A firefighter's boots

Our boots are one of the seemingly simplest tools we have as firefighters yet they each have a story to tell.

Maybe you have to be a firefighter to understand but for most of us on the job, we can look at a brother or sisters boots (and how they wear them) and learn so much about the person wearing them.

Shined or scuffed. Tall or short. Laces or zippers. Station wear or structural.  By the rig or inside the cab. Bunkers over or separated from our pants.  By the bed at night or out in the bay. We depend on our boots… they get us to the job and have been there for every one … good and bad.

I’ve been in a dark place following my brother’s death two weeks ago and my boots continue to consume my thoughts. You can tell by just the few examples I gave above that we have many options (or choices) when it comes to our boots. One of the biggest however is the one I didn’t mention and the same one I’m facing now … knowing when (and how) to put them back on or to just hang them up.

I’ve been open and emotional here on the site before but not to the extent that I was in my previous post (or at least I don’t think so). The response was very positive and to be honest, it was also very therapeutic for me so I think I’ll try it again.

I’ve never been in this place (or any like it) before and I don’t like it. I can’t figure it out or “fix it” quickly and it’s not a position I’m used to or comfortable with. I’m still dazed and feel lost. I can’t sleep, keep food down and even find it difficult to draw a full breath. I get out of bed every day feeling as if I’ve been kicked in the gut. I’ve walked a million miles these past two weeks searching for answers or some sort of closure or peace but even these boots can’t get me far enough from the pain for me to function as I should.

Some of my friends are telling me to get back to work … get back to a “routine” and whats “normal”. I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet or if I’ll ever be. It used to be that I had a farming and firehouse life. Last week, I sold all my cattle and I haven’t been to the firehouse since Jack’s death.  For the first time in my career, I’m nervous scared to go to work. I’m scared of what I’ll have to face and question my courage or ability to push through it.

I worry about facing the guys. I know this sounds “petty” but it bothers me. What will I say to Phil or Lynn when I walk in the door? What will they say to me? I know that right now, I’d break down in tears and I don’t want to do that … not at the station. Maybe they will break down? I don’t want that either.

They have to be wondering what to say to me. What can they say? Nothing they come up with will make it any easier for me (although appreciated). I’ll see their pain in knowing that I’m still hurting. I do and will know that they want to and are willing to share in that pain but still cant stand the thought of placing that burden on them.

Then, the seven o’clock bell will hit and the other members will emerge from the bunk room and we’ll have to relive the situation all over again. The event will unfold time and time again throughout the day as we converge with other companies. Maybe there wont be any conversation … just that awkward silence because nobody knows what to say.

I’ll be the guy who stops all conversation by simply entering the room. My presence will affect our members, their mental status and maybe even their ability to perform their duties because of it. I don’t want to be “that guy” either.

I also worry about the incidents that I’ll respond to and if I’ll be able to function after arriving. I’ve NEVER doubted my ability to do the job … until now. I’m not sure how I’ll react on certain types of incidents. More specifically, I worry about running suicides,  “Code Blues” (CPR),  and any other type of fatality we may encounter. What if I “break down” while on the scene? In someone’s home… in front of their family. We are there to assist with their crisis, not bring more into it.

I’ve seen death throughout my career … a lot of it. I’ve seen it from new borns to elderly and from many mechanisms. As firefighters, we’ve all seen things that nobody should have to. I know that there is no “illusion” to death. It’s (their) face(s) has continued to visit (haunt) me over the years. I’ve always been able to move it “somewhere” in the back of my mind, to “file it away” and move forward … even when they hit “close to home”. This is different.

When our girls were home, Donna; (my wife) always knew when I had run an incident involving a child. We’ve never talked about them but she’d get a call at whatever time in the late night / early morning. I’d have her go to our girls bedroom, look in on them and tell me they were ok. I’d have her do it while I was on the phone. I heard it, I knew that they were ok and that I could move on through the rest of the tour. This time, there’s nobody to call and it’s not ok.

Of everything I’ve experienced and witnessed throughout my life and career, NOTHING can compare to what I had to do on December 30th. This was more than “close to home” … this WAS HOME. We were at Dad’s house and that was Jackson laying in front of me. JACKSON! I don’t want to see anymore.

