The Shirt Off One’s Back – A Sheepdog’s Selflessness

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L.D.  Lew Downs
“I haven’t thought about my family once tonight…”

I was fortunate enough to become friends with some very special members of our military while I was in college, many of whom I am still close friends with till this day. Some of them are currently state-side, furthering their training and preparing for the day they might be sent to war… others are currently in the Middle East, standing in harm’s way as we enjoy our American freedoms in peace. The paramilitary structure that is the foundation for both the North American fire and police services is built on tenets such as seniority, respect, experience and brotherhood… and those tenets are what attracted me to become a public servant.

It’s an odd feeling when someone thanks you for your service… after all, nobody forced our hand to pick up the pen and sign the paperwork. But the phrase that has always left me ruminating is when someone says, “… thanks for everything you do.”

One would be foolish to ever think someone outside the circle of service could fully grasp and understand “everything we do”, and it’s probably for the best that they don’t. In today’s society where participation trophies and “safe spaces” from bullies on college campuses exist, it’s evident that the world has gone flaccid and that an unadulterated exposure to the bad that truly exists in this world would be far too much for most Americans to handle. The phrase “everything you do,” in my eyes, is a confession of understanding in itself… that the normal, appreciative citizen realizes there are harsh realities warriors witness, not so pleasant, gut-wrenching glimpses of America and foreign lands that our hearts are exposed to on a daily basis that the vast majority of citizens can’t even begin to fathom.

When I first became a firefighter, I had just moved back in with my mom for a few months until I got a new living situation figured out. I’m lucky enough to have a parent who loves me, but she’s also the type to worry herself to death. There were times when I couldn’t respond to my phone right away, and sometimes that inability to communicate could last for a few hours. I would naturally return to 800 missed calls, texts, voice mails and picture messages from my mother wanting to know if I was okay. A friend of mine who joined the Army conveyed to me a similar story, one in which he told his mom that his job when enlisting would be “office work.” She sighed in relief, not knowing her son had signed up for the infantry, eventually deciding to take his career on a path to Special Forces.

As I left the movie theater on my day off last week, one scene from the movie 13 Hours kept running through my head. After a long night of engaging the enemy, after thousands of bullets flying inches from their bodies and mortars exploding all around them, the SEALs finally found themselves with a lull in which they could rest and recover. As they checked their weapons, bandaged their wounds and got a drink of water, they found the adrenaline that had been coursing through their veins like a broken levee had finally begun to wear off. Once their minds began to process the events that had unfolded, one of the SEALs began to reflect and confessed, “I haven’t thought about my family once tonight.”

In my short career so far as a public servant, I’ve often found myself in the same mental haze. Whether I was crawling through a burning building filled with smoke to the point that I couldn’t even so my own hands in front of me or on some stranger’s bedroom floor loading them onto a stretcher before we rushed them to the hospital, my sole purpose during those moments was that moment in particular, and nothing else.

You don’t think about the danger you’re in, you don’t think about the bills that just got delivered to your mailbox that you can’t afford to pay. You don’t think about proper funding your department lacks and you don’t think about the people you love back home. You react, you remember your training, you look after your brother beside you and you do your damnedest to make sure everyone makes it home alive.

I used to feel bad for lying to those I love and keeping them out of the loop of the dangers we often times face. But just as my mother always worries about my well-being, perhaps my lies are my own way of protecting her. Warriors are not special, but rather, in the words of Edmund Burke, people who realize that, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The modern day warrior realizes that the government will forget about them, that political candidates will use them as pawns to bolster their own image, that they’ll get shitty pay, shitty equipment, possibly have their lives cut short early and be swept under the rug when they’re gone, likely to have their passing overshadowed by a celebrity who overdosed on drugs.

All of us carry tools of our trade… whether it’s a ballistics vest and pistol, an M-4 rifle and Kevlar helmet or a flat-axe and halligan bar. But in addition to the uniforms we are issued, we all also carry our own personal sentiments… a wedding ring on our finger, grandpa’s old service flag folded up in our cargo pocket, a picture of our kids in our helmet.

Maybe it’s poor wording to say we don’t think about those we love while in the heat of battle. Every day my Army buddies strap on their boots and head outside the wire, every shift my police officer friends climb in their cruisers, every time my firefighter and paramedic brothers take the cot and their tools off the rigs, they’re heading out to protect their loved ones along with millions of Americans they’ll never know. Somewhere in the Bible it states, “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for a friend”. There is a greater love though… and that’s the love of a warrior who will lay down his life for a complete stranger.

Warriors compartmentalize; it’s the only way one can make the job a career. The pain and anguish that is faced must be stored away in order to keep from clouding judgement on the next job at hand.

So too must the love for those you care about.

When the uniform is dawned and the mission has begun, everything else fades away. But believe me… every time another magazine is loaded, every time the handcuffs are locked into place, and every time a chest compression is given, the love of those we care about are flowing through our hands. It is believed that even after you die, some brain and heart activity continues on for a slight amount of time… and I’d like to think that if we find ourselves answering our final call, we’re granted those last few breaths to say goodbye and kiss those we love one last time before heading home to Valhalla.

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2 thoughts on “The Shirt Off One’s Back – A Sheepdog’s Selflessness

  1. You are right. Words from those who have no idea what you are struggling with on a daily basis does seem meaningless. I have the utmost respect and admiration for every person that had and continues to have the courage and strength to risk everything you are and everything you love to protect those of us who probably didn’t really understand the danger and uncertainty you are dealing with each time you are called to protect people who would rather see you dead than have an ounce of respect and gratitude for the job you do and the people that you save. I will not say thank you for your service. From now on I will show a little act of kindness to every person that is putting their lives on the line for me every day. God bless you!

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