Fourteen years ago, a war began.
It began here in New York City—on a day that started warm and clear and ended with smoke and fire, with mangled steel and lost lives. Joseph Lemm was a rookie NYPD cop then, and he was in the war from the start, sifting through the smoldering debris in the heartbreaking search for survivors. Ground Zero burned for 100 days. And for so many, it still burns. It burns inside those who were there, and those who have dedicated themselves to fighting this war—people like Joe.
Three times, this war took him thousands of miles away from his family, and the city and country he so dearly loved. And now it has taken him farther than miles. It has taken him to a new post in eternity.
For Air Force Technical Sergeant Joseph Lemm, his war is ended.
But it is not ended for his loved ones, for whom the pain of losing him must seem beyond bearing. It is a shroud of mourning that no words or actions can ever really pierce. But once again, as we did for Detectives Ramos, Liu, Moore, and Holder, we will try.
It is not ended for his fellow airmen, nor for the other servicemen and women overseas, and not for his brothers and sisters in the New York City Police Department—including our 1100 reservists, with over 130 serving on active duty at this time. It is fitting that our NYPD not only protects and serves the city, but also the world, because we are indeed the capital of the world.
Today we say farewell to a hero of our time, and a hero for all ages, a patriot who centered his life on protecting others. We honor a United States serviceman, an NYPD detective, a husband, father, son, brother, and for so many, a friend.
Joe dedicated himself to the highest ideals of his city and his nation. He dedicated himself to freedom—and the basic foundation of freedom is freedom from fear. That foundation is laid by people like Joe: one of too few who have been asked to do so much, for so many, for so long. And that’s exactly what Joe did—as an airman, as a cop who hunted the most dangerous criminals in the city, as a family man.
In his hometown of Beemer, Nebraska, Joe stood out. He’s remembered as a dedicated, hard-working, driven young man who loved football and most of all his family. After high school, Joe could have used his many talents in any number of ways, but as a teenager, with his entire life ahead, he made a choice that would come to define him and the man he would become:
He chose selflessness. He chose sacrifice. He chose to serve.
Joe enlisted in the United States Air Force—repaying a debt to his nation that all of us owe, but so few of us actually ever answer. For six years on active duty, he honorably served our country, which surprised no one who knew him. And after his discharge and his move to New York, he continued his life of service by joining the New York City Police Department in 2000.
The next year, 2001, everything changed—for Joe and for every American, and indeed the world. The attack on our city shattered everything we thought we knew about global terrorism, the reach of war, and even more—fear.
Again, Joe was tested. And again, he chose to serve.
After working the recovery effort at Ground Zero for several back-breaking, heart-rending weeks, Joe returned to his hometown in Nebraska. He wasn’t there to hide. He wasn’t there for himself. He was there to gather members of his community, and tell them why his work—the work of the public servant, the work of a cop—was so important.
He went to several area schools, and spoke to children about what was happening. Here in New York City, we sometimes forget how large our police loom outside the five boroughs. Think about what it was like for those kids, at that time, to have a New York City cop give them an outlet for their questions, their anxieties, and their fears.
He did this because they needed him, and he was more than happy to help.
Inside the NYPD he earned a reputation as a dependable, hard-working professional who would do just about anything for his co-workers and his community. After years in the 48 Precinct and Bronx Borough Anti-Crime, Joe earned the gold shield in Bronx Warrants, where he was known to be fearless—fearless in his pursuit of justice, and fearless in his commitment to the people he served.
And those people were not just here.
In 2008, the call to serve tugged at him again, and he joined the Air National Guard. Over the next six years, while still serving in the NYPD, he left the city three times to serve much different communities. Different, but no less in need of his help.
The people of Iraq and Afghanistan needed him, too. And he served them, with great distinction, to his final moments—when he was once again, in his final act of selflessness, attempting to protect and serve his five colleagues: Major Adrianna Vorderbruggen, Staff Sgt. Michael Cinco, Staff Sgt. Peter Taub, Staff Sgt. Chester McBride, and Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa, who died with him in that dusty street 7,000 miles from home.
Nothing we say here today will lift the fog of grief that blankets us. But as we celebrate Joe’s remarkable life, we must honor him by never losing sight of what he was fighting for.
In March of 1865, Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office for his second term as President of the United States. After the bloodiest war in our nation’s history, victory—and with it the preservation of our Union—was close at hand when Lincoln spoke from the steps of the Capitol.
But there was no celebration in his words, no sense of triumph. Instead, he chose to honor the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in that terrible war by holding them up as the example for how we all should live. And he implored his countrymen to continue their legacy:
“Let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds,” Lincoln said.
“To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan…To do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Today, that peace is no less important, and the work is no less critical. And the challenge put forth to emulate a life motivated by selflessness, duty, and courage is no less significant. Because the selflessness of Detective Joe Lemm’s sacrifice, and the example he offered us, can be more than his legacy—it can be our call to service.
Joe made a promise to the people—the people of New York City, the people of Iraq, the people of Afghanistan—that he would dedicate his life to them. He took an oath of office to his city, and to his country. He did this so that others wouldn’t have to. He kept his promise, and now, we must keep ours.
Christine, Brooke, and Ryan: we will never stop caring for you. from this day, to every day thereafter, we will be with you. Because when Joe joined the NYPD, he joined a second family—and we are now yours. We will never forget you. We will never forget Joe’s sacrifice, nor the debt owed to him, and to all of us who risk our lives on our behalf of others.
We keep our promise by confronting evil in order to steady those who tremble from it; by pushing ahead as others run away; by comforting the frightened, empowering the weak, and shielding the vulnerable; by standing united against fear, against wickedness, and against any threat, anywhere.
It’s what we do. It’s what Joe did. And in short, we keep our promise by being more like Joe.
He was a hero when his city and his country needed one, an unceasing guardian at the gate. And now, a guardian at the gates of heaven.
And as we strive to answer Detective Lemm’s call to service—with courage, honor, and selflessness—and as we commit ourselves to leading a life of significance, as he did every day, may he guide and watch over us all.
In closing, I ask you all to rise for his family and salute Joseph Lemm, as I posthumously promote him to Detective First Grade in the New York City Police Department.
God bless him. God bless his family. God bless the NYPD. And God bless the United States Armed Forces.