Maybe my “file cabinet” is full. Maybe this file is simply too big to fit inside. Either way, I’m having trouble putting this one away. Maybe I don’t want to. How can I put Jack into “that” file cabinet anyway? Into “that” place in my mind? I know I’ve  got to figure it out because I can’t keep going on like this. I need and want for my mind to slow down. For me to be able to focus and move forward.

I know that part of the reason that I’m in the condition I am is because I haven’t found what I’m looking for yet. What I’m “searching” for. I know what it is … it’s very specific and I’m not sure it will happen. I want it to … I need it to. I’m not ready to share it with all of you yet but I know that if I find it … if I get this answer, I can go on.

I’ll say here that I’ve had a ton of support (my entire family has). The e-mails, comments etc have been heart felt and therapeutic in themselves. THANK YOU … THANK YOU …THANK YOU! I’ve even had several therapists and professional counselors reach out…. everyday they’ve helped me. I’ll include some links at the bottom once again. If you haven’t already … CHECK THEM OUT. When you go to the Sweeneyalliance, be sure to sign up for their newsletter “Grieving Behind the Badge” .

So, once again; writing this has helped and I’m thankful to have this outlet. My Chief (and Department) has been VERY understanding and supportive. He’s told me to take as much time as I need knowing that neither of us could know how long that may be. Well, after writing this; I think it’s time to try. I think I’ll return to duty on Sunday and see if I can get back into my boots. Get back into my boots and “do work”. To see if I can still make a difference … hopefully, a positive one.



  • Brian S

    I lost my sister suddenly a several years ago, she was only 55. She was also my Godmother. Her husband passed the year before from cancer. Her death affected me like nothing ever had before.
    I think the word closure is just an empty word that others use it means nothing to me. When you go back to work I bet you get a lot of hugs and tears. It helps. Just like my parents deaths I dont think I will ever get “over it” BUT I can promise you the tears WILL turn to smiles as your memories run through your mind. I miss them, but the good times we had is the way I will always remember them. Take care and god bless Brother,,,

  • Steve Craiger

    Captain Wines I sit here after reading your post in tears. Some for you and some for me. I was in a similar situation as a Captain on duty 12 years ago. The tomes went off for a medical call to my parents house. The whole crew knew the address as well as the dispatcher, who as calmly as he could said it was for a non-breather. I prayed the whole way there that it was someone visiting my parents and nit one of them. Thank God my partner had the for thought to call for aide from a neighboring department, he knew I would be of no help. As we approached the scene I could see my father lying in the garage after he had just finished cutting the grass. My partner and I started CPR and the back-up crew arrived. They pulled me away and took me to my mother who was in great need of my care. My father was a volunteer on the department also so everyone was effected to some degree. My mother had been around her husband and son for many years as we lived for the fire department. But this was so different. I never thought it would happen this way. I thank God every day for my wife, my mother, and my fire service family for getting me through this. Like you, for a while I thought it might be career ending. They say that time heals all wounds. I’m not so sure that this wound will ever be healed, but time has allowed me to continue to heal, and to reflect on my career and what my father would have wanted me to do. No one should be subjected to what we see on a continual basis. But that’s why we are there, that’s why we are firemen. To shoulder that burden from others, to share that burden with our brothers, and to go though life knowing that we did our best. God bless you Capt. Wines. Hang in there, be ever strong, and when you have a weak moment, just lean over a bit and one of your brothers will be there to hold you up.

  • Everybody hurts, Cap, everybody. It’s your time is all, and there will be more. Remember how good it feels to help somebody who is hurting? Don’t forget, and let them.

    Life will return to normal, but with a giant hole. You gotta fill it. Get to work, brother, and get on with things.

    Love from Providence.

