They thought he was dead. A truck smashed into his motorcycle and Mike Nicholson lay in a bloody heap as two fellow Alexandria police officers chalked the outline of his body onto the pavement.
"I couldn't talk, but I said to myself, 'God, get me out of this one and I'll do something for you,'" Nicholson recalled recently.
That was five years ago.Nicholson, now a court liaison officer, recovered and kept the promise he made that day.
Over the six months it took to recover, Nicholson decided to establish a chaplain program for the Alexandria police.
After interviewing many local clergy, Nicholson found three who would counsel police offers and their families for free on an on-call basis. And to eliminate any embarrassment officers might feel about approaching a counselor, the chaplains would ride along with officers as they patrolled.
Other local police and fire departments have had some sort of chaplian program for years, but only in Alexandria do the chaplains actually ride with the officers.
"It's a great system because no one ever knows if you're riding with an officer because nothing's happening and you want to make the rounds or if there's a problem he wants to discuss," said the Rev. Jim Henry, a favorite with the Alexandria police after nearly two years with them.
Police Chief Charles T. Strobel approved Nicholson's proposal the first week he was appointed chief, four years ago. He said he was anxious to develop a way for his officers to deal with the emotional stress of police work -- "and it doesn't cost us cent."
Because of the guilt and stress he has seen officers experience after a shooting incident, Strobel says he always recommends now that the officers see one of the chaplains immediately.
Of the chaplains, Henry, a softspoken man with a Southern accent, seems closest to a the policemen. Every Tuesday and Thursday, he attends roll call and then rides with diffrent officers -- sometimes at their request.
Patrolman John Avery, a 10-year veteran of the force, said it took just one incident to convince him the chaplain program was worthwhile. In November, Henry was riding with Avery when he received a call to assist an ambulance at a home. Avery discovered the call was to the home of his grandparents, where his grandfather had suffered a heart attack.
"My grandmotehr is very religious and it gave her great comfort having Rev. Henry there," Avery recalled. "He rode with us to the hospital and when the doctor told us my grandfather was dead, Rev. Henry took us into a room and prayed with us." Then several days later the minister visited Avery's home to see if there was anything he could do.
"It's helpful to talk to someone who's here a lot and understands our problems, but who's not part of the organization," said Sgt. John Stedman. "When we're riding together, I might say, 'What's really frustrating me is . . . Just like you'd tell a friend," said Stedman, who has talked wth Henry about personal and job-related problems.
Now Stedman is a member of Henry's congregation, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, at Duke and S. Pitt streets in Alexandria.
The Rev. Stephen Hundley, who began working as a chaplain for the force in September, said occassionally when the officer he is with is called to intervene in a domestic squabble he counsels the family.
They are more receptive to him than to a policeman, Hundley said.
"It's not often a family has a police officer coming into their lives telling them what to do," said Hundley, who works full-time for Downtown Ministries Inc., an Alexandria social concerns group funded by the United Methodists.
Another chaplain, the Rev. Gene Leonard, said he found the work less exciting than he had anticipated and now works only on call. Leonard, associate pastor of Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church in Alexandria, said the wives of Catholic police officers often would call him seeking help with family problems related to their husband's jobs.
Henry said he has found that much of the stress related to police work comes from the way police are viewed by the public as "adversaries."
"Police are traditionally viewed as the bad guys," Henry said. "He rarely is complimented by citizens, but whenever there's a crime and he's not there, he's hounded by citizens. He's in a nowin situation."
Henry said he usually does not offer advice to the officers, he just listens.
In addition to counseling, the chaplains are on hand in emergencies to administer the last rites or break the news of tragedies to families of the victims. Some officers said the chaplains visited them when they were in hospital or at home sick, and others said they had referred a friend with a problem to one of the chaplains.
But not all of the chaplains' work is associated with problems. Henry Leonard, and a third chaplain who has since moved, "delighted" Nicholson last year by performing the wedding service again for him and his wife to mark their 10th anniversary.