I broke in a new Class A uniform this weekend. It was stiff, immaculately clean, brand new, just out of the plastic and donned for the very first time in honor of our fallen colleagues and military veterans. My town was privileged to have the American Veterans Traveling Tribute, also known as The Wall, in town this Memorial Day Weekend.
For those of you who don’t know what the AVTT is, it’s an 80 percent replica of the Vietnam veterans’ memorial wall in Washington, D.C. with the names of more than 58,000 fallen veterans who gave their lives during that conflict. It also pays respects to veterans of all wars and has special panels dedicated to the memory of those fallen during the September 11 attacks and other fallen fire, EMS and law enforcement officials.
Haverhill, N.H., where I live, was very fortunate to have it here in town for the weekend and it will be up through Memorial Day. It’s a big deal.
Friday was a day for remembering and honoring those who serve as first responders.A few dozen firefighters and EMS personnel attended the moving event. I attended to honor those who have fallen, not to be honored. It was an awkward position to be in. It was more than the new white shirt and the tight, polished black shoes that made me uncomfortable. Local, state and national figures were showering us, the living with praise and thanks and using words like heroes and noble servants.
Those words don’t fit me very well. I reserve those words for people who have sacrificed all and gone before us.
Me, I am still very much alive. I have not made the ultimate sacrifice, nor do I ever hope to do so. Therefore, I don’t deserve the honor that was bestowed on me just because I wear the same uniform, the same turnout gear and serve the same public. I am one of the ones who gave some – not all.
I am honored to serve my community and do so willingly and, I believe if I was called to do so I would sacrifice all and would do so gladly. It’s my sworn duty. But we need to save our highest praise for those who HAVE made the sacrifice, not those who are willing to make it.
One of the speakers was New Hampshire’s Director of the Division of Fire Standards and Training and Emergency Medical Services Perry Plummer. He mentioned that two of his colleagues with the Dover (N.H.) Fire Department were lost in the line of duty and how it profoundly affected the department he served for more than 25 years. He also spoke about the fallen FDNY firefighters and how an American flag, embellished by the names of the 343 fallen, graces the kitchen of his former fire station and how it changed the way he looks at an United States flag to this day.
We all remember when the towers came down and we learned that thousands had been killed, including the 343 FDNY firefighters. They’re heroes, worthy of the praise.
I recall the same awkwardness at church on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2001, the first Sunday after the attacks. The nation was grieving and trying to figure out ways to acknowledge and honor the losses, even in small town New Hampshire. My church asked our firefighters to attend the service and then we were asked to gather in front of the congregation. We received a sustained standing ovation.
I didn’t deserve it, and I don’t think many of my colleagues, if any, felt they deserved it. It was humbling. I understood that they were honoring the fallen, through us, but it was still uncomfortable.
Fast-forward to this weekend when N.H. Director Perry was talking about the 343 fallen FDNY firefighters and all those who have gone before us in the fire and EMS professions.
“Train as hard as you can and be as safe as you can be,” Plummer said. “That’s how we can honor them.”
He’s one of us. He gets it. And he’s right. Through training, watching our brothers and sisters, as well as our own backs, and being as safe as we can, we will honor all of the responders who have gone before us. We can honor their sacrifice and remember them best by not joining their ranks and becoming a statistic. A rate of loosing one firefighter about every three days is not acceptable.
We can, and should do better than that. We know it’s a dangerous profession, but we can be safer and live longer.
As we barbecue this Memorial Day weekend or visit in-laws and get the boat out for the first time of the season, don’t forget to take a few minutes to bow your head, or look to the skies and say thank you to those in the military and the public safety fields who have gone before us.
The best way to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice is by doing our best to avoid joining their ranks. We appreciate what they have given and will never forget them. But to do that, and to continue our sworn duty, we have to go home safe.
This Memorial Day, keep the fallen veterans and public servants in your heart and make a commitment to honor them year round by making sure everyone stays safe and everyone goes home.