Tech. Sgt. Joseph G. Lemm, USAF, has roots and family in Iowa
By Dan Russo
DUBUQUE — The funeral for soldier and New York City police officer Joseph G. Lemm, held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Dec. 30 last year, was huge. Hundreds of police, members of the military and family joined together to say goodbye.
A procession of 100 police motorcycles escorted the casket down Fifth Avenue, as drums beat and ‘Taps’ was played; all a testament to the amazing life of a hero nicknamed ‘Superman’ by his peers because of his size and bravery. On May 21, another memorial was held, including a Mass in Lemm’s honor at the Church of the Resurrection in Dubuque. The recent liturgy and the ceremony that followed were much smaller and more intimate than the 2015 funeral, but no less powerful for the family and friends that attended.
“This was my closure because we were all together as a family,” said Janet Graff, Lemm’s aunt and godmother, who was there May 21 and also had the opportunity to be at the services in New York.
Many of Lemm’s family who hail from Dubuque and nearby areas, were unable to attend the New York funeral, so they came together in Iowa to remember their loved one. Lemm lived in Bernard until age 7, when he and his mother Shirley Lemm moved to Beemer, Nebraska. Lemm’s father, Charles Ronek is a resident of New Vienna, and his aunt is a member of Resurrection Parish. Lemm’s parents, his wife, Christine DiGuisto, and his 4-year-old son, Ryan attended the events in Dubuque. (Lemm and his wife also have a daughter, Brooke.)
The United States Air Force (USAF), the New York City Police Department (NYPD), the Dubuque County Sheriff’s Office, and the American Legion Post 6 all had representatives at the Mass. Father Christopher Monturo, Lemm’s pastor from his parish in New York, concelebrated the liturgy with Resurrection Pastor, Father Joseph Hauer, and Associate Pastor, Father Mark Murphy. Resurrection parishioners assisted in the choir and as altar servers.
The music, homily, and prayers were meaningful to many of those who attended, according to Graff. One of the hymns sung at the Mass, “Be Not Afraid,” echoed Lemm’s attitude.
“It was very moving for me because Joe would not be afraid,” said Graff. “Afterward we had the honor guard and they brought God into it.”
Joseph Lemm, 45, had risen to the rank of detective by the time of his death, after 15 years with the NYPD. He enlisted in the Air Force soon after graduating from high school, and later became an Air National Guardsman while also serving on the police force. He was promoted to technical sergeant with the 105th Base Defense Squadron, deploying once to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan. He was killed on Dec. 21, 2015, when a suicide bomber on a motorcycle targeted his unit while they were patrolling a village near Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Lemm and five other military personnel — Staff Sgt. Peter Taub, USAF Maj. Adrianna Vorderbruggen, Staff Sgt. Michael Cinco, Staff Sgt. Chester McBride, and Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa — lost their lives in the attack, according to a report from CNN.
Dedication to his family and service to his city and nation distinguished Lemm’s life. The decorated policeman stood about six feet four inches and weighed about 250 pounds. Although powerful, he preferred to talk to the people he encountered during duty on the streets rather than using force to make an arrest. When needed, he was ready to act. In 2006, he was nominated for a New York Post Liberty Medal after he chased down and caught three suspects involved with stabbing a teenager, according to news reports.
“He was a big bear, but he was a gentle bear,” said Graff. “He always had a dream of being a policeman.”
After growing up in Beemer, Lemm joined the Air Force and then worked for a shoe company. That job took him to Texas and later to New York City, according to his aunt.
“Joe was … a very caring person,” recalled Graff. “He was a listener. He stared at you. He didn’t just look the other way when you were talking.”
He was accepted to the police academy and was in his rookie year as a beat cop when the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 took place. He was among the first responders at ground zero.
“He called his mother asking for money to buy boots because his boots were burning in the rubble,” said Graff. “He slept only two hours a night and he was (back on the scene).”
Lemm kept in touch with his relatives in Iowa and Nebraska on a regular basis and traveled back for family re-unions every two years, according to Graff. Her brother, Lemm’s uncle, is a priest. The cleric traveled to New York to perform the baptism of Lemm’s son, his aunt recalled. On the job as a police officer, Lemm forged tight bonds with his colleagues and helped guide younger officers.
In an article written last year for “American Police Beat Magazine,” Officer Steven Sarao described how Lemm taught him an important lesson during his rookie year. The two men were serving with the Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit one night in the Bronx, New York.
“Joe understood police work from grinding it out day after day, watching, observing and making solid, successful arrests,” wrote Sarao. “No short cuts; just hard tedious work … Even among those arrested, Joe offered a welcoming smile and later a sandwich from the local deli, some cheese doodles, a Pepsi from the 48th Precinct vending machine. The dealer that night was ultimately arrested and prosecuted. The community a little bit safer thanks to Lemm. My story isn’t unique; many cops from the 48th Precinct have similar stories. Stories of laughter and learning. Stories of early mistakes and studied successes, all of them from Detective Joe Lemm.”
Until his last moment, Lemm was reportedly putting others before himself. He is expected to receive the Bronze Star, with Valor, and the Purple Heart from the military later this year, stemming from his reaction when he saw the suicide bomber approaching, according to his aunt. “He knew there was something wrong and he stepped in front of his fellow soldier from New York (Staff Sgt. Louis Bonacasa),” said Graff.
PHOTOS: Members of a color guard from American Legion Post 6 present an American flag to Ryan Lemm, the son of Joseph Lemm during the May 21 ceremonies and Mass at Resurrection Church. The boy is on the lap of his mother Christine. Both traveled from New York to attend the events. (Photo by Ellen Patch), a headshot of Detective Joseph Lemm in his police uniform. (contributed photo)