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Sgt. Courtney back on duty months after fight of his life

The streets of Front Royal look much the same to Sgt. Bryan Courtney after seven months away from his job as the police department's night shift supervisor following a July attack that left him hospitalized. Joe Beck/Daily (Buy photo)

By Joe Beck

The streets of Front Royal look much the same to Sgt. Bryan Courtney after seven months away from his job as the police department's night shift supervisor.

But some things have changed. Norman Shiflett is the new police chief and the department has installed a new communications system. And Courtney, who has always considered himself a cautious officer, is taking to heart the lessons he learned on a night in late July, when he found himself fighting for his life.

The July struggle sent Courtney, 46, to the hospital for 2 1/2 days, and he didn't return to street duty until two weeks ago. Clyde Eugene Burrell Jr. was charged with attempted capital murder and two related offenses after the fight.

In the meantime, Courtney spent months in grueling rehabilitation recovering from a concussion and injuries to a thumb, a belated discovery of nerve damage to an area behind a shoulder blade, and an operation in January for a cataract caused by an eye injury.

In an interview Friday, Courtney said he sometimes still feels "very angry because of the issues I've had, and the issues I will continue to have physically."

He saw the worst side of people and the best of them during the emotional roller coaster ride that began when he stepped out of his squad car and approached Burrell on North Shenandoah Avenue.

Courtney said in court documents that Burrell attacked him with no provocation, taking him to the ground, wresting his baton from him and striking him with it. Burrell had Courtney underneath his 225-pound frame and had raised the baton over his head for another blow when Detective Jason Lethcoe arrived on the scene and tackled him.

Courtney said he knew early on Burrell was trying to take him out. "He was trying to kill me."

Courtney said he thought of his family as he struggled to free himself from under Burrell. The worst part of the experience came when Burrell raked his eyes, inflicting injuries, he said, that still leave him seeing tiny spots floating around in his field of vision.

"Once he did that, I realized we were at a whole different level and that it was not good," Courtney said.

Even with Lethcoe's intervention, it took help from several bystanders before Burrell was brought under control, according to court documents.

Courtney said a woman from Kentucky who was passing by in a car with two other occupants held down Burrell's ankles while Lethcoe struggled with him.

Other people from nearby apartment houses rushed out with towels to help stop the bleeding before he was taken by ambulance to Warren Memorial Hospital.

"None of those people had to get involved, but they did," Courtney said.

During the long rehabilitation, Courtney never doubted that he would return to his old job. Support from his wife Cindy, family, friends and fellow officers boosted his determination to overcome the mental as well as the physical effects of the confrontation.

"It helped my recovery by seeing that people do care," he said.

Quitting was not an option,

"If I had, it would have been a defeat," Courtney said, "and I'm not going to let anything defeat me."

"I'm certainly not going to let him win," he added, referring to Burrell.

As one of two K-9 officers in the department, Courtney is especially looking forward to getting his dog back on patrol duty. The drug-sniffing dog was sidelined with him during rehabilitation, and now both of them are waiting for a new SUV to be outfitted with a specially equipped cage before they are reunited on the job.

More than anything though, the people who came through for him during the fight and its aftermath taught him about better side of human nature after his encounter with some of its darkest sides.

"We all get jaded," Courtney said. "But there's a whole lot of good people who live here."

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com

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