  • Zachary Womack

    I know you are probably searching for why… why did this happen? God has a plan for everybody’s life. Sometimes things happen and we don’t understand how or why those things could have happened. A lot of times we aren’t suppose to understand why or how right then or maybe ever. The best thing we can do is to try not to search for the answers and figure out why on our own. We should turn it over to God, let him take care of it for us. When the time is right and he knows we can handle it he will provide us with the answers we need. one of my favorite church songs says this…

    “Farther along we’ll know all about it
    Farther along we’ll understand why
    So, cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine
    We’ll understand this, all by and by”

    One day you will find the peace and closure you need, one day farther along. Cheer up Captain, go and live and do the things you love, your brother would want you to get back to doing what you love. His work on earth was done, but you still have plenty to do, he will be right there with you every step of the way, protecting you, keeping you safe. When the time is right you will get your answers and the closure you need. Erase the bad memories and cherish the good, they can never be taken away from you. Let God have control, he will give you peace.

    Be Safe, you’re in my prayers

  • Chris Piepenburg

    Thank you Capt! Luckily for me, I have never had to live through an event like this, but I know that it can’t be easy for you to sit and write about what you have gone through. As firemen, we are very lucky to have two families, two families that love and care about us more than most know. Your firehouse family knows what you are going through and are there to help you through it, there to lend an ear or give you a hug. They know that you will talk about your ordeal, if and when you choose and are not there to judge. You know just as well as I that bottling stuff inside will not help you in the long run! You said that your file cabinet was full and had room for no more stuff….Good, don’t file it away! If folks ask how you are doing, give them a straight answer, don’t say fine if you aren’t. You have an amazing story to tell, that I guarantee will help someone else out there. Keep relaying your message of talking, rather than just speaking with a friend or a loved one. It takes courageous folks like you to help us all see that we can be doing much more to help those around us feel the love we are afraid to show. God bless you and your family and have a great shift back in your boots!

  • Brother- Thnaks for sharing your humanity with the world. You may not realize it now but your writings are literally changing the lives of your Brothers and Sisters who will face their own horrific life tragedies. No Bull. In your grief,you ar still helping others.

    Which is EXACTLY why you need to get back to work.

    You said it yourself in these last two posts. You are a firefighter. This is how you define youself. This is who you grew up to be. Not only a firefighter, but a LEADER and a MENTOR. Go back to what it is you do best and you’ll begin to build up some space between the hellishness of what just happened and the possibilities of what lay ahead.

    Go back to work. Where you belong. Your ‘family’ is waiting with open arms.

    May peace find it’s way to you soon.

  • Wayne & Shirley Patrick

    Bo, all your friends, family and co-workers are there to help you through this….just let go and let them help. But the best help you can get will be talking to God and let him carry the burden for you, he’s there all of the time and always ready when you call on him. Remember we love you and you can let us know if we can do anything at all to help.

  • Charles Tanner

    Hey Cap, many of us have been where you are now. I can’t sit here and cannot think of when I lost my little sister. Even though it was many years ago now, I still think of her on a daily basis. But the one thing I think of is that this brotherhood we are in is the greatest outlet/ therapy a brother could have no matter how far away that the brother is that is battling what ever it may be, we will catch each other and give them that big hug that everyone needs every once in a while. So this is my hug to a brother from KY!!! Take care and my God be with you as you continue to get through this horrible time.

  • Captain, Although weve only met a few times at the Firehouse Expo in Baltimore. I feel and share your pain in so many ways. Turn to the BROTHERHOOD of those you work with. We are all here to support you, thats what we do! Thats what the BROTHERHOOD is all about!

    Your brother would be proud of what you wrote!

    Stay Safe Brother!

  • Chief 62

    To my hurting Brother may I offer some thoughtful suggestions as you seem ready to transition back into the front seat. Its not my position to butt in as you continue to process the enormous grief these turn of events you have had to deal with but perhaps consider some of them. They greatly helped me.

    If your fulfilling your right seat position as the Company Officer your capable and steady crew you lead will have your back. On your first shift back, have the shift commander place the unit out of service for the switchover time and for the first 2 hours of your shift. It is critical for all to have the release of tensions-grief-sorrow-concerns & expectations for you and them to bleed out, I would suggest someone from your CISM team be present to assist with the process, Willie their is no shame at all in this, its what the process is for, consider it, use it.

