A New Generation of ‘Veteran’ Firefighters

By Charles Swank

Our country has been at war for the past 10 years. Thousands of young men and women have volunteered to serve their county during this turbulent time. Among these veterans are those who have been on the front lines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the combat veterans. Many combat veterans have fulfilled their contracts and returned to the civilian ranks to pursue a career in the fire service. They bring with them a vast knowledge and experience base not seen in many firefighters their own age or even older. These combat veterans are now beginning to reach “veteran” status within the fire service. Recognizing the value of leadership a combat veteran brings can make for a stronger company and department.

The average age of an enlisted recruit is about 20 years old. The standard first enlistment contract is four years. For the past 10 years, it has not been uncommon for a soldier to have two combat deployments in a four-year period. The soldiers’ first deployment usually takes place while they are privates or specialists, lower enlisted. During this time, their job is to follow orders. They are part of a team, and they have a certain task within the team. The infantry fire team is very similar to an engine or a truck company in that it is made up of four members: team leader, grenadier, rifleman, and automatic rifleman. The team drills and drills under the direction of the team leader until members become masters at their job. The soldier learns a valuable lesson in the importance of following instruction and training during the first few years of their enlistment. You can see these qualities in a combat veteran who is your new probie.

Leadership is not taken lightly in the military. In the Army, each level of non-commissioned officer (NCO) has its own leadership course. In many cases, an enlisted soldier will reach the rank of Sergeant prior to the completion of the initial contract, especially in the combat arms specialties. These young soldiers, in some cases only 20-22 years old, will be placed in charge of a team. The demographics of this team could consist of an 18-year-old fresh out of basic training or a 30-year-old who joined because he lost his civilian job. A 20-year-old sergeant in charge of the lives of three other people grows up fast; the level of maturity that must be reached by this NCO is uncommon among 20-year-olds in the civilian world. In a combat situation, decisions are made in an instant and the consequences of that decision are felt immediately, much like in a fire. The ability of a person to react in a stressful environment is not something that can be taught in a classroom–it is something that must be learned first-hand. A former NCO with combat experience has a quality that cannot be taught at the academy.

As an officer or a senior firefighter, it is important to recognize the value that a combat veteran can bring to your company or department. The instructors at the academy will usually pick the combat veteran out quickly and place him as the cadet captain. As probies, combat veterans often show respect to senior firefighters and follow their directions as well as those from the officers. Being on time will not be an issue, since concepts like “on time is late, 10 minutes early is on time” have been drilled into their heads. They seek out information to become proficient at their job. Training is high on their priority list. Becoming an integral part of the team is the goal of combat veterans during the first years of their career. Rarely will an officer have to tell them to get busy doing housekeeping or equipment maintenance. In most cases, the combat veteran is the probie everyone wishes they had.

Years have passed and now combat veterans are reaching the point in their career where they can test for promotions. Officers may have already noticed a desire to lead. Other members of the company or department may have even started to look to the combat vet as a leader. People react to those who lead from the front, which is what the military teaches its NCOs to do. The boss is still in charge on a fire, but back at the house the vet may be initiating training, mentoring probies, and starting special projects. As an officer, it is important to support these young firefighters. Let them take the reins on some things, but make sure that what they do does not conflict with officers’ decisions. Holding back their desire to lead or undermining their passion for the job can be detrimental to their development within the company or department. Many combat veterans have leadership experience in life-and-death situations, experience that can be invaluable to other firefighters.

Knowing the characteristics and strengths of department personnel is vital to being an officer. If there is a combat veteran within the department, recognize what that person can bring, and mentor him to full potential. The dedication and passion he brings can change the attitude of an entire crew. His leadership experience cannot be taught. By no means does this person deserve special treatment or special favors; and he doesn’t expect it. What he does deserve is the chance to show what he can do. Chances are good that if there is an officer vacancy, a combat veteran will fill it.  

Charles Swank is a career firefighter for the Mount Vernon (OH) Fire Department. He holds fire instructor certification in the state of Ohio. He served four years in the United States Army, assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, and had two combat deployments, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He was awarded the Bronze Star with a V device for valor.

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