I would like to take a serious moment. I’ve made it to retirement. Many, far too many, didn’t. I will get the opportunity to spend lots of time with my wife and sons, to see and do things I’ve often thought about. I wish that were true for all of us.
A few weeks after the September 11th terrorist attacks on America, I was in Sacramento. Everywhere I went in my Command vehicle people would honk, wave and give me the “thumbs up” sign. Many of you probably experienced something similar.
I understood why they were doing it, and I appreciated it. But it made me pretty uncomfortable, even a little embarrassed. I was a wildland firefighter, I wasn’t one of the firefighters who rushed into buildings. I was in Sacramento for a typical bureaucratic budget meeting, which is pretty far away from entering burning skyscrapers.
But the waves and honks continued, and I thought more about it.
I remembered the many young Forest Service firefighters I’ve worked with who eventually went to structure departments. They weren’t really any different than the ones who stayed with the FS. I thought of my co-workers and the structure department firefighters I knew. I realized that both groups were basically the same sort of people. They willingly go into situations most others are trying to get away from.
I knew that some of our Incident Management teams were back east at that very moment helping with the aftermath of that terrible day.
Then I thought about my cousin, a FDNY fireman (off-duty that fateful day), he and I aren’t all that different in many ways. It occurred to me that if our families had taken different paths, he might have ended up out west fighting forest fires and I could have been with an eastern metro FD.
Lastly, I thought about wildland fire fatality situations.
When you look at these situations you see a lot of things which disturb you -- inattention, lack of leadership, misjudgment, disregard for safety rules, impatience, lack of overall situational awareness, sometimes even panic.
But, one thing you never see is cowardice. In fact, you see the opposite, wildland firefighters risking their own lives, and sometimes losing them, to help their fellow firefighters.
In short, firefighters, structure or wildland, go where duty leads.
So, in thinking back over my nearly 30 years, I’m reminded of a story a World War Two combat veteran, a member of the famed 101st Airborne Division, once told.
Asked by his grandson if he had been a hero during the war, he replied, “No, but I served in the company of heroes.”
I wish good fortune and God’s blessing to all who read this. Whether or not we ever met, I hope our paths will cross in the future.