    If overtime is required I am sure the Fire Chief will be able to look after it, it was done in my case and we are a considerably larger Dept. First know some things, you are a valuable asset to Roanoke Fire Rescue and alternatively the citizens you serve. Its not every day something close hits right at home, it is tough for anyone to deal thru much less us. Your concerns regarding performance at calls, for fire scenarios your training and memory recall will click in, trust me. If you are on the recieving end of a troubling other call, your crew will be able to judge your ability to handle!. The Service should be aware a shadow unit might be required in short order for the first inter meaning timespan.
    Never ever accept defeat Brother, if there is an unanticipated meltdown, your human, your with other well trained brother firefighters whom have our back. No shame ever, I used the words “guys I can’t” they took it from there, this happened twice to me, once in the Engine, once on the car. You may be fortunate and it won’t but this business of ours can be so very unforgiving, you didn’t get to Acting Battalion rank without knowing this. The public is very sympathetic to us even with all the bad crap that occasionally comes up. At days end were there for them, its only understandable they’d be their for you.

    If your on the car running the Battalion they need to assign an overseer Battalion to working incidents, not to second guess you but to ensure Ops can be continued seemlessly. Do not fear the unknown, its not a sign of weakness but allows the Service to be able to assist you immediately for any reason, its what we Chiefs do. Never ever ever doubt your abilities. Put a picture of Jackson inside your Lid as my American Brothers call them, he will ride every call with you, provide the strength you need and help God ensure and look down upon and keep you safe. He will be forever as close to you as can be for eternal time.

    Its not perfect, its not clean cut and nice as we in the Fire Service always like it to be. It is however real, your having a human reaction to a troubling event in your personal life. I have so much admiration for you in sharing your difficult journey with all of us. You will know when its right again, there will always be a huge void in William Wines Jr’s heart the pain while acute at present will dull somewhat as time goes on. Time heals all wounds, doesn’t mean we forget them. Get back on the Engine where you belong, its a big part of your moral compass, moreso your life. It misses you there and I am most sure you miss it. Your Brother Jackson knew you love being a firefighter, make the next stairclimb with Rhett with your pic together. I offer this as a friend first and foremost, fellow firefighter second. Luv ya man.

    • Thanks again Chief … THANKS. Luv ya too Brother!

  • Jason Brooks

    Willie, why you may not remember me I certainly remember you. We met outside of Greenbelt Station 35 after the 2011 PG County 9/11 stair climb. You remarked because I worn the name of Mychal Judge. You asked if I knew the significance, and I was happy to answer that I did. Anyways I have followed your blog, and shared your travels since that day. Willie, although I haven’t loss my brother, I was at work the day my wife called to say, while at the obgyn my son didn’t have a heart beat any more. The next 48 hours seems a blur, I’m not sure how I got home and functioned that day, or the next day (11-11-11) when we delivered our son, lifeless. It crushed me, to this day I cry about it. It haunts me, I wasn’t there, I wasn’t by her side to hear that news, I didn’t want to use sick leave for the appointment, and couldn’t find a swap. I failed to be with my wife on honestly the most tragic day of our lives. I was off work for a few weeks, and I went through so much of a lot of the same thoughts you say you’re having. It’s a pain and such a hard process. Willie, these people are your brothers and sisters. They care a lot about you. I am not going to say it’s going to be easy, and I’m not going to say it was something that I was comfortable with. It was one of the things that I chose to do because of the love. The love of the job, the love for my crew, and the love of my wife. The first day back to work I had butterflies and knots all in my stomach. I felt physically sick. It was worse than the first day as a rookie. The conversations where a blur, and before I knew it my shift was over. I went home and talked to my wife about it, and the next day when my alarm went off, I did it again, and again, and again. Before I knew it my week was over, then 2 weeks and then a month. Willie, your brothers and sisters will support you, the conversations will turn quickly enough to that of this or that, and life, inevitably, will go on. I am still paranoid of running a child call, and that will never go away. But as time goes on, I know that I will survive. I will make it, not because of determination, not because of will power, but because of the support of my family and my brothers and sisters. Capt, if I can do it, a simple fireman, than I KNOW that Captain Willie Wines Jr. can do this. I have your back brother…. let’s roll

    • I remember you Jason … THANKS for “being there” and for sharing that story.

