Author(s): Ken Willette. Published on July 1, 2017.

Armed Service to Fire Service

How veterans and the fire service can support each other

Military service has always been important for my family. My dad served in Europe during World War II. My oldest brother is a Vietnam veteran. My son is an Army officer, twice deployed to Afghanistan and once to Iraq. Tragically, my nephew and godson was killed in 2007 during a mission in Iraq.

Like me, many fire service members have a deep connection to military service. Early in my firefighting career, I had the privilege to work alongside guys who had served in World War II. Later, I watched many of my brother and sister firefighters return from Vietnam, sadly not to a hero’s welcome but to lives shaped by struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Today, we are seeing a new generation of veterans making their way home, many still carrying the scars of their service. Fortunately, a great many have found solace within the fire service, and our ranks have been strengthened because of it.

One example is Chief Scott Carrigan of the Scipio Township Fire Department in Albany, Ohio, who I met at a Fire Department Instructors Conference this year. Carrigan stopped by the NFPA booth and we chatted for several minutes about his department. As he was leaving, I saw the patch of the First Cavalry, stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, on his ball cap, the same unit my nephew served in when he was killed. Carrigan told me that he had also served with the First Cav, and in fact his unit had replaced my nephew’s. Both units “were hit pretty hard,” he said. Something in the chief’s tone struck me as we spoke, and I asked him how he was doing, hoping he would open up about his return home. He looked me straight on and said he was doing better now because of the fire service.

Carrigan’s return home had not been easy, he told me. Sleepless nights, anger, and a feeling of disconnection led him to reach out to the U.S. Veterans Administration for assistance, but the nearest facility was a long drive and the program relied mostly on the use of strong medications, which was not the kind of help Carrigan wanted. The cycle of anger and sense of not belonging continued. On the advice of a friend, he joined his local fire department. In the fire service he found a sense of duty, and a renewed energy that comes with engaging an opponent and from the camaraderie among department members, he said. “The fire service saved my life,” he told me, without hesitation.

The benefits of recruiting veterans into the fire service work both ways. Veterans returning with PTSD have forced the fire service to confront the illness and have helped dispel long-held stigmas about PTSD, which impacts many responders regardless if they served in the military. As a result, the veil of secrecy around the topic has been removed and mental health is now finally becoming an acceptable topic of conversation in firehouses. More firefighters than ever are being taught to recognize signs of PTSD, and are given information about the resources available for support and assistance.

Fire departments clearly see the value in the skills and experiences of our veterans, as evidenced by their targeted recruitment efforts. All 49 of this year’s Boston Fire Department recruits are veterans, and many other cities have similarly high percentages of veterans joining.

From my perspective as a former fire chief with proud military ties, all of this is good news. We owe a great deal to soldiers for their sacrifice, and they have so much to offer in the fire service. Thankfully, the tradition of veterans in the fire service is still as strong and necessary as ever.

KEN WILLETTE is fire service segment director at NFPA.