MIAMI (CBS4) – Miami-Dade County honored its police officers who are serving or have served in the military Wednesday. The event came complete with an irony of Shakespearean proportions.
Among those receiving a special award was officer William Vasquez, an eight-year Army veteran, who was given the purple heart for being wounded in an incident that saw him shoot and kill a troubled fellow veteran.
“It is very hard,” Vasquez said as he reflected on the morning of August 12th. That’s when he said officers were forced to shoot and kill 32-year-old Catawaba Howard, herself an eight-year-veteran who had recently been discharged from the service.
“Taking a person’s life is an unfortunate circumstance,” Vasquez said. “As a veteran, it goes out to my heart about family and everything. I know where it’s coming from, and I have many friends who still suffer, also, and I try to get help for them.”
Miami-Dade police have not released details of the fatal encounter, and did not permit Vasquez to discuss specifics Wednesday.
But the officer and Army Sargeant who served two tours of duty in Iraq was apparently not aware that he was responding to a call involving a fellow veteran bent on suicide.
The day before the shooting, Howard, an Air Force Sergeant, had asked a friend to kill her; offering him her handgun that she was licensed to carry, and saying that she would pay him $1,600 dollars to do the deed.
The friend instead took Howard to Jackson Memorial Hospital’s mental health crisis unit. She was subsequently transferred to the Veterans Administration hospital, but walked away from the facility.
Police were called to her North Miami Dade home in the wee hours the following morning. They say Howard opened fire on them and they fired back.
Officer Vasquez was shot in the chest, injured, but saved by his bullet proof vest.
Vasquez’s wife, Leslie, attended Wednesday’s ceremony and told CBS4 News she and her husband have had many heartfelt talks about his service in the military and the shooting in August.
She said her husband has seen the horrors of war and knows what it can do to people.
“We are just thankful to God that he is still here with us,” Leslie Vasquez said. “We are very proud of him, very proud of all his service.”
Miami-Dade Police Director James Loftus said he appreciated the irony of the police officer, and the veteran who forced his hand.
“This was a tormented person who chose, essentially, to leave this world at the hands of our officers and there was obviously precious little that could be done about it,” Loftus said.
Howard’s family has been critical of police for moving in on her house the morning she was shot instead of calling for a crisis counselor.
“They knew exactly what they were going into,” said Howard’s mother, Gail, at the time of the incident. “They knew she was a mentally disturbed young lady. It was told to them. They knew she had a weapon. It was told to them.”
Howard’s mother was incredulous that one of the officers involved has received a medal from the incident, even though the shooting investigation remains open.
“He got a purple heart medal? For what? What did he do so fantastic? He took my daughter’s life,” Howard said Wednesday.
Vasquez, the cop and Army veteran, did not glory in his recognition.
When asked if he would prefer not having to receive the honor, Vazquez replied, “Yes, very much so. Very much so.”