LETTER: How do you do it?
How do you do it? How do you start each day with a full measure of devotion to protect and lead in our community?
How do you give up your nights and weekends, away from those you love, to prepare for what might happen – and probably will? How do you show up and put yourself in danger for strangers? How do you, some as volunteers, pay for your own training, receiving little in return, so you can be ready when called? How do you, some in your 70s, still give your time freely because the experience you have acquired is too valuable to forego?
With the anniversary of 9/11 fresh upon my heart, I’ve been thinking a lot about those of you who serve. I’ve thought of you as I’ve remembered that tragic day filled with great loss and suffering 19 years ago – but seeming like only yesterday. That day I saw Americans, united together as “one nation under God.” I witnessed a sense of pride in serving our fellow citizens and supporting those among us who give their all to help others.
Last week, here in Ozark County, I witnessed that same spirit of dedication on display firsthand.
My son and I were in one of the first vehicles to come upon an accident on Highway 5 between a car and a truck, both totaled. I was instantly overwhelmed by the sounds of pain and the groaning, the imagery of mangled people and vehicles.
I was so close to the scene I could see the eyelashes of those in the car. I lifted my hands to the heavens and prayed to God with all my heart. A man inside the car, stuck between the steering wheel, the air bags and his seat, heard me and started repeating my words out loud. He then translated them into Chinese. I told him help was on the way and tried to encourage him and the others.
Then I spoke with the man sitting on top of his truck to ask about his injuries and about the woman and dog still inside. A week later, I can still hear their cries and see their wounds in my mind.
Time seemed to stand still. I felt helpless. I had no answers, no plan for how to care for those who were suffering.
Then, from both directions and all at once, the first responders came around the curve and over the hill with power. The sound of the sirens and the might of their vehicles announced their arrival. Men and women in uniforms (and without) arrived with a plan well practiced and then swiftly put it into action.
Barely a word was spoken. There was no need for further preparation or clarification. They had clearly planned and practiced for this type of event so many times that, to a spectator, it appeared perfectly streamlined.
The teams came from different towns and disciplines. Local, county, state and other organizations worked together as one: volunteer fire departments, sheriff’s department, highway patrol, ambulances, helicopters, paramedics and EMTs, tow trucks and citizens. And, from a distance, unseen dispatchers steadily summoning and coordinating the personnel needed.
People from the community stood on the sidelines as forced observers, trapped on the two-lane highway with no escape. But just like on 9/11, this community pitched in and saved lives. People were helping to open stuck doors, encouraging the wounded, carrying stretchers, sweeping debris from the road, stopping traffic, helping to make landing zones for helicopters and sharing cold water on the very hot day. My son and I passed out disposable gloves and wished we could do more.
Since that day, I can’t help thinking of you responders who show up amid chaos and say you’re just doing your job.
How many more calls have you been on since the one I witnessed? Who washed the blood from your clothing? What do you do to lessen the sights your eyes have seen? Have you been able to silence the sounds? Do you know peace?
To you first responders who won’t let us call you heroes, but are: I admire you.
What you do requires tremendous dedication. To you brave men and women who are leaders in our community, those of you who rush toward danger and not away – thank you! Your ability to get up the next day and do it all again, with excellence, can only be described as true leadership. Your professionalism and perseverance are beyond explanation.
May you know the thanksgiving of a grateful community. As is written on the firefighter’s commemorative at One Memorial Plaza in New York, “To sacrifice one’s own safety in the service of others requires a courage that is rare. Those among us who do are true heroes.”
A grateful neighbor,