I attended my first funeral for a firefighter last September. Dignitaries from around the state lined the front rows and sat on the stage, each waiting their turn to speak in honor of the man who changed the look of firefighting in Florida and across the nation. I held my composure until the final moment when his eldest son, who stood in the dress uniform of his own fire department, saluted his father’s casket. At that point, dispatch broadcast throughout the church the last alarm for my father-in-law and soberly announced, “Chief McLeod has not responded. He has completed his final tour of duty.”
We are a firefighter family.
We represent four generations of firefighting tradition in Florida and Arizona—that includes our son-in-law, a firefighter for the city of Mesa, Arizona. For thirty-six years, my husband has “put on his work face,” kissed the kids and me good-bye, worked his shift, and returned to my arms when he was finished. Most of the time, I never knew the details of the dangers he faced, the tragedies he witnessed, or the comfort he provided to others. Nor will I ever know the catastrophes we have been spared by the grace of God.
People assume that I was gripped with fear every morning when Rob went on duty. I was not. He had superior training and worked with men who were committed to protect his life at any cost, just as he was prepared to protect theirs. That’s the brotherhood of the job—they have each others’ backs.
But it’s a dangerous job, and there have been close calls.
He narrowly escaped a gas explosion as he fought fire in a burning drugstore when we were newlyweds. As a young recruit, he suffered burns on his ears and neck working a wildland brush fire. More than one search and rescue operation in burning mobile homes turned threatening when everything in the room began to catch fire during “rollover.”
But he always came home to me.
I wish with all my heart that the mourning families of the Yarnell Hot Shots could say the same thing. I wish their names were not inscribed together on a silver Maltese cross. I wish the Vice President could have spent today on Capitol Hill instead of Granite Mountain. And I wish I could forget today’s line up of Hot Shot photographs looking out above their surviving fire gear—each set standing at attention in one, long, missing man formation.
“God called them home exactly how they wanted to go home—as brothers fighting fire, placing themselves between life and death, quietly and humbly serving,” said one speaker at the memorial service.
“All men were created equal,” the Vice President said, “but then a few became firefighters. We all owe you.”
Jesus said there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends. But these men laid down their lives for strangers. That’s what firefighters do. When tragedy strikes, everyone runs out while they run in, saving lives and property while they put their lives on the line.
“We will rest later,” one Prescott Hot Shot told his mother in his final text, “there’s a ranch down there to save.” It was the last time she heard from him. For the last ten days I’ve watched our state and nation link arms in support of those who lost everything in a vicious fire in the mountains of Arizona.
But it still seems to me that the ones who lost the most were the survivors of those who gave their all.
I believe in what my husband does. Like his firefighter brothers and sisters, he gives generously of himself and never views it as a sacrifice. Because, as another said today, firefighting is not what they do—it is who they are. But there is a great price paid by those who love these heroes when things go very wrong.
And for the family and loved ones left behind, their sacrifice is really what was honored today. I cannot imagine the depth of their grief. But I honor their unseen courage in the face of such great loss.
We are weeping with those who weep.