HAMMOND, Ind. (WLS) -- Officer Thomas Sawyer proudly wore his Hammond police uniform for 23 years.
"It meant everything to him," said Detective Michael Elkmann, president of the Hammond Fraternal Order of Police. "He loved the uniform, he loved serving the community and the people that we protect and serve every day, and he loved being part of our blue line family."
Sawyer was also a United States Air Force combat veteran who survived Operation Desert Storm and tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. But friends said it was his family he really lived to serve.
"He loves his son and daughter. They're both great kids that are heading in a successful direction. His wife meant everything to him," Elkmann said.
Friends say they are the ones grieving hardest right now. After decades of front line service, a global pandemic caught Officer Sawyer while on the job.
"He declined very rapidly," said Elkmann.
Sawyer died after a five week fight with COVID-19.
Vaccinations are not required at the Hammond Police Department, though the city's mayor is strongly encouraging city employees to get inoculated. The FOP president said Sawyer was about the 20th officer in their 200-person force to contract COVID-19, but the only one to die.
"I think it's on everyone's mind that this isn't an extinct threat at this point," Elkmann said.
According to Indiana Public Health data, 35.5% of Hammond residents are fully vaccinated. Lake County, Indiana's rate is slightly higher at 37%.
Friday night flags fly at half-staff and a draped Hammond police SUV sits as a memorial to an officer who will be honored with a line of duty death, serving to the end in a pandemic.