I always remembered those faces. Those nameless faces.
After leaving active-duty service some five years later, I immersed myself into the life of a wildland firefighter. I still find myself amazed at how seamlessly the sounds of full-throttle chainsaws, the roar and crackling of a flaming front, and the chain-gang sound of hand-tools cutting into the earth replaced the sounds of gun fire, tactical maneuver commands, and the loud chaos of combat operations that one may experience as a paratrooper.
I was drawn to the physical training, discipline, mental toughness, aggressive motivation to be better, irreplaceable camaraderie, and of course, the suffering, misery, and intensity. I knew that fighting fire wasn't a job just anyone could do. It required the most of you, and then some. There would be high standards and expectations that could not be faulted. Inherent danger existed and with that, a sense of sharpened skill would be completely required.
There is an amount of pride carried by those who are willing to hike up a mountain each day, to face and battle a force that will not care if they live or die. It is on those mountains where I've found myself depending on crewmembers for the safety of my life, and likewise, the responsibility of knowing they look to me to do the same. Through the heat, smoke, and ash, in those moments with their blackened and sweaty faces, those crewmembers mean everything to me. A white smile from a dirty face, a fist-bump for a job well done, or sitting side by side in silence is all a part of the love and bond built together on the fireline. These commonalities that exist between fire and the military are things that can't be found in any other lifestyle and why, I believe, veterans, like myself, are drawn to fire. Being part of a team, working to accomplish a bigger objective; something I think many veterans miss when they leave the service.
There is a huge component of sacrifice made by the men and women in wildland fire that is familiar in military. We are gone, a lot. We are out of contact, a lot. We face acceptable risk and danger, a lot. Loved ones wonder and stress over us, wondering where we are and if we're safe. Relationships suffer and some fall apart in those weeks and months spent away. Our bodies, while strong, break down over time. Following up demanding years in the military with a career in wildland fire takes a heavy toll on the body and mind. While it may present that much needed mental drive and positive connection for veterans like me, it continues to come at a cost. No coverage for degraded health is offered to seasonal temporary employees, who make up the vast majority of wildland fire crews.
Yet, many of us return, year after year, because the addiction brings us back. The smiles, the fist-bumps, and the smell of smoke brings us back...
Battered, blackened, and exhausted. All my adult life I've walked in line behind another uniform, just like mine, and been one of those nameless faces. Nameless, to the untrained eye. Those who have worn the uniforms, we know that those faces have names, homes, and families. They all have a distinct laugh, a weird talent, embarrassing dance moves, and characters all their own. They feel happiness, they know pain, they get frustrated, they hate, and they love. They are backcountry hunters, rock climbers, ski bums, college students, video gamers, and family members. They share the highest work ethic, the protectiveness of each other, and the humility to sacrifice so much of their personal life to something that rarely gives back. Sacrifice for a bigger objective and a common goal. They work not for themselves, but for the crew and its reputation. They are a cohesive force built for accomplishment. For anyone who has experienced fighting wildfire or serving in the military, we know that those forces are built by the individuals willing to be a part of that team. It is because of those individuals, those leaders, those wildland firefighters, that I continue to find myself proud to be just another one of those nameless faces.