'He Was Great Before He Came to Us': Air Force Leaders Speak at Funeral of Florida Airman Killed by Police

U.S. Air Force personnel stand near the coffin of slain airman Roger Fortson
U.S. Air Force personnel stand near the coffin of slain airman Roger Fortson during his funeral at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church on May 17, 2024, near Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

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

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

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

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"We would love to take credit for making him great, but the truth is he was great before he came to us. The Air Force merely polished a diamond that you forged," Dierig said, acknowledging Fortson's family and mother in attendance at the funeral near Atlanta, Georgia.

The scene of a funeral for a Black man killed during an encounter with police is unfortunately familiar -- the latest in a series of such incidents that have rocked the country in recent years -- but the military connection and the attendance and participation by Air Force officials made the service an event without any recent precedent.

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

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

"He was living those values before we met him because of how you raised him," Dierig said.

Lt. Col. Rebecca Heyse, a spokesperson for Air Force Special Operations Command, told Military.com that an estimated 200 airmen were present from a variety of installations.

"Unfortunately, Senior Airman Fortson was taken away from us too soon, and we are grieving because of that loss," Bauernfeind said. "But know 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] shoulders we stand and protect our nation."

Earlier this week, the 1st Special Operations Wing held a stand-down from training to help airmen grieve and talk with leadership about the loss, Military.com previously reported.

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

Police body camera footage shows Fortson opening the door after the deputy knocked multiple times. The airman was holding a handgun at his side, and the deputy can be heard ordering him to step back before immediately shooting him about six times. The entire exchange took just seconds.

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

Fortson's family and legal team believe the shooting was unjustified and that the 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 has not been identified, was placed on leave and that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the State Attorney's Office are examining the incident.

Records from the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office obtained by Military.com on Friday show that since the beginning of 2023 there had been 10 police calls to another unit in Fortson's building, apartment 1412. Those included calls for a disturbance, a welfare checks and an emergency medical service call for a hemorrhage.

Fortson's unit, apartment 1401, had no police calls within that time frame.

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 chatter from that day reviewed by Military.com as well as the body camera footage showed there was seemingly spotty second-hand information about the reported disturbance.

"Don't have anything further than a male and female; it's all fourth-party information from the front desk at the leasing office," a deputy said on the radio, Military.com previously reported.

A man and a woman seen in the body camera footage both told the deputy they didn't know what was going on or where the disturbance call originated from.

The news of the prior police calls to another unit in Fortson's apartment building were first reported by the Miami Herald and confirmed by Military.com after obtaining the records Friday.

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

"That was Roger's home. I mean, he was in the sanctity of his own apartment," Crump said at the airman's funeral Friday. "If we can't be safe in the sanctity of our home, where can we be safe?"

Civil rights activist Al Sharpton said, in video remarks played at the funeral, that he believes Fortson's case is an example of a double standard in America.

"If you see a Black man in his own 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.

"He as a young Black man stood up, signed up to fight for this country. The question now is will the country stand up and fight for him?" Sharpton said. "As he is laid to rest, we are called to arms, non-violent arms, but battle it will be. We're not going to rest till we get justice for Roger."

Related: 'It's OK Not to Be OK': Special Operations Wing Orders Stand-Down After Roger Fortson's Police Killing

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