Under Watchful Eyes and Capable Hands

38f58df43738dea4559e7e05db4760f6September has been an emotional month for me. It seems like one thing / event after another and it all keeps piling on.

I think I’ve been making progress along the lines of my mental health and wellness but I’m still having trouble focusing, prioritizing and putting things into perspective. I guess it’s shown in my lack of posting / writing.

The Fire Critic (Rhett) and I gave the Key Note and presented our class on Mental Health / Wellness, Improving Morale and Motivating Firefighters during the 2015 South Dakota Firefighters Benefit at the beginning of the month.

2015 South Dakota Firefighter BenefitThis lecture has become my passion but it is also VERY difficult to deliver because it involves me sharing, very candidly; my struggles and battles with Grief, Depression, PTSD and Suicide. I become a bundle of nerves as early as during the preparation phase which usually starts weeks before the actual delivery. Thinking about the message, how I’m going to deliver it and how it will be perceived takes me back to the “dark place” I had once hoped and prayed to leave far behind. As much as I hate to, I have to go back to “that place” to assure our message is authentic / real.

I guess it’s because so many of you easily relate to us … maybe it’s our openness and honesty but either way, our message has always been openly received.  It always amazes us how many Brothers and Sisters come up during a break or after class to share a similar story. To thank us for having the strength and courage to share ours and to be doing so in an open / public forum.

That’s what it’s all about… helping…. reaching someone (if ONLY one)…. making a difference… being our Brother’s keeper and leaving this job, profession and life better than we found it. So despite how difficult it is for me to deliver… it’s worth it.

Have us speak at your event… CLICK HERE

roanoke-stair-climbOur South Dakota trip just happened to fall on the weekend of September 11th . I think that day will always be emotional for any of us who was on the job back in 2001. For me, it was another brick on top of the load I was already carrying.

It was somewhat ironic but also eerie for us to be boarding a plane the morning of September 11th. The fact that it was NOT a comfortable flight goes without saying.

With all that on my mind, back home; we were missing the 1st ever National Fallen Firefighter (NFFF) Memorial Stair Climb to be held in our City.

Those of you who have followed us know that Rhett and I are VERY active with the NFFF and the Stair Climbs.

For whatever reason (ones I know but wont go into now) events such as this at home seem to get a lot more support from administration / certain groups if Rhett’s or my name is not attached.

Roanoke Climb CoinWe were able to quietly become involved and support the event by becoming sponsors. As part of that sponsorship, we provided 500 Challenge Coins which was enough to give one to every member who participated / climbed plus have extras for the organizers to distribute as desired / needed.

The event was a HUGE success thanks to the hard work and efforts of Firefighter Pete Matthiessen (Ladder #7-C) and his committee. Pete is a young Fireman on the South Battalion of my shift so I see him on the job. He’s one of those guys who “gets it” and is always stepping up to “Do The Right Thing”.  I think a lot of Pete and can’t express how proud I am of what he accomplished and the purpose for which he did it.

On a cold, rainy day (Saturday September 12, 2015), for the 1st ever NFFF 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb in Roanoke, Va. Pete and his crew hosted over 318 climbers! WHAT AN AMAZING EFFORT!

And, for the record; THANKS to everyone who supported, registered and climbed in the event … your efforts were NOT unnoticed.

10408885_916510578382600_1056049916137144160_nSo I get back home for a day or so and prepare for the next trip. This one’s been on my mind for a while now.

I, along with my Union President and Sec / Treasurer; escorted Boots’ family out to Colorado Springs for the IAFF Fallen Firefighter Memorial Service.

You all may remember that “Boots” (Michael Todd Harris) was my Senior Firefighter at Station #13-C. Todd lost his hard fought battle with cancer back on March 2, 2015.

His cancer was “presumptive” and his death considered Line Of Duty by the IAFF.

My emotions were mixed to say the least. There was a small part of me that hoped to find some peace at the Memorial yet another that feared the visit as someway saying “goodbye”. I’m not ready to do that yet.

IMG_4110Like Jackson, I think of, see and talk to “Boots” on a daily basis and as much as it pains me to do so, loosing that small grasp of either of them would be devastating.

I also have a promise to keep. A BIG one. A promise to a man whom I looked up to and admired. A man whom I do not want to let down. A man who I hope to one day meet again where he can tell me that I met his expectations.

You see, Boots asked me to “take care of” and “look after” his parents and wife after he was gone. I hope I have….. I’ve tried to and that’s why I took this trip. There was no way I cold let his mother and widow make this trip alone …. unescorted… so we went.

The Union Reps and I arrived a day early. Our Secretary / Treasurer Kevin Weeks was to be a Flag Presenter and President Tim Parry and I wanted to get things in order prior to the family’s arrival.

MemorialWe visited the Memorial that first day and I have to admit that I wasn’t sure I’d make it through the week. I wasn’t sure I could be strong enough for the family to lean on. How could they lean on or look to me for strength if I was on my knees and an emotional mess?

