|By Bobby Halton|
The character of an individual is but a reflection—of the family, of the training, and of the institution from which he comes. Today’s firefighters are both the inheritors and the caretakers of the culture, artifacts, and institutions of the fire service. This fire service and its mission and traditions are bound together by an intricate and well-developed relationship among a core set of unique virtues that comprise our moral sense.
Today some question whether loyalty and service still matter to the fire service. To be blunt, there is no more offensive comment. Never let it be said that any honest and good firefighter ever besmirched the name of the fire service intentionally or was intentionally disloyal to the fire service, the community, or the country.
Loyalty in a simpler time was described by Epicurus, who said, “It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us as the confidence of their help.” Our loyalty is embedded in our virtues that have been exemplified generation after generation by true American heroes. Heroics do not skip generations; they are part of our culture. Selflessness does not come and go in a society; it is perpetuated. And loyalty is not taught in books; it is learned from example.
In July 1940, Billy Fiske was a rookie pilot at age 28. Billy was an unofficial American Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot; you see, he had posed as a Canadian to join the RAF. Back home, some people called him a traitor and were calling for his arrest for his defiance of the 1935 Neutrality Act. But none of that mattered to young Billy Fiske. It was values that drove him; it was his respect for freedom. He understood that there are things that virtuous men fight and die for: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association.
On August 17, 1940, Billy Fiske, two-time Olympic bobsled champion, movie maker, the man who founded the Aspen ski lodge, a millionaire who could’ve avoided war altogether, became the second American to die in combat in World War II. On his coffin were the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes.
In the early days of the Vietnam War, a unit of soldiers was out on patrol when a burst of gunfire suddenly hit the point man, severely wounding him. The other soldiers jumped instinctively behind a berm, taking cover as bullets hit all around them with deadly accuracy.
The wounded point man began crying out in terror and pain for help, pleading for someone to please come and help him. After several agonizing moments, one of the soldiers threw off his rucksack, grabbed his M14, and began to climb over the berm.
His fellow soldiers grabbed his ankles and dragged him back. “It’s a trap,” they screamed at him. “It’s a trap, and if you go out there, you’ll get yourself killed and nothing else. He’s gone already, and there’s nothing you can do.”
The point man continued to cry out, again calling for help. Behind the berm, the soldier could stand it no longer. He again grabbed his rifle, left the safety of the berm, and ran under horrific fire to try to get to his wounded brother.
As the gunfire continued relentlessly, suddenly, at the top of the berm, the soldier appeared carrying the dead point man back to the security of the berm. The soldier was fatally wounded himself, and as he lay there bleeding to death, his fellow soldiers asked him, “Why? Why would you go out there, knowing the point man was a dead man already, knowing you were throwing your life away for nothing? Why?”
The exhausted and dying soldier looked up at his fellow soldiers, and with his dying breath said, “Do you know what he said to me when I reached him? He said, ‘I knew you would come.’ “
On September 11, a former NYPD police officer, now an FDNY firefighter, Chris Engledrum, who served in Operation Desert Storm in 1990 with the 82nd Airborne, was searching among the rubble when one of his fellow crew members from Ladder 61 came across an American flag. Chris called for Captain Mike Dugan and asked where they could raise this flag. Captain Dugan grabbed a nearby ladder and threw it up to a light post. With Chris bucking the ladder, they raised that flag.
This is not the iconic flag photo that you all have seen that was taken later in the day. This was a flag raised moments after the collapse. Several weeks after 9/11, Chris would learn that members of his old unit, the 27th Brigade, were going to back-fill the legendary 69th New York Irish Brigade for duty in Iraq. Chris couldn’t let his old unit go without him, so he reenlisted. He reenlisted because of a sense of loyalty, a sense of service.
On November 29, 2004, the armored Humvee carrying Chris; Specialist Wilfred Urbina, also a firefighter; another FDNY member, Daniel Swift of Ladder 43; and three other soldiers was hit by an improvised explosive device. Chris and Wilfred were killed.
Chris Engledrum became the first member of the Fighting 69th to die in Iraq. Chris Engledrum was the first member of the FDNY to die in active duty military service following 9/11.
Across America, citizens trapped in burning buildings will dial 911 and know that we are coming, that we will enter those burning buildings and rescue them; we will come. We will come because every firefighter knows there are some things more important than our own personal safety. Yes, loyalty and service are alive and well in the American fire service.
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