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'He was great before he came here': Air Force leaders speak at funeral of Florida airman killed by police

'He was great before he came here': Air Force leaders speak at funeral of Florida airman killed by police


Air Force Col. Patrick Dierig took the stage at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church Friday afternoon and looked out at the somber crowd.

On one side of the auditorium were rows of people dressed in black, and on the other were rows of airmen in their blue uniforms – all gathered to mourn the death of Roger Fortson, a senior airman shot down by the police at his apartment near Hurlburt Field in Florida earlier this month.

Dierig, commander of the base's 1st Special Operations Wing, was there to eulogize Fortson, 23, who died May 3 after a sheriff's deputy shot him just seconds after Fortson opened his door while holding a legally possessed handgun at his side. .

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“We'd like to take credit for making him great, but the truth is he was great before he came to us. The Air Force simply polished a diamond that you forged,” said Dierig, acknowledging Fortson's family and mother present at the funeral. near Atlanta, Georgia.

The scene at the funeral of a black man killed in a confrontation with police is sadly familiar — the latest in a series of such incidents that have rocked the country in recent years — but the military connection and The presence and participation of Air Force officials made this service an event without recent precedent.

Dierig along with Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind, head of Air Force Special Operations Command, spoke at the funeral, praising and remembering the airman alongside family, friends and religious and civil rights leaders from Fortson.

Dierig emphasized the Air Force's core values ​​of service, integrity and excellence – words that he said Fortson, during his short life, already knew how to embody before deciding to join the ranks.

“He lived those values ​​before we met him because of the way you raised him,” Dierig said.

Lt. Col. Rebecca Heyse, an Air Force Special Operations Command spokeswoman, told that about 200 Airmen were in attendance, from various installations.

“Unfortunately, Senior Airman Fortson was taken from us too soon and we are grieving this loss,” Bauernfeind said. “But know that as we move forward, Senior Airman Fortson will always be in our lives. He will always be in our hearts, because he is now one of those giants on [whose] on our shoulders we stand and protect our nation. »

Earlier this week, the 1st Special Operations Wing paused training to help Airmen grieve and talk with leaders about the loss, previously reported.

Fortson, an AC-130J gunner based in the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, was shot and killed by an Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office deputy who was directed to the door of his off-base apartment for a reported disturbance.

Police body camera footage shows Fortson opening the door after the deputy knocked several times. The airman held a handgun at his side and the deputy can be heard ordering him to step back before immediately shooting him six times. The entire exchange lasted only a few seconds.

Only once Fortson was on the ground did the deputy tell him to drop the gun, body camera footage shows.

Fortson's family and legal team believe the shooting was unjustified and that police went to the wrong apartment, and have raised questions about how the incident unfolded. The sheriff's office said last week that the deputy involved, who was not identified, had been placed on leave and that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the state attorney's office were reviewing the incident.

Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office records obtained Friday by show that since the start of 2023, there have been 10 police calls to another unit in the Fortson building, Apartment 1412. Those -These included calls for disturbances, social checks and an emergency. call to medical service for hemorrhage.

Fortson's unit, apartment 1401, did not receive any calls to police during this time.

At the time of the shooting, Fortson was home alone with his dog, a small Shih Tzu named Chloe, and was on a video call with his girlfriend, according to attorneys representing his family.

Police radio conversations from that day, reviewed by, as well as body camera footage showed there was apparently spotty second-hand information about the reported disturbances.

“Don't have anything but a man and a woman; this is all fourth-party information from the leasing office front desk,” a deputy said over the radio, previously reported.

A man and a woman seen in the body camera footage both told the deputy they did not know what was happening or where the disturbance call was coming from.

News of earlier police calls to another unit in Fortson's building was first reported by the Miami Herald and confirmed by after obtaining the records Friday.

Ben Crump, the attorney representing Fortson's family, has repeatedly rejected Okaloosa County Sheriff Eric Aden's assertion that the deputy went to the right apartment.

“It was Roger's house. I mean, he was in the sanctity of his own apartment,” Crump said at the aviator's funeral Friday. “If we cannot be safe in the sanctity of our home, where can we be safe?

Civil rights activist Al Sharpton said in a video played at the funeral that he believed Fortson's case was an example of double standards in America.

“If you see a black man in his home, you have the right to shoot first and ask questions later,” Sharpton said. He added that he and his organization, the National Action Network, would continue to support the airman's family and fight for justice.

“As a young black man, he stood up and committed to fight for this country. The question now is, will the country stand up and fight for him?” » said Sharpton. “As he lies, we are called to arms, to non-violent arms, but this will be battle. We will not rest until we have achieved justice for Roger.”

Related: 'It's OK to not be OK': Special Operations Wing Orders Standdown After Police Killing of Roger Fortson

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