In his Opening Address on Wednesday, Chief Bobby Halton, FDIC International education director and editor in chief of Fire Engineering, highlighted the concept of “honor to duty” and described how it has served as a thread that has connected the fire service and other uniformed services with ancient times and will continue to connect them with the future.
Halton extended an invitation to the audience: “As a community that has answered the call to duty, let’s celebrate the qualities and virtues that undergird our profession and other uniformed services. Let us revel in natural goodness, honor, principles, and morality. Above all, let us honor duty, which compels men and women in uniform to be honest and forthright.”
Examples of individuals who have preserved the continuity of these qualities and virtues Halton presented included the following:
• The king of Uruk (the part of the world then known as Iraq), who details in The Epic of Gilgamesh, his “unrelenting efforts to complete his duties both sacred and ordinary.” The Epic, written on clay tablets, is considered the first record of the written word.
• World War II’s Lt. Col. James “Maggie” Megellas, the most decorated officer in the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division (and his H company).
• World War II’s George S. Patton, American task force commander of the third Army, who wrote in his diary, “I hope that, whatever comes up, I shall be able to do a full duty ….”
• The “thousands upon thousands of patriots who fought and died to defend their countries and liberate others” because they knew it to be their duty.
• Bob “Bullfighter” Murray, a 5 Points junior firefighter at the age of 15 and an Army enlistee in the Viet Nam War at the age of 19, who jeopardized his life to save his fellow soldiers.
• Lt. Timmy “Jobs” Stackpole, Lt. James Blackmore, and Capt. Scott LaPiedra, Fire Department of New York, who responded to a four-alarm fire in a Brooklyn rowhouse on June 5, 1998. They entered the well-involved building to rescue a trapped woman. Without warning, the floor collapsed. They were trapped in fire for almost a half-hour, being burned alive. Lt. Blackmore died at the scene. Capt. LaPiedra suffered serious burns; he died 29 days later. Jobs, burned over 30 percent of his body, was near death for many days and in the burn unit for 66 days. Although his injuries qualified him for a retirement pension, he returned to full duty in March 2001 after years of painful surgeries and skin grafts. He was promoted to captain in September 2001 and was among the first to arrive at the World Trade Center site on 9/11. He led his crew into 2 World Trade Center. Searchers found his body a week later. Today, Timmy Stackpole’s Foundation’s mission statement reflects his beliefs, dedication, and spirit: “It is our God-given mission that in times of trouble, grief, sorrow, trial and disaster, each of us has an obligation, a duty to reach out to help others, in any way we can.”
All these individuals, Halton said, exhibited the attitudes, courage, achievements, selflessness, mores, and principles comparable to those of the brave men and women in the audience and their counterparts in other uniformed services. Thus, we continue that long line of ordinary citizens, firefighters, who heard that call to duty and were compelled to answer. We must tell our stories to provide a foundation of honoring and completing our duties for those who come after us with the same level of passion and devotion as the king of Uruk, our forefathers, and our brothers who died on 9/11. “You can’t answer the call to duty half-way,” Halton stressed. “You are either all the way or not at all.”
May Feel Out of Step
Despite this centuries-long continuity, there are signs that may lead us to feel that things are not the same as they were in the past—that people are different, Halton related. “The world can seem frightening and uncertain at times. Today, it is not fashionable to speak of virtues like duty, obligation, fidelity, and responsibility in public; but whether it is fashionable or not, just and noble men and women in uniform know it is critical to us and to our nation that we talk about and celebrate morality, obligation, patriotism, honor, and devotion to duty.”
Firefighters who embrace duty as a necessary virtue can feel conspicuous and out of step with society sometimes and at times may believe that the world is upside down–that values, practices, and beliefs we always thought were unassailable have long since lost their vitality and many things we thought were inconceivable, impossible, and intrinsically un-American are now universally established, Halton said. But, he added, “We never feel that way when we are among our fellow firefighters, our fellow warfighters, our fellow law enforcement officers, our fellow patriots.”
Halton encouraged the audience by citing from history. “Since the beginning of time, there have been those who predicted that the end was near and that the previous generation was better than the present one. Even Plato lamented that the best days of his generation were in the past, that the future was dark and without hope,” he explained. “This is a common human reaction.”
“However,” Halton continued: “fear and fatalism have always been countered by the rare few who embraced principles and character in the way they lived their lives, by the choices they made, by the examples they set, and by their efforts to complete their duties. Therefore, we need not fear for the future of our nation or the Fire Service. We need only to do our duty and trust in divine providence …. You treasured few gathered here today, you have skin in the game. You have real-world experience and appreciate the value of your dearly won experience. Your critics believe that their knowledge of the world is correct, and they are surprised when it isn’t. We ordinary firefighters honor Nature’s call to duty out of respect for the goodness and dignity of each individual. That American sense duty has been embraced as our true colors by firefighters with unbridled enthusiasm generation after generation …. They reflect the sentiments of the Roman Stoic Philosopher Seneca the Younger: “Invest in good actions: Everything you have can be taken away… except good deeds and virtue.”
We blessed few are most honored trustees of an amazing heritage, which we dare not blemish. We will answer the call, and we go all the way. America’s firefighters will complete our duties sacred and ordinary. We are America’s Bravest.