Chaplain Bob Ossler has consoled police forces since 9/11.
He was in Dallas just last week. Now, he's in Baton Rouge.
Chaplain Bob Ossler wrapped his arms tightly around Baton Rouge residents. They clutched three wooden crosses that hung above a makeshift memorial of flowers and hand-written notes for the officers killed in an ambush over the weekend.
“I didn’t know their names, but I know what they did for a living,” Ossler said. “I know that they wanted to go home to their wives and children, too.”
He gently touched the crosses after their prayer. Ossler has carried them thousands of miles throughout the decades. They’ve been symbols of hope in the darkest times – from Ground Zero after 9/11, to Hurricane Katrina, to Arizona where 19 firefighters were killed.
Last weekend, they were in Dallas. Today, they’re in Baton Rouge.
Ossler, a police chaplain from New Jersey, is on a mission to comfort the inconsolable. And in Baton Rouge, there are many who are seeking answers.
The death of Alton Sterling made a community rise up in anger – another black man had died at the hands of police. A day later, Philando Castile was killed in Minnesota, deepening the wounds. Then, five officers were killed in Dallas, bringing the country to a solemn pause.
“We are heartbroken for these officers,” said Arthur “Silky Slim” Reed, a Baton Rouge activist. “Where are we headed?”
Two weeks later, three officers were gunned down.
‘We’ve got their back.’
For those in the tight-knit police community, it is a harrowing time. They worry that they’re all seen as villains, targeted by those seeking justice on their own in the worst possible way.
“These are trying times. Please don’t let hate infect your heart. This city MUST and WILL get better,” 32-year-old Montrell Jackson wrote in a Facebook post on July 8.
Jackson offered a promise, as a cop: “I got you.”
He was killed nine days later.
Before tragedy struck Baton Rouge, Ossler was at memorial services for the Dallas officers. He listened, read scripture and lent his shoulder to those who wept.
On Sunday morning, he went to church in Fort Worth, Texas, seeking prayer to lift him up. Then, he heard about Louisiana. It was happening again, and so soon.
Hours later, Ossler was in Baton Rouge. He was in a store at the checkout register when he spotted several officers and asked if he could pray with them. They went outside and bowed their heads.
“I said, ‘Guys, keep your eyes open,’ because they are warriors, they have to be alert,” Ossler said.
As the officers choked back tears during the prayer, Ossler could feel their fear.
“I could see they were struggling,” he said.
The reality of this moment is tragic – not just because of the shooting, but because this scene has played out more times than Osser can count.
“They didn’t say ‘Oh there’s a guy with a gun, Let’s let someone else take the call,” Ossler said of the officers killed in Baton Rouge. “They came. And for that, they died.”
Almost an hour north of Baton Rouge on Monday night, officers proudly donning their uniforms gathered for a vigil. Family members wore T-shirts with phrases like “I support the blue” and “My daddy’s life matters.”
They lit candles, played Taps and proudly sang “God Bless America.” Flags at half-staff waved peacefully in the background.
Brian Martin, who put together the vigil, left law enforcement after serving for 12 years. He’s now a teacher. Monday night, he said, was to show officers that there are many people “for them, not against them.”
“We do love them,” Martin said. “We’re going to pray for them. And we’ve got their back.”
Are you there God? It’s me, America.
Every time Ossler brings a cross to a new city, he often has a flashback. He can’t help but remember the heartbreak he felt at Ground Zero, where he used his pathology degree to help identify remains.
“It’s a painful memory. It’s changed my life severely,” he tells CNN as he looks at the makeshift memorial for the Baton Rouge officers. “It took a piece of my heart.”
So he tries to pay it forward.
“These people work hard every day and they need the love, they do. They don’t go out and say, ‘Here I am. I am a hero, come help me, come talk to me,’” Ossler said, referring to officers around the country. “They do their job. They don’t get paid great – sometimes it’s thankless.”
But that’s not what officers want people to know. Despite the divisive rhetoric rippling throughout the nation right now, Ossler said the cops he has spoken to want to tell America one thing: They’ve got its back.
But many people in Baton Rouge don’t feel that support. The relationship between the city’s black community and its police force has been a tense one.
“The African American community is tired,” Abdullah Muflahi, the food market owner who witnessed Sterling’s death, told CNN. “[The police] come into our homes. They disrespect us… We’re tired of being treated like this.”
Ossler knows many people are struggling with questions that are seemingly impossible to answer.
Why would God do such a thing?
He admits that even he has shaken his fist in the air many times to that very question. All he knows is what he can do. As Ossler searches for those healing words, he stops speaking and his gaze drifting to a woman who walked up to the memorial.
He walks over, wraps his arms around her and bows his head for a moment. She lets out a sigh of relief and walks away.