Nation's Fallen Firefighters Honored at Memorial

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EMMITSBURG, Md.-- For the sixth consecutive year, Jo Ann and Gerry Gettman traveled here from Lakeport, Calif. in hopes of helping others grieve with their loss.

The couple attended their first National Fallen Firefighters Memorial shortly after they lost their youngest son, Matthew Eric Black, in a wild land fire just outside of Lakeport.

"The first year you come so grief-stricken you don't remember much of it," Jo Ann Gettman said. "But when you come back as a survivor the second year you see everything real clear.

"Now we come back and see the whole picture and what's being done. It means so much more."

Gerry Gettman shared similar sentiments in regards to the event. "The first year you're walking around either lost, numb or in daze," he said. "That part is telling them (the family members) that 'I don't want to do this again.' There's another part that is saying 'I have to' in honor of who they lost. That's the emotional part."

A Long Tradition

The Oct. 8 ceremony marked the memorial's 25th anniversary. Recently, the memorial has continued its growth with a newly constructed memorial park and renovated chapel.

Executive Director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Ronald Siarnicki, said the foundation's mission has remained unchanged, with the main objective being the reduction of line of duty deaths.

"We continue to work with the emphasis that ‘everyone goes home.' The foundation is committed to do that and has garnished the support to make that happen," he said. "We are going to continue to push to insure that we can in fact make every firefighter safer."

This year's attendance at the memorial topped out around 7,000 as firefighters, friends and family members from across the country paid tribute to the 100 firefighters who died in the line of duty in 2005 and the seven other names that were added to the memorial this year.

Interim United States Fire Administrator Charlie Dickerson expressed the importance of the day for those who work at the National Fire Academy, where the memorial is located.

"I can tell you that the best days that we have here, the very best days, are when the flags are up. Because when the flags are up, America's fire service is having a great day," he said. "However, because we do work here … we know when those flags go to half mast; it's because one of your loved ones stepped forward to sacrifice the most precious thing that there is to give: their life.

"During that time, we reflect: What are we doing to make a difference? What are we doing collectively, all of us, America's Fire Service, in hopes that these crowds, this recognition will begin to grow smaller."

Coping with Loss

Much like the Gettmans did in 1999, many of those in attendance for the first time sought a sense of closure and comfort from others who had been through the same thing.

The often somber ceremony was highlighted by heartfelt speeches, touching songs and emotional exchanges as family remembers were greeted at the memorial as their firefighter's name was read. This year, in addition to the flag previously flown over the U.S. Capitol and the long-stemmed rose given to families, a commemorative badge inscribed with the firefighter's name was given.

DHS Under Secretary of Preparedness George Foresman, reminded everyone that the courage of the men and women who have died in the fire services will not be forgotten. Foresman was speaking in place of FEMA Director David Paulison, who was unable to attend due to an illness in his wife's family,

"These men and women reminded each of us that when a fire breaks out, or when rescue or emergency medical services are needed, it is the men and women of America's fire service that are the first ones who are called and the first ones to assist America's citizens," he said.

"When one of these men and women lose their lives, it is right and fitting that we come together as a nation to embrace with our thoughts and prayers the families of these brave souls and to honor the ultimate price that they have paid."

U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes (Md.), the keynote speaker and co-chairman of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, addressed the survivors in attendance.

"Your own courage and strength mirrors the courage and strength of those we have lost," he said. "You are a constant source of inspiration to us all. You may take comfort and pride in knowing that you have the nation's profound respect and deep gratitude."

Need for Support

Maryland's governor, Robert Ehrlich, compared the sunny Sunday morning of the memorial as a reminder that the morning of 9/11 was similar.

"We honor sacrifice today," he said. "Sept. 11 is viewed by some as a day of renewed awareness. I think that's unfortunate because what we celebrate in respect to the events of that day is what you do. It's just what you do everyday."

Ehrilch continued, by stating the government's mission should be to support America's first responders and provide them with the funding needed. "What ever it is you need to protect us, we have that obligation to provide it. We must always make sure that you have never the reason to question our government's resolve to protect you."

Sarbanes reflected on the courage of those lost and of current members of the fire services who continue the fight by evoking the story of a recent line of duty death in which 45-year-old North Bergen, N.J. firefighter Vincent Neglia died while searching a house fire after erroneous reports that people were trapped.

He recalled that when a reporter commented the Neglia had been in "the wrong place at the wrong time," the answer came back from a department official that he was in "the right place at the right time."

"He was trying to make a rescue," Sarbanes said. "He was doing what he trained to do. They had a report of people trapped in the fire and he went to their rescue.

"Dedication and professionalism are exactly the qualities that distinguish the entire firefighting family. From the most junior recruits along with the most senior retirees, all share in the firefighter's steadfast mission to serve the common good; the mission to save lives."

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