"It doesn't look like he wants to pull over. I'll be in pursuit, two miles north of Highway 6 on the Sand Draw Road," my husband, Mark, radioed from his patrol car. He described the vehicle he was chasing down a lonely gravel road in the rural Nebraska county where he served as deputy sheriff. I noted the time and content of his message on my log sheet. I was the communications officer on duty at the sheriff's department. As dispatcher, I provided the radio link for emergency services in the county that afternoon.
It was almost twilight. The speeding pickup that had careened past him on the narrow road continued its flight. My husband radioed to report the progress of the chase.
I mentally plotted his location on the large map mounted beside the radio console and marveled at the calm determination in his voice. Alone in the courthouse basement, I felt anything but calm. What would my husband encounter as the chase unfolded? Why was this driver fleeing from an officer in a marked patrol vehicle?
It was obvious that the driver and two passengers, in a truck with out-of-state license plates, didn't want to talk with a deputy sheriff that afternoon. All the classic scenarios flashed through my mind: The vehicle was stolen. They had drugs in the truck. Maybe a shotgun behind the seat. None of these images offered reassurance, considering that the officer in pursuit was the same man who emptied my dishwasher that morning.
But I forced my voice to remain steady as I responded to Mark's radio traffic. The driver of the pickup had crossed the highway and was still fleeing southward. Thankfully, the chase didn't last much longer. Heads-up cooperation from a Nebraska Game and Parks officer and two state troopers in the area soon brought the speeding pickup to a halt. The driver, drunk and belligerent, was taken into custody. The two passengers were questioned and released.
I finished the entry on my log sheet and counted a few more gray hairs than I'd had when I came to work that day. I was grateful that Mark, and everyone else, was safe. Only eight more hours to go.
That's the way it is with law enforcement. Most of what happens on any given shift is routine. But in an instant, the "normal" part of the job can be swallowed up in a tidal wave of chaos.
And when a volatile situation arises for a single deputy covering 950 square miles of territory, the closest back-up is often more than 20 minutes away. For a law enforcement officer working alone, a lot can go wrong in 20 seconds—20 minutes can seem an eternity.
It's one of the unfortunate realities of Mark's job. But it's a reality we've learned to deal with over the past 13 years.
When Mark began his career in law enforcement, I didn't know what the job was all about. My first glimpse of the rest of our married life came when Mark was sent to Panama as a military policeman during Operation Just Cause. Dependents weren't allowed to accompany spouses at that time, so Mark flew to Central America and I stayed home with our two-and-a-half year-old daughter. Mark's rather casual descriptions of bombings, terrorist threats and periodic sniper fire did little to calm my fears, thousands of miles away with my ear pressed to the phone.
Alone at night, with Whitney tucked safely in bed, I would sometimes lie awake for hours, alternately praying and fretting about Mark's safety. God's reassurance finally came in the form of a "thought to remember" from my daily devotional: "Safety is not the absence of danger, but the presence of God."
When I read it, I felt the comfort of knowing it was the truth. Since then, that phrase has become an anchor that holds me steady when concerns about Mark's safety send my adrenaline skyrocketing.
Countless times through the years, I have collected my wits while Mark vaulted from bed in the middle of the night to answer a ringing telephone. Sometimes, those late-night calls have summoned Mark to the scene of a violent domestic dispute. Or they have meant that a suicidal addict was cornered somewhere, wielding a knife and determined to take someone with him.
Whatever the situation, I've watched Mark run for his patrol car, securing the straps of his bulletproof vest and checking his gun. Then I've sat alone and waited in the deep silence that invades the house when the front door closes behind him. At those moments, I find myself unconsciously imprinting my last glimpse of Mark, just in case. Then I force myself to remember the truth—safety is in the presence of God, not the absence of danger.
And danger in law enforcement isn't limited to the threat of physical violence. More subtle threats can be just as deadly. Thousands of hours spent on the highway, in or out of a patrol car, put Mark at higher risk for an accident. Working and training with guns and other weapons is always a danger. Years of erratic sleep patterns, punctuated by sudden bursts of adrenaline can shorten a person's lifespan. And the emotional wear-and-tear of dealing firsthand with the uglier side of human behavior on a daily basis is very real.
Over time, these things can prove as deadly for an officer as a violent confrontation. The cumulative toll this high burn-out profession can take on a marriage is just as profound.
When Mark first began working in civilian law enforcement, wives whose husbands accompanied them to Fourth of July fireworks or rang in the New Year with a kiss often asked how I dealt with the night shifts, the evenings alone and Mark's need to sleep during the day. My answer now is the same as it was then. If my daughter dials 911, I want someone like Mark headed her way. And if that means we have to function by a different schedule than most people, that's okay.
It's a noble sentiment that's challenging to live up to. The truth is, I'm better at it some days than others. But Mark bears the lion's share of that stress.
For the few years that I worked as a dispatcher and jailer in the county courthouse, we were both caught in the whirlwind of shift work. It was a hectic time, but it gave me a new appreciation for my husband's character. Going without regular rest helped me understand the self-control Mark exerts, just to be civil when he's functioning on only three or four hours of sleep, again.
Booking kids into jail who were high on meth or running a criminal history file for an officer on a traffic stop, I came to understand how it difficult it is to transition from the world of law enforcement to the world of homework and taking out the trash. If it was difficult for me, it had to be nearly impossible for Mark. I admired that he was able to make the transition as easily as he did.
I became a firm disbeliever in the adage about leaving your work at the office. Why would I want to separate myself from the thousands of thoughts and situations Mark deals with when he's apart from me? If we didn't talk about those things, both in his professional world and mine, how would we stay connected? Coffee talk, early in the morning or late at night (sometimes in the middle of the night!) is lifeline work for us.
I'm blessed enough to be married to my best friend. That friendship didn't develop in the first year we were married, or even the first 10 years. It has taken almost two decades to build, and it rests on a foundation of hard-fought trust, genuine conversation and proven love, forged in the trenches.
Is danger an element of Mark's profession? Yes. The threat of physical harm and the long-term effects of a career in a high-burnout job are legitimate concerns we face.
Is God's presence sufficient to sustain us? Yes. Even though that truth is sometimes easier to believe than it is to feel.
"Safety is not the absence of danger, but the presence of God." The same could be said of peace—it is not the absence of serious concerns, but the knowledge that under God's control, those concerns needn't rob us of our daily ability to function and to give ourselves away, to our spouses, our families and the others that we meet.
Over the years, I've had a standard prayer for Mark: God, go with him. Make him alert to everything around him. Help him to see what he needs to see, to hear what he needs to hear, to be safe. And if he misses something, God, cover his back.
Since being elected sheriff two years ago, Mark now works fewer nighttime hours. But it's still nice to know that the One who neither rests nor sleeps is watching over him, whether it's noon or 3 a.m. And in his care for both of us, God never misses a thing.
Renae Bottom is a writer, teacher, coach and librarian. Mark Bottom is sheriff of Perkins County in southwestern Nebraska.
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