Veterans turned firefighters reflect on call to service

Local firefighters and veterans, (left to right), Bruce Strong, Andy Whaley, Dave Winchester, and Lt. Col Strauss (not pictured) spoke about their selfless service at the Abingdon Fire House. | U.S. Army photo by Lauren Finnegan, APG News

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – Duty, loyalty, and honor. Those are the values that the men and women who serve our country must possess, whether they wear the military ACU (Army Combat Uniform) or the PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) of emergency responders. These heroes give of themselves so people around the world, the nation, and in our towns sleep soundly, knowing they are safe.

Within our community, we have some men who not only answered the call from their country, but for the fire siren as well. Harford County residents Lt. Col. Jeff Strauss, Bruce Strong, Andy Whaley, and Dave Winchester are all military veterans and active firefighters who volunteer their time to serve the community. During Fire Prevention Week, let’s remember that even when something does go wrong, these men are there for us.

Why They Serve

For these four men, serving wasn’t a choice, it was something they had to do.

Bruce Strong, a member of the Air National Guard and a dual status technician joined the fire service when he was 16. Serving people through some capacity has always been a part of who he is. After volunteering with the fire department for a year and a half, he joined the Air Force and transitioned into the Air National Guard three years later. He also served as a policeman with the Washington, D.C. Police Department for six and a half years. But it wasn’t until several years later that Strong started to get an “itch” to get back on a fire truck

“You see a piece of equipment running down the street, and you want to get home, and you want to find out where they were going. When you love it and it’s gone, you miss it, and I’ve found my way back,” Strong said.

Lt. Col. Jeff Strauss, a senior acquisition officer with the Survivability Evaluation Directorate, U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command, or ATEC, has been in the military for 16 years, but also just recently returned to the fire service. He began volunteering as a part of the Explorers Program when he was 16, and continued until he went to college.

When he arrived at APG after three deployments and settled into a lower tempo job, Strauss said he missed the action of his past positions.

“You crave that little bit of an adrenaline rush, a little bit of excitement, instead of a nine-to-five job,” he said.

Strauss found the Abingdon Fire Company website, and clicked the “Volunteer Today” link. He started helping around the station, until he completed 105 hours of training needed to ride the truck.

Some might question how someone with a 40-hour-a-week job, a wife and three children, who volunteers as a youth football league coach, can carve out 105 hours to train as a volunteer. Strauss said it’s because he has a passion for his work.

“The best part about it is to just be there for your fellow humans,” he said. “ Nobody calls 911 because they’re having a great day. That person, that family, that’s probably the worst day of their life. To come in to be of some service to them, however little it can be, is value added.”

Strauss wants to make it clear, however, that his service isn’t 100 percent selfless.

“What kid doesn’t like to play with fire trucks? We don’t just outgrow that when we’re 40,” he smiled.

Andy Whaley, a civil engineer currently serving with the Army Reserve, had two words to say, “Who else?”

“If these volunteers don’t choose to answer the call, who is going to be there when an emergency hits?”

The hard days

While they gain satisfaction from knowing that what they’re doing matters, it doesn’t make the tough days they face any easier. Dave Winchester, a former Marine, current field instructor for the University of Maryland fire rescue institute, and a 44-year veteran of the fire service, said that he doesn’t talk about some of the tough things that he sees.

“That’s why, particularly today, I don’t care to go on any other crashes,” he said. “I’m tired of seeing destruction. Someone is at fault, someone did this. It’s almost like an anger when you see something that could have been prevented.”

Winchester said he has been trying to prepare his son, who joined the fire service as a cadet two years ago, for all of the things he might encounter on the job.

The bravery that these men show every day when they hear that siren go off is astounding. But it isn’t running into a burning house that scares them the most, it’s responding to accidents on I-95.

“Where I’m concerned and what scares the hell out of me is the number of us that are getting run over on the highway,” Winchester said. “This is speaking about the fire service in general across the country. You go out on 95, and you’ve got people who are not paying attention. They run barricades, they run through cones, they hit firefighters, E.M.S., police. They’re killing them.”

According to the U.S. Fire Administration’s Emergency Vehicle Safety Initiative report from February 2014, firefighters are more likely to be severely injured or killed in a motor-vehicle related incident then fighting a fire. The same is true for law enforcement officers as well as E.M.S. It is an epidemic that somehow the public knows little about.

“I could stand in a burning room all day long, but 95, they don’t give you a break,” Strauss agreed. “I am more scared on 95 than I am anywhere else.”

Their families

With all the danger that these men willingly face as well as the time that they take away from their families to protect the community, you have to wonder the effect that this job has on their loved ones.

Winchester said that he has been married for more than 30 years, so his wife “must be OK with it.” He knows that she has tolerated a lot, and is grateful for that. Not only does she support him on the volunteer runs he makes on the fire truck, but she has been there for him throughout many deployments, including one for Desert Storm.

He said the way that he sees it is that “you are being asked to respond to somebody who’s having the worst day of their life, compared to what you are leaving. You put it all in perspective.”

Whaley said that he tries to “not just focus on specific moments, like sitting down for Christmas dinner.” Any time with his family is just as special, whether it’s taking his kids to the park or having a family movie night.

Lasting friendships

Besides the satisfaction that these men get from helping their community, they also get something else from volunteering: a second family.

Strauss explained the bond that he has with his fellow fireman as the same type of bond that Soldiers have with their platoons.

“I will never forget that guy that I went into that house fire with,” or the guys “that rode on the same Humvee for four days from Kuwait to Baghdad. Those guys I’ll always be friends with,” he said.

It’s those shared experiences that will always connect these men and the talks they have about what they witnessed on that last call that brings them together. , “It’s a cliche but it’s not,” Strong added. “We’re a brotherhood and a sisterhood, we’re family.”

The need for volunteers

That family is always looking for more members to add to its ranks, as the need for volunteers is always there.

“Even if you’re not sure if you want to volunteer, go down to your local fire company and check it out,” Strauss said. “ You don’t have to ride. You can support your local volunteer firefighting companies in many other roles. All you have to do is reach out.”

###

Story by Lauren Finnegan, APG News