Greg Alia’s fraternity brother, Patrick Walsh, had stepped forward to raise money for Greg’s wife and son. We had to let people know one bit of good news that day: that despite the evil that took Greg’s life, enough good people were ready to deliver more than $57,000 in 24 hours. There was little time to reflect. That time came on Oct. 3.
On Oct. 3, hundreds of law enforcement officers and firefighters joined Greg Alia’s friends and family for his funeral. The sight of more than 500 officers marching down Devine Street to the church in absolute silence was awe-inspiring. Most of them never met Greg Alia. It didn’t matter. All were his brothers and sisters. They walked in the rain. They formed ranks on the lawn and stood at attention in the rain. No one would step inside until the coffin arrived and all saluted as it entered, draped in the American flag. By that afternoon, the total donated to the fund set up by Walsh was $175,180, given by 3,400 different people. I don’t know how anyone could be callous at a police officer’s funeral. No one was that day. Few if any eyes were dry when the sound of the traditional last call came from Alia’s patrol car, standing empty near the grave.
The rain was not just any rain. That was the day the floods began, and it would perhaps not have been surprising if Greg Alia’s story was forgotten considering the disaster that struck soon after. It was not forgotten, partly because of the woman with whom he shared his life. Kassy Alia asked for just two things in her husband’s memory. “I asked that people share stories about Greg so that Sal could learn about the man his father was,” she wrote recently. “Second, I asked that people share stories of cops doing good everywhere. My husband was a hero. Other cops are too.”
Her dedication to the community matches Greg’s, and led her to found Heroes in Blue. A year later, the organization is growing and keeping the memory of Greg alive, as well as paying tribute to the heroism of other officers both alive and dead. This Friday, Heroes in Blue will host A Knight of Honor, a a medieval-themed celebration of police and community. Law enforcement and citizen heroes from across The Midlands will be knighted for their compassionate, selfless acts of service. One outstanding officer will receive the Officer Gregory Alia award. One outstanding citizen will receive the Citizen Hero award to be presented by Marcus Lattimore.
Proceeds raised will support the mission of Heroes In Blue, which is to promote police and community relationships through empathy and action and to also provide support to families of officers killed in the line of duty. A portion of the funds raised will go towards the Heroes In Blue Compassionate Acts Grant Program, which will fund police-driven initiatives to build relationships and address needs in the community.
No one is suggesting that police officers are perfect. They are human beings. Just as with teachers, priests, or any other profession or calling, some of the men and women who are police officers do bad things. No one is suggesting they should be excused. All I ask, and all those who honor Greg Alia’s legacy ask, is that you remember that there is far more good than evil in the world, and far, far more good cops than bad.
It’s rare for me to make a story personal, or to write in the first person. This story is not about me, but it means a great deal to me. As anyone who knows me well can tell you, I love heroes and stories of heroes. I grew up loving fictional heroes. I still love them, but as an adult, I’ve learned that the real life ones mean infinitely more. There is no way for me to suggest that Greg Alia’s death was not a tragedy, or that this story is not sad. But part of what makes heroes great is that they know they could die, but do their jobs anyway.
Kassy Alia, speaking at this year’s Columbia 9/11 memorial, said she was certain that had her husband been in New York that day, he would have done what so many officers and firefighters did. He would have gone into danger. He would have run toward the towers, not away from them. I have not the slightest doubt that she’s right. He proved it Sept. 30, 2015.
Greg Alia died. Sometimes good guys, heroes, die. But the way he lived and the way he died made the world a better place while he was here, and continue to even now that he is gone. I don’t know what better legacy any person could ask for. I know that as long as I live, I won’t forget him. I know I’m far from alone. I know I’m glad to have his brothers and sisters protecting me every day and every night. I’m glad to live in a world where there are heroes like Greg Alia.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” -John 15:13