Dragster honors fallen law enforcement officers

BLYTHEWOOD – Former New England champion drag racer Russ Vernali, who now lives in Blythewood, has turned his 4,000 horsepower, 2,000 pound dragster into a rolling memorial to fallen law enforcement officers. 

Vernali, with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Department (SLED), has emblazoned his dragster with the death dates of over 2,000 law enforcement officers who have lost their lives over the last 10 years in the line of duty, including death by suicide.

Drag racer Russ Vernali with his race car, Believe 208.

“The dates don’t differentiate between the suicides and the line of duty deaths,” Russ said. He said there is a direct correlation between the two because suicides sometime result when officers are afraid to admit post-traumatic stress injury or are suffering psychologically after witnessing tragic events regularly in their work. Many are afraid they will lose their badge if they admit they are struggling, he said.

“Historically, officers have feared this type of psychological struggle would end their career,” Vernali said, pointing out, however, that posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an injury that can be treated.

“These guys can get help they need to get back to work, continue to serve their communities and uphold their oath,” Vernali said. It is that message he carries to various car and dragster shows around the state.

Vernali recently partnered with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program agencies – SLED, Department of Public Safety, Department of Natural Resources, Probation Parole and Pardon, South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers Association, South Carolina Police Chiefs Association and the Fraternal Order of Police – to support treatment for officers who have died by suicide and awareness for all officers who have died in the line-of-duty. These agencies logos will be displayed on the dragster along with the fallen officers’ death dates.

Because of HIPPA laws, only the death dates can be displayed – not the names, Vernali said.

The dragster carries the moniker “Believe 208,” inspired by the badge number of a Connecticut law enforcement officer who committed suicide and left in a note to his wife Trish that read, “Make my death an issue and help people like me.”

After Buchanan’s death, his wife began conducting law enforcement retreats to educate and promote treatment for law enforcement officers suffering from the trauma of their work.

Vernali’s wife, Lori, maintains the database of officer death dates. That data shows that within the last two years, law enforcement deaths have increased, with suicide deaths outnumbering traditionally recognized line-of-duty deaths two to one. The staggering estimates are 150 line-of-duty deaths a year and 300 suicides a year. Realizing the gravity of the numbers and causes of officer suicide, the Vernalis were driven to spread awareness of mental health issues at law enforcement events were there is greatest exposure and impact. Resources are available at the shows for guiding officers to effective treatments for posttraumatic stress. Vernali recently displayed his dragster at the Richland County Sheriff’s Foundation Car Show in Fall 2020.

“When police departments and sheriff’s offices learn about this memorial, and find that we have their deputy’s or officer’s death date on our car, we take a picture of the date and send it to them,” Vernali said.

“Families are honored to see their loved one’s date of death recognized on the car, especially suicides, because they see that their husband/father/wife/mother has been recognized equally for his/her service.

For information about event scheduling for the dragster or other information, contact Vernali at [email protected].

Contact us: (803) 767-5711 | P.O. Box 675, Blythewood, SC 29016 | [email protected]