I had been there ( the Memorial) before but never for someone that I knew so personally. This was different…. very different in fact.

The Memorial was built 1986 and the first two granite walls were erected in 1989. This year, almost 30 years later; the Memorial was  totally refurbished / remodeled.  There was a whole new look and feel.

Bigger and even more beautiful than before, the Memorial now carries 7,352 names of our Fallen members. These Line Of Duty Deaths date back to the founding of the IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters) in 1918. Click HERE for the names of our Fallen .

Todds name inscribedIt was difficult to walk inside those walls.

I knew where it was but found myself searching for his name…. scanning …. reading each one as I passed.

His name jumped out at me…. it called me into focus.

I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach again …. I couldn’t breathe, my teeth clinched and my eyes swelled with tears. I stood in silent reflection …. others just like me all around…. but the wall…. it was calling me.

I had to touch it …. to rub my fingers across his name. I can’t explain it but there was a peaceful “feeling” standing there. I even etched his name onto a piece of paper that the Memorial staff provided us.

It wasn’t until the following day, after watching Todd’s mother and widow do the same that I read the event program and understood. Here’s what it said…

“Beyond the Wall

A Tribute to the family of a Fallen IAFF Fire Fighter

I see you-

You trace your fingers across my name

etched here on this granite wall-

Sure wasn’t my idea of fame.

I feel you,

your heartbeat pressed against this stone-

Sure wasn’t my plan for you and I,

for you to be alone.

I hear you

as you whisper,

and you’re asking me again-

Would I walk this road,

carry this cross,

if I knew how it all would end?

And I’m so very glad

that I was not the one to choose

to line this wall with heroes,

at the cost of loosing you.

I see you wipe your eyes,

I see you fight the tears,

battle with the loneliness,

the loss, the rage, the fear.

But know that I’m so proud of you,

as I know you are of me too.

In spite of all we’ve loved and lost,

my love’s still here-

Right here with you.

Poem by: Aaron “Cap” Espy “The Firehouse Poet” (IAFF Retired)

etchingI guess that kind of says it all….

Not only was his name there… I also believe HE was… or at least a part of him.

After reading this together, I think his family feels the same way.

And, despite the comfort that gave me, I then began to wonder / worry about walking away…. about leaving him / this place behind and going home.

It’s not “just up the street” or “around the block” so it’s not like I can visit every day.

Then I learned about IAFF Local-5 (link) , their members and President Justin Koch.

entrance insciptionYou see, Justin and the members of IAFF Local 5 are the care takers of our Memorial. It is they who keep a watchful eye over our Fallen. Who see to it’s cleanliness, upkeep and preservation. It is those members who have the solemn task of lowering the flag following each passing and raising it back up at the appropriate time.

Who are these men and women … these Brothers and Sisters? I didn’t know until that weekend but I can tell you now that they are worthy of the task. They, along Granite Honor Guard Members (at the entrance to the site and Memorial Walls) have the watch and all my confidence.

Now having been there, seeing what I’ve seen, knowing what I know and feeling what I’ve felt, I have NO DOUBT that the peace, dignity and respect of the memory of our loved ones…. our Fallen … our Brothers, Sisters, husbands, wives, sons, daughters etc is under watchful eyes and caring, capable hands!

Special THANKS to IAFF L-5 President Justin Koch and his members for all they do on our behalf. 

Picture1 editSo I’ve been home a few days and am just now able to write just this tidbit of this months journeys. I plan to write / add more about the trip in the future.

Ironically, as I write this piece on the IAFF Memorial, I’m preparing to head out again in the morning to Emmitsburg, Md for the 34th National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend (link).

This is a totally separate Service and Memorial from the IAFF Memorial in Colorado. Those of you who follow the site will know that The Fire Critic (Rhett) and I have volunteered to serve as staff members for the NFFF during Memorial Weekend for years now.

by-NFFF-2014There are obviously differences in the two and maybe a bit confusing so I’ll attempt to go over those differences in a future post as well. Until then, we will keep you updated and  you can follow along (including LIVE STREAMING) through Social Media (I’ll include those links below).

What would be even better is if you’re available and can attend / join us. We will be adding 87 names to the wall this year on Sunday October 4, 2015.

The Model City Firefighter (Andrew Catron) will be joining me and Rhett again and even working on the Social Media Team. I’m pulling the “double wide” (camper) up and we’ll be staying at Round Top Camp Ground in Gettysburg (Site 211). Stop by in the evenings for a visit or let us know if you need a place to stay…. we hope to see you there!

Use the links below to follow along the 34th national Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend and to find related information etc…

Ironfiremen on Face Book

National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Park

NFFF on Face Book

Stay SAFE and in House!

Captain Wines

  • Doug Walton

    I know you’re still struggling with your demons, WIlly, but know that your friends and family are here for you.

    Looking forward to seeing you at the Weekend.

    Doug