CANTON, Ohio — Since last year, more than 700 police officers have been killed in the line of duty across the United States, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
While several of them died from gunfire, car crashes and other causes, nearly 500 officers passed away from COVID-19.
That includes Lawrence Township Officer Sean VanDenberg who contracted the virus while on the job, according to the department.
On Wednesday, law enforcement from throughout the area gathered to honor VanDenberg and 18 other Stark County officers killed in the line of duty since 1902.
The annual ceremony in front of the Stark County Sheriff's Office took place on the first day of National Police Week.
The names of all of the fallen officers were read one at a time. After each officer was acknowledged, a red carnation was placed on a wreath.
The service was held on what would have been VanDenberg's 54th birthday. He is survived by his wife and four grown children.
Jeanann VanDenberg said her husband was on the police force for eight years. He didn't become a police officer until the age of 42. He was a firearms instructor and a trained sniper.
"He was just amazing. He was all around just a good person. He cared about people. He cared about his community," she said. "He enjoyed his birthday by giving back and giving back to his community, so that's what the kids and I are gonna do. Find something to do today to honor him."
According to Lawrence Township Police Chief David Brown, Sean VanDenberg contracted COVID-19 in December 2021 after transporting a prisoner, who was positive for the virus, to the county jail.
"We do recognize that without the contact, he may still be here with us today," Brown said.
Jeanann VanDenberg said her husband was otherwise healthy and completed his first ultra-marathon just months earlier. But the virus landed him in the hospital for a few weeks. He was placed on a ventilator and died on Christmas morning.
"It doesn't matter how healthy you are— how unhealthy you are— if it's gonna take you, it's gonna take you," she said.
On the surface, Sean VanDenberg's passing may not seem like a line of duty death, but the chief said that's exactly how it should be classified.
"We don't really think of COVID being the line of duty, but these guys through the entire pandemic put themselves in harm's way by going into houses, going to car accidents," Brown said.
While officers can see many potential dangers each day, COVID-19 is an invisible risk.
With so many sad stories over fallen officers over the last few years, Jeanann VanDenberg hopes people will take the time to remember those who paid the ultimate price while protecting the public.
"They're there to do their job. They have a duty to perform. They're human just like us."
There is a Memorial Poker Run in honor of Officer VanDenberg on July 16. It starts at 10 a.m. at the Lawrence Township Police Department. The event will benefit the Sean VanDenberg Scholarship Fund.