By Bill Carey
1 February 2022
The medal of honor has been awarded to over 3,000 service members since it was first awarded in 1863. Nine chaplains have been given this highest honor. While chaplains do not actively participate in fighting many unselfishly place themselves alongside their brothers and sisters in the hostilities to help care for them, pray over them, offer them ammunition, medical aid, food, whatever is needed while exposed, injured or killed. Their service is to serve others.
January has left us with a total of five firefighter fatalities inside burning structures. The number is startling when compared to the total of eight for the whole of 2021. It could be said that the fire service may top 2021. It could also be said, if we look at the number from 2017, that we could go the rest of the year and remain at five. One thing that is certain is that we do not know either with any certainty.
These recent deaths involving abandoned buildings have had their share of commentary. The usual questioning of the actions of the victims, their leaders and departments is met by the usual replies of duty and sacrifice. Individuals in echo chambers throughout the fire service commiserate with each other over loss, anger, insult and identity.
There is a point we need to be aware of, a point where we must stop the hypocrisy on each side. If you state that no firefighter should ever enter an abandoned building due to the risk, then you cannot with the same mouth applaud those firefighters who do and who successfully rescue strangers. You cannot have it both ways. You may think you can and if you do then you contradict yourself and make your argument illogical. Basing you argument on your interpretation of a one dimensional photo from the scene, after the fact is ignorant and discourteous.
With the same mouth we scold the victim when they are dead or embrace them as a brother when they are heroic. It cannot be like that and be considered rational.
We want to quantify and qualify actions in tragic fires according to our finite education and experience and offer solutions totally based on our emotional intellect without any regard for understanding the history, context and victims. If the situation is not tragic but heroic then we easily indulge ourselves in the praise given to the rescuers through a cheap association of brotherhood.
Instead we must settle on understanding that for these recently fallen and those prior and those to come, we must agree that they acted out of service for their citizens and for one another. Service is the point where can all agree that the end result, tragic or heroic, was for a greater purpose than self-preservation. It is the point where we say that size-up, profiling, smoke reading, flow-path understanding, and culture all take a back seat to accepting that the victim, or the hero, saw something, felt something, that led them to make a choice, a choice without the benefit of hindsight, without the luxury of time.
Vincent Capodanno quit college to join the seminary and serve God. In 1958 he was ordained as a priest and then served as a missionary in Taiwan. Six years later he volunteered to join the Navy and left for Vietnam as a chaplain in the 1st Marine Division. Lieutenant Capodanno earned the nickname “Grunt Padre” because he lived, ate, and slept in the same conditions as the Marines in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. His service to his fellow Marines was partnered with his service to the local South Vietnamese people. When his tour was finished he requested a six-month extension.
On 4 September 1967 during fighting near Dong Son Lieutenant Capodanno left the command post and went to where several companies of Marines, including his own, were taking heavy fire, numerous casualties, and were about to be overrun. Capodanno went about the fighting serving wounded and dying Marines and was wounded himself by an exploding mortar round. He refused help and continued to serve his Marines when he was killed only yards away from an enemy machine gun while rushing to reach and help a wounded Navy corpsman and two wounded Marines.
Lieutenant Capodanno could have stayed at the command post. He also could have left South Vietnam when his tour was completed. Something within him though placed others above himself. That is the basic essence of service. You consciously and willingly decide to do something for someone else at some sacrifice to yourself. Sometimes the risk and reward matter and sometimes they do not. In the case of Capodanno and the firefighters in Baltimore and St. Louis we can only assume to know what was in their hearts. We won’t be 100 percent correct.
The state of our hypocrisy must end regarding abandoned buildings, squatters, profiling, and risk. If the firefighters in Baltimore and St. Louis had rescued someone that society, and even some of us judge as worthless, they would be hailed as heroes and rightly so. That was not the case and so some of the same people who would champion them criticize them. Doing that makes the victim’s acts of service, the something in their heart that places others above themselves, small. We should certainly be eager to learn from them, but do it without an incriminating eye. We do not know what other on-duty deaths we will see in the rest of the year. There will be more and with them will come grief, doubt, praise and reflection.
The victims didn’t have the hindsight we have, but they did have heart and a spirit to serve to the last minute.
Photographs courtesy of the Department of Defense.