Melanie Clark at a news conference on January 28, 2019, in support of legislation sponsored by Delegate Chris Peace (R) that would impose tougher penalties to motorists who violate the state’s “Move Over” Laws. (Photo by Sean Gorman, Richmond Times Dispatch.)
By Anne Gagliano
In the emotionally charged atmosphere of her class at FDIC International 2019 entitled “My Lieutenant Didn’t Come Home” (in which I am seated), Melanie Clark somehow manages to tell her story with clarity, dignity, and strength despite her shaking voice and the frequent loss of it. As the class unfolds, I’m struck by this profound truth: The Courage and Valor Award is aptly named not only for Lt. Bradford T. Clark but for his fellow firefighters and, most especially, for Melanie herself. The lessons learned and conveyed by her will stay with me always, and some of these I shared in Parts 1 and 2 of this column.
Melanie’s courage and grace under pressure as she presents her experience of profound loss absolutely blows my mind. The insights, the truths, the experiences—it all comes together to reveal incredible lessons that all firefighters, as well as their loved ones, should know: not just how to react to tragedy but how to prepare; how to be ready; and, most importantly, how to help each other should the worst occur. And, ultimately, Melanie herself displays how to rise from the ashes of overwhelming grief with selfless, heroic action. These truths can only come from one who has lived them; they cannot be manufactured any other way. Some of the painful, precious, hard lessons learned, ones that stood out to me as someone who also loves a firefighter, I presented in my last column. These included events on scene, dealing with social media, and some of what Lt. Clark’s fellow firefighters did for Melanie. The rest are as follows:
A final farewell. This was a tough one for me. Tough to even imagine, as it would be my worst nightmare. To read my beloved’s final words to me—words he’d written in a letter should he be killed on duty. How to even face such a letter? But as I listened to Lt. Clark’s final words, I realized it was a nice touch and one that I think all firefighters should consider writing. It added closure, peace, and even some joy as typical firefighter humor was displayed yet again, one last time.
Lt. Clark’s brother was chosen to read the letter at his funeral, as he sounded the most like him and it would best characterize his voice, as if coming from heaven. Lt. Clark had written it on the laptop at the firehouse to be read in the event of his death. It contained two parts: his wishes for his funeral and his final farewell to the ones he loved. In it, he wrote this to his wife: “I died doing a job I loved … a calling to serve others. My only regret—I’m not with you anymore. As to my funeral, you do as you think best, though cremation is much cheaper. So now you’ll be my boss in death, just as in life.”
A documents folder. Melanie suggested this should be a conversation every firefighter couple should have: to make a documents folder that is readily available and regularly updated. She called it an “In Case I’m Gone Kit,” and she, unfortunately, did not have one. It would have saved her a lot of time, hassle, and grief if she had. The kit should include a current will, multiple copies (she recommended 20) of yours and your firefighter’s birth certificates, marriage license, divorce papers (if divorced, of course), and birth certificates of all your children as they come along. It is crucial to regularly update any changes (as in second marriages) for the purposes of beneficiaries for insurance, pension, salary, etc. This kit would be helpful in the event of firefighter cancer as well as a line-of-duty death.
Include your spouse at the firehouse. I say this in my firefighter marriage class all the time, but coming from Melanie it has become extra poignant. For me, it’s always been a lesson of not being jealous, of combining first family with second so you can have both without losing either. To allow your first family to love the second as you do. But Melanie added an extra layer to this love: Include your spouse (and your kids) at the firehouse, because one day they may need them. Melanie says flat out that she would not have survived her crippling grief if not for the help and support of the fire family. They literally surrounded her and carried her through her darkest days. If they had been strangers to her, this might not have happened. Firefighting is a dangerous profession; make every effort to give your family as many resources as possible to survive if they should lose you. And remember, the fire family is one of those resources.
Rising from the ashes. Melanie has made it her life’s mission to highlight and bring to attention Virginia’s “Move Over” Law. She joined Delegate Chris Peace who introduced House Bill 1911, which would change/toughen penalties for motorists who violate the “Move Over” Law, which currently requires drivers to move over when first responders are on the side of the road and, if they can’t move over, to reduce their speed. The current law classifies a first violation as a traffic infraction punishable by a $250 fine, with a second violation as a class 1 misdemeanor. If House Bill 1911 is approved by the General Assembly, violating the “Move Over” Law would be treated as reckless driving, which is a class 1 misdemeanor that comes with up to a year in jail or a fine of $2,500.
“Give them room to protect and serve on the highways; it is the second cause of death for our first responders,” says Melanie. Since her voice was added to the fight, the bill is now set to be signed into law in July 2019. “I see this as just continuing on what my husband would want me to do, and that’s to help protect the guys that he loved and died for.” Courage and valor on a whole new level. Courage, and valor.
If you’re interested in my book, Challenges of the Firefighter Marriage, check it out HERE
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Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 33 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.