I always think of my father, uncles, and grandfather on this day. But I don’t have the luxury of forgetting once this day is over.

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Photo Credit: Bill Friedrich.

This post originally appeared on Facebook.

This is a photo of my Dad, taken in 2010. He’s retired now after serving over three decades with the Chicago Fire Department. Both of his brothers, and their father before them, served with the CFD. It was their job, every day, to save lives. Even if it put their own in danger.

I always think of them on this day. On this day, 17 years ago, 412 emergency response personnel died responding to the September 11 attacks. 343 of them were fighters (including one chaplain and two paramedics). While everyone else ran out of the buildings and away from the scenes, these men and women ran in. They helped an estimated 13,000-15,000 people evacuate, saving the lives of the evacuees at the cost of their own.

My father remembers that day. He remembers the heightened state of security in downtown Chicago, because at the time nobody knew if there were other planes in the air with other targets. He remembers every one of his fellow firefighters waiting for the call that would summon them all to make the same sacrifice the NYFD made–a call that, thankfully, never came.

I always think of my father, uncles, and grandfather on this day. But I don’t have the luxury of forgetting once this day is over. My cousins and I as kids always knew, instinctively, that our fathers one day might not come home. But we never asked them not to go. If they stayed home, people died. It’s literally that simple.

No one asks my father to walk out onto the field at sporting events.

No one puts his face on the Jumbotron and asks a crowd to pay their proper respect with wild cheering.

No one offers him a discount at stores.

No one stops him on the street or in restaurants to thank him for his service.

And still he served, for three decades, saving lives.

I am the son, the nephew, and the grandson of firefighters–people who did not hesitate to look Death in the face, who stole people right out of Death’s hands, who understood the full and terrible meaning of the word sacrifice, who had more courage than I have ever known. Not a single day goes by that I’m not struck by just how incredible they were–and still are, even though they’re all retired and are nowhere near perfect (sorry guys). I don’t know how many people’s lives they directly saved–I’ve never asked, and I wonder if they themselves know, if they even kept count.

The next time you see a firefighter out on the street, or in a store, or eating at a restaurant, or at a community event: thank them. Thank them for the legacy of the 343 firefighters who died on this day 17 years ago. Thank them for their selflessness. Thank them for saving lives. They don’t work for the thanks, but they’ll appreciate it. And so will we: their children, their nieces and nephews, their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren.

God of earth and air, water and fire, height and depth, we pray for those who work in danger, who rush in to bring hope and help and comfort when others flee to safety, whose mission is to seek and save, serve and protect, and whose presence embodies the protection of the Good Shepherd. Give them caution and concern for one another, so that in safety they may do what must be done, under your watchful eye. Support them in their courage and dedication that they may continue to save lives, ease pain, and mend the torn fabric of lives and social order; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
–Prayer for Emergency Workers, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 85.

Featured Image: “CFDoor” by Eric Allix Rogers is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

This is a photo of the door of the firehouse in the neighborhood I grew up in. The red and green lights flanking the door come from the maritime tradition and appear on most Chicago firehouses and apparatus.

People I Admire Most

I’m supposed to be writing about my personal experiences with Trinity Lutheran Seminary’s Summer Seminary Sampler (like here, here, and here).

I’m also supposed to be writing about the DOMA and Voting Rights Act decisions recently made by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Instead, I’m writing about the people I admire most.

News of the tragedy in Arizona, the death of 19 firefighters in the line of duty, hit me hard. My father is a Chicago firefighter. His father is a retired Chicago firefighter, and both of his brothers are Chicago firefighters (his oldest brother recently retired). My father was the first among his brothers to join the department.

Chicago Firefighter Looks Up
Chicago Firefighter Looks Up (Photo credit: Nicole Yeary)

One day, when I was a little kid, my mother woke me up to tell me that my father had been in an accident. He came into my room in a cast and on crutches, which is a pretty weird and scary thing for a little kid. A piece of burning building fell on his foot and broke his ankle, which required a steel plate and left him with an on-again/off-again limp.

When I was a few years older, he received an award for valor. I can never remember which award it was–Lambert Tree / George Harrison, Firefighter of the Year, or something else. It hangs on the wall above his dresser, right above the change jar and the Eddie Belfour puck and sports card my sister and I got him.

In college, I saw the movie Ladder 49, a movie about a Baltimore firefighter. That night, I called my father and was grateful that he didn’t pick up–I don’t know if, at that time, I could have told him how I felt in person (we’ve talked about it since). I left a message saying how proud I was to be a firefighter’s son, but on the inside, I finally realized that any day could be a day he wouldn’t come home. The firefighters in Arizona knew that one day, they could lose their lives; but on the morning of June 20, 2013, they didn’t know it would be that day. They did what they always do: run toward the danger while everyone else ran away and try to keep them safe. My cousins, my uncles’ kids, came to similar realizations somewhere along the line too, and it’s one of the many bonds we share.

I have more admiration for firefighters than I do any other organized group of people. Firefighters and their EMT partners have one job–to save the lives of others. And they do it without killing and without becoming idols.

My admiration isn’t reserved just for firefighters. I admire anyone who willingly puts themselves in harm’s way for the sake of another, and who does so without violence. I admire anyone who has the courage to stand up for what they believe in, without attacking others. I admire those who follow their hearts and can give society the finger when society tries to lock them into being something else. And I admire all of us who are deeply, deeply flawed–not just in an abstract, “oh that’s nice” way, but with actual flaws that cause us to lash out and hurt others–and are still able to face the world every day through grace.

St Florian's Cross
St Florian’s Cross (Photo credit: Ben Woodruff) Not exactly like my pendant, but close.

A week after my seminary graduation, a package arrived from my sister. Inside was a pendant, a firefighter’s Florian Cross (commonly mistaken as a Maltese Cross), with an inscription from Paul’s letter to the Philippians on the back: “Christ strengthens me.” It was the most emotional gift I received. It reminds me of the flawed people whom I love and admire, and spurns me on towards my goal of becoming a fire department chaplain somewhere, someday.

These are the people I admire most.

Featured image: “Chicago Fire Dept.” by Trey Ratcliff is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.