Op-Ed

A Pierce County law enforcement brother is never forgotten

The newly minted challenge coin in honor of late Deputy John Bananola.
The newly minted challenge coin in honor of late Deputy John Bananola.

It’s surprising how a two-inch diameter metal disc can trigger such strong emotions. I’m talking about a challenge coin, the most recent addition to my collection of 60, each commemorating various events in my life.

Challenge coins are typically presented by law enforcement commanders in recognition of a special achievement by a member of the unit.

For me, there’s one that stands above the rest – the one that sits beside my keyboard as I write this column.

This coin commemorates the life, service and untimely loss of Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy John Bananola. He was just 36 years old when he was killed in the line of duty while serving a search warrant.



John’s family, friends and colleagues lost him almost 24 years ago, on Oct. 16, 1995, and while we’ve never forgotten him, the sharp edges of grief felt in the immediate aftermath of his death have slowly dulled.

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Bananola DEAN J. KOEPFLER

Maybe that’s why this coin has such an impact. I’m grateful to the deputy who decided honoring Johnny B. with a special coin was long past due because it brought out memories those of us who knew him well had kept under the surface.

The coin, which was produced in June, is meant to remind us of him. It has pictures of Hawaiian tattoos, a miniature deputy’s badge with a black ribbon marked “271” and the street where the East Precinct is located that bears John’s name.

But these symbols are also reminders of our own personal history. The images evoke John’s Hawaiian heritage, his service in the Air Force and our old Sheriff’s Department patch.

To an outsider, or someone who wasn’t part of the family back then, these are just symbols; to us, they represent vivid memories. Seeing it for the first time was like opening a time capsule.

This beautiful coin did more than spark recollections; it also served to re-connect all of us who came together in the weeks following John’s death, renewing our bonds.

Now-retired deputies whom I hadn’t spoken with in years reached out, most sharing a common theme: “The last time I saw John …”

Some of our stories are funny; most are of a brief encounter, but all are poignant. My own “last time” still causes me to choke up.

I commanded the Sheriff’s Honor Guard, our ceremonial unit. John had been a member until his Narcotics Unit assignment required him to grow his hair long.

A few days prior to that fateful raid, I ran into John at the headquarters. He mentioned that his tour as a drug cop was coming to an end, and he asked if I could find a slot for him on the Honor Guard.

I told John, “You’ll always have a place in the unit, Brother!”

I kept my promise; John was buried in his Sheriff’s uniform, with my own Honor Guard badge pinned to his chest.

Those who were by John’s side as they served that search warrant, investigated his murder, prepared the case for trial – all have had to bear terrible memories.

John’s extended family has borne an unimaginable loss. And while a challenge coin won’t erase their ongoing pain, it serves to reinforce what we all pledged to each other, in October 1995:

We will always remember you, Deputy John Bananola, Unit # 271, for as long as we live.

Dave Hall of Steilacoom is a former soldier, retired cop, and full-time golf enthusiast. He’s one of five News Tribune reader columnists in 2019. Email him at dave.hall058@gmail.com

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