COVINGTON -- The Newton County Sheriff's Office started a new tradition Friday afternoon when officers, family, friends and well-wishers gathered to pay tribute to three of the NCSO's finest.
Deputy Wesley Atha and Deputy James Trent were the recipients of the Purple Heart Award, and Sgt. Tommy Thomason was honored with the Lifesaving Award through the American Police Award Program.
Sheriff Ezell Brown said he hoped the event would be the first of many in which the department would "honor those among us who have truly gone beyond the call of duty."
Both the names of Atha and Trent will also be inscribed on the wall of the American Police Hall of Fame, Brown announced.
The Purple Heart awards were given in recognition of the men having been wounded in the line of duty. In August, Atha and Trent responded to a call of a suicide threat on Parker Road. As they exited their vehicles to approach the house, Atha was shot twice -- once in the arm and once in the back -- his bulletproof vest stopping that round from doing life-threatening damage. Trent was shot in the chin and the bullet exited through his neck.
Brown recounted that he had plans to go to Savannah that day and had been held up repeatedly so that on the afternoon the shooting occurred, he was just putting his last suitcase in his vehicle for the trip when he received word the two had been shot.
"The thoughts of my being in Savannah when two of my officers were injured would have been unbearable for me," he said. "The Lord has his own way of working things out."
As he was making his way to the scene of the shooting, Brown said he received two calls from residents demanding to know what was going on. One woman said she couldn't understand why I-20 was blocked. (It was blocked for ambulances to get through rush-hour traffic taking the two deputies to Atlanta trauma centers.) The second was from a woman driving on Highway 36 who wanted to report that a deputy came up on her "going 100 mph and didn't even slow down." (That was a deputy headed to the scene, responding to "officer down.") She demanded to know where he was going.
Brown said looking back, those two calls injected a little humor into the situation.
The sheriff praised the deputies for their valor in being wounded as they were attempting to answer someone's call for help and their unselfish commitment to the residents of Newton County.
Sgt. Tommy Thomason received the Lifesaving Award for saving the life of a baby. While on routine patrol, Thomason, a trained EMT, heard the call for help and was able to respond quickly.
He arrived at the scene to find a distressed mother holding the infant face down, telling him a hair barrette was lodged in the child's throat. Thomason could feel it with the tip of his finger, but could not grasp it.
"The infant was attempting to breathe and cry but was not doing either very well and her body was for the most part limp," his report detailing the incident stated.
Brown praised Thomason for his perseverance as he tried repeatedly to dislodge the barrette, which was beginning to make the child's throat bleed. With a final attempt, he was able to dislodge the obstacle and the baby began to immediately "cry loudly and breathe normally," he said.
"He was successful in saving the child's life and afforded that child to have a second chance," Brown said.
Brown commented that he had heard that something good can come from a bad situation, and he said that these were two bad situations that worked out for the good.
"We have two officers who can stand here today and accept this award and there is a family still intact because of Sgt. Thomason's lifesaving skills," Brown said.
The sheriff also thanked the community and those who had contributed to the NCSO vest drive for Level III bulletproof vests, noting that ordinarily when raising funds organizers turned to large companies or organizations for help. But in this case, money has come from the rank and file.
"Every part of the community has played an important role in this initiative," he said.
Brown closed the ceremony by reminding those in attendance, "If the only prayer you ever pray is to say thank you, it will be enough."