  • Tom O’Brien


    All of your brothers here in Newark have followed your loss with great sadness for you and your family. We have talked about it often and have prayed for all of you.
    We all thought of how we could express our sorrow for you and let you know your entire fire family is with you during this time. But we figured you already knew that and we didnt want to be cliche.
    No one can ever feel the way you do. They can tell you they have been there but until they have walked in your shoes they just dont “get it”.
    Chief 62 has said it best.Time will heal all wounds my brother. Your support system is far reaching. Get back on company- during a period of time in my life after a loss it was the best therapy a brother could ask for.

    It gets better-but it takes time. Hang in there my friend.

  • Karen O.

    Capt. Wines, I’ve read your thoughts and kept you in my prayers. There will never be a return to “normal” because your “normal” involved your brother in your life. What will happen is you redefining what is normal. You have had some great advice shared and great support. Another thing to consider is to go visit the guys at the station before returning to work. Share a meal with the shift outside of the firehouse so that the awkwardness can be worked through. The silence that you will be met with is that of a group of people wanting to say the right thing and offer the right thing and not make it worse, not anything else. Ultimately you will have to do what you find best for you, but there is a whole brotherhood (in person and electronic) here to support you.

    Also, thank you for your honesty in your posts! As the state CISM coordinator I am thankful that more people are willing to post and to open up about finding resources. Getting help is never a weakness! Here is another link for some resources within Virginia: http://www.vdh.virginia.gov/OEMS/EO/CISMTeams.htm

    Thoughts and prayers!

  • mtnfireguy

    Long ago, I was told something about grief. When you lose someone who is very close to you, do NOT make big decisions. Give yourself six months or a year before you make major changes. All of your perspectives have just been tumbled. You need to let the room stop spinning before you decide to change direction.

  • John P. Bondrew

    Hey, Cap,
    There are 5 stages of grief, but everyone goes through them differently, and at their own pace. It will take your own time, but each day that you do survive, you will find that you CAN survive.
    About the job, we cannot dwell on those we have lost, we can only do our best to save those that we can. I believe, that you will come to understand, that you can find a way to honor your brother, by living your life to its fullest, and by going back, “on the job” to save those we can.
    Our sympathies to you, my brother….

  • Willie: keep talking to ALL of US. Your Blog is reaching many who have a story to tell and many who are following your journey as that journey is ours as well. I talked with Peggy Sweeney my cohort over at Grieving Behind the Badge today and we are working on a project to bring the message of H.O.P.E. to our frontline Rubber Boot Warriors who take on the streets and all that means daily and nightly…..the abyss of work is a void a darkness that needs our personal light in it. Each one of us as a firefighter brings our own single unique talents to the teams who must fight the good fight. We loose our rubber boot warriors every day to Line of Duty and N.L.O.D.D. Non Line of Duty Deaths. Suicide and Depression is a Perp that is taking our lives and EDUCATION is out there to help us with active tools in the tool box. When the emotional back draft of the events that affect us build up and flash over in our trauma trunk of memory we are left with the struggle and the shit. Our headlockers need to be taken care of. When we open the inch and a half between our heads and our hearts as you have done here on your blog…and when we gate it all of IT back to a safe working emotional pressure then we open up the talk….yeah you know the talk….when in the middle of the night we come back froma a bad call and cannot sleep….we saddle up to the coffee pot and sit around the table and just talk….brother you need your brothers and they need you. Have you heard them calling to you in this forum….? cause brother your loved and needed….and yes most of all we know you need yourself here too….and as that rubber boot warrior inside of you struggles with the salvage and overhaul and the steam is rising from the basement of emotions…..start to think about the walk away from the scene and back to the rig…..the a.i.r. pack is heavy brother….the boots are w.e.t. your tired…..and sore…Lets sit on the tailboard and look back brother…and rest a bit….it was and is still a good fight worthy of the effort. You will make it….one step at a time….above all else finding the wisdom in this wounding will be difficult but when you do….we know you…and you will share it with us…because…that is who you are…and that brother will not change for you….How you share it perhaps but you inside you…..we are all standing in the center of this fire with you…and we are brother and sistered up to help you find a way out….take care mindfully…..we are here with you…
    shannon pennington over at firefighterveteran.com North American Firefighter Veteran Network F.I.R.S.T. S.T.E.P. H.O.P.E.
    Ex IAFF Firefighter Veteran 26 years Living with PTSD

  • Rob Odom

    Well said and tough to read. I don’t know your pain because I have not been your shoes. I am sorry for you and your families loss and will keep ya’ ll in my prayers. God Bless and may you soon find the peace you search for my brother.

