An officer struggles with the loss of
one of his men
Originally published 24 September 2014.
Note: Readers will know that we are not fond of the anonymous opinion. It may then seem hypocritical to have an anonymous post but there are two reasons for this. One, the author’s department is still dealing with this loss and two, the author does not want the focus to be on him and his department but on YOU and YOUR department should the same tragedy happen to you. – Bill
From your first steps in to this profession a simple yet powerful message is tapped in to you, “never leave a man behind.”
One morning this spring I was awoken by a phone call from my chief to notify me that my lieutenant had taken his life. In the days, weeks and months since I seem to perpetually struggle with the fact that I left him behind. His suicide was a complete walk off, none of us saw it coming and neither did his family. There was planning and purpose in his life, close friends and family, none of the tell-tale signs.
Like the ignorant Fire Chief on the news following a LODD telling the press “I never thought it could happen here,” I sat trapped in my own worst professional nightmare at the same time breaking down over losing my friend. Of all people, of all crews; highly motivated, in touch, vigilant, close knit, we missed it, we lost one and it was Mike.
As a career firefighter on a three platoon schedule we spend a third of our life with our crew. These guys are our roommates and brothers not just coworkers; it is a relationship not just an avenue of association. I assumed because of this I knew Mike well but the moment I learned he left us, I was hit with just how little I knew. I never ever thought I would get that phone call about one of my guys, let alone one I looked to so much.
I worked with or around Mike for 16 years. Mike was the Lieutenant at my first station assignment. He was the one who would take the new firefighter through the truck, equipment and station as much as they wanted. He never tired of my questions or discussion.
About 5 years ago I ran into Mike on a call, it had been awhile since we worked together and he told me we should grab lunch. I met him at a bar and grill thinking we would have a few beers and catch up; he ended up using almost every minute to talk me into studying and taking the Captains’ test with him. The thing is he never signed up and a year after the test when I was assigned to Station 1 with him, I asked if this was his plan all along. He told me “Sometimes things just have a way of working themselves out.”
Before the funeral within the department there were staunch differences on an approach. Beneath the surface there was a divide between honoring a man who gave over 25 years to the department in nearly all areas and those who wanted to make sure suicide wasn’t glorified with the services. In the end the services were very respectful and fitting for the incredible man I knew Mike to be. The services were a perfect tribute to the life of Mike and that night after the funeral as our crew stood together we all felt relief that the focus was on his life and not his final act.
Unfortunately that relief was short lived and waking up the next day without the extreme stress, concern and emotion that carried me through the first week without him meant that I had to finally face this on a personal level and walking into the firehouse that day was 10 times harder than it was 6 days earlier when we put our gear on the rig 24 hours after learning our brother was gone.
Since we lost Mike there are some things I have a greater appreciation for, at home I am a better husband and father, I see my life and time with them with more, smile more, love more, at home I am more.
Unfortunately at work I am less than I ever have been. I don’t feel the same, I don’t see the same, I don’t hear the same and I don’t sound the same. I am clearly missing more than just an officer and a friend. Losing Mike hurt me as a person, but it has hollowed me out as an officer.
I know Mike’s suicide was not my fault, I know I was not responsible for his decision, I don’t blame myself and I don’t need anyone to continue to tell me that; it hasn’t changed some feelings and it won’t. Loss is loss and I no longer have one of my firefighters, one of my responsibilities as an officer is gone. We are our brother’s keeper and one of my brothers is gone.
At work I still sometimes drift; in the station there are constant reminders, we still share memories, I still see his name tags, his empty locker next to mine. It is at the station that I remember I left a man behind, and not just a man but a mentor, a friend, a brother. It has only been 6 months since Mike took his life, sometimes in the department around us it might as well been 6 years ago. Inside the walls, in the hearts and some days on the faces of the men at station 1 it feels like it was yesterday.
Sometimes I get angry and I think I didn’t leave Mike behind; he left us behind. We are the ones now empty, hurt and struggling to make sense. The once confident and hard charging officer and crew he said he wanted is rattled, unable to get traction and more shell then star. But this is short lived and the cloak of guilt creeps back on the shoulders. Who am I? Blaming someone who I cared about so much and was hurting so bad that he took his own life for my inability to man up find focus to get through this?
I think of his family; those who lost a son, a brother, and uncle and I realize I am one of the smallest pieces of the shattered puzzle left behind.
We throw around “never leave a man behind” and it seems like something you can stand for so firmly, that is until you feel you have failed this responsibility. There is certain darkness to suicide which keeps it filed away in the shadows. Firefighter suicides are so loosely tracked that in all my efforts I have only been able to find estimates which unfortunately hover between 2 and 300 in 2013. If they are at all accurate this puts it at 3 times the number of recognized line of duty deaths (LODDs).
When you look at the depth and breadth of attention, investigation and study of all LODDs and the complete absence of it in FF suicides you begin to see the true scope of the problem and wonder how many more we will leave behind.
Since Mike left us many have come forward with causes for us to associate with. I have been contacted by National non-profits, political groups, and study panels in areas of PTSD, depression, and alcoholism but as I said Mike walked off, only he knows why.
I exhausted myself with assumptions and possibilities. I resigned myself to accept that I will never know why, and I told them “If I knew I would help, but I don’t so I can’t,” and that only seemed to make the hole deeper. It was so difficult to jump out of it and into a cause, I couldn’t focus on a solution, can’t rush in and save or solve like we as firefighters are so accustom to doing. Until I realized that maybe just providing awareness, my experience and a foundation for discussion is a cause.
One of the first questions I asked myself and will be asked is “what do you want to come from writing this?” I just want to say what I haven’t been able to say because I don’t have the strength to speak what I can write. I want to get out in the open what I have been holding in for too long. I want to help others understand what this has done to me and my crew. I want the Captain 1500 miles away sitting down with the same feelings know that he is not the only one. I want this to lead to conversations that we didn’t have in our department or our station which may prevent it from happening again or help prepare an organization for the potential.
Ultimately I just want 30 seconds back, just Mike and I, in the street, sometimes laughing, sometimes talking, sometimes not saying a word but always side by side returning to quarters together.
Operationally after a line of duty death on an incident, the fire service takes all available approaches to answer a single question “what happened to the firefighter we lost?” I can tell you that since I lost a firefighter to suicide I have a lot of questions; what happens to us when we become firefighters? What happens to us while we are firefighters? What happens to us when we lose our firefighters?
The answers may forever elude us, just as I may never know why Mike walked off. I hope that by sharing this in the open I can take now take another step back towards the officer he pushed me to be. As painful as it has been to process the loss of Mike it has made me realize how important it is to do my best to keep this from happening to us again and that starts with me and then my crew. I have to lead myself out of this before I can lead the rest of us back to who we were before we were left behind.