  • Willie,

    I have been praying for you and your family since I heard the news Brother.

    After my department lost two of our Brothers in the Line, I almost hung it up. 4 guys did.

    I took some time off, but after a few weeks the bells and sirens called me back. No one can tell you when it is right or you to go back but you. Don’t make any rash decisions Brother. Give yourself the time you need.

    For asmuch as I talk about my own baggage I now find myself at a loss for words. Because I remember how it was for me. The raw fear of just what might happen, and what I might do. Scared to fail in front of my Brothers, to be exposed to be frail or broken. We all try to live up to the stoic fireman model who never shows much emotion, the “nothing bothers me”type. Calm under pressure and all that.

    But after a major life event, when so many of our emotions are just barely contained, and we feel like we could just go on a crying jag at any moment, we don’t know if we can manage to pull off that stoic fireman act. Still now, 13 years later, I have moments when something triggers that emotional well of pain.

    It will take time Brother. I am very glad that you have been doing what I should have back then and seeking out help. Let them help.

    And if ever you need to, you can call me. Even if I do know the secret of your mustache care regimen. Love Ya BROTHER!

  • Lisa

    Hey baby brother! I am the oldest, most often the wisest (said with a smile), definitely the most well behaved (I know you are smiling at that), and I do have words to offer you. We lost mom almost fifteen years ago and not a day goes by that I don’t think of her. She was my rock….my everything. When she died I truly learned the meaning of “put on your big girl pants.” The pain and hurt you feel right now, that we all feel right now, lets us know that we are alive. You know from your job and your experiences that your life can change with every breath you take. I cannot tell you the number of sleepless nights, I have spent, the number of prayers I have prayed, or the number of tears I have cried….I think you know what I mean. The way we survive tough times like this is to use it and turn it into an experience we can learn from, share, and cherish, and do what we were made to do. You were made to be a leader and a firefighter. From the first time I met you, you were a leader, a keeper of the flock (Sarah, Jack, Marcie, and even me). Now, you have to do what God made you for. Mourn Jack (as we all are), but love his memories and cherish his time with us. Teach others what he taught us. Share his perfectly innocent and kind heart. Take all that was good in him and radiate it through yourself and your work. You know he wanted to be a firefighter….go fight for him. The pain will not go away, and the memories will never fade. But your skill in managing it all will get better with time. If you need me to come pray with you, read scripture with you, walk with you, ride with you or just be with you….I will. Remember the day at the beach when you and Jack were gonna fight off the guys who were harassing me? Remember the day when you and Jack helped Cole catch that huge fish at Sarah’s cracker house? Remember the time I was supposed to baby sit yall while mom and Willie were on a cruise? ha ha ha….Remember sitting around the table playing Simon? Spades? Chess? We are family….we are here for each other…do not think you have to hurt alone, but remember what you were created to do!!!! Do it…. I LOVE YOU

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  • Nate Blaser

    Nothing will ever go back to normal Cap,I am a firemen, I tried to take my own life in august. The horror that I caused my family and my crew is nothing that I would ever want to put in anyones lives. Don’t let it keep you down, Get up and open the bail on your 2.5 inch of feelings and let them out, even if it is to the dept. Chaplain, your kids, your wife, your family, your close friends. What matters is that you get back on the truck, and do what needs to be done, Just from reading your posts I know that firefighting is your therapy, just as it is mine, We have the power to make a difference in anyones lives, hope back in the officers seat and honor your brother, you may be called upon to someone else’s brother and you don’t want to put them through what you are going through, right? Best wishes from a western slope firemen. Stay safe.

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