Every year we pause to remember the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. At a recent 9/11 memorial service at Malmstrom Air Force Base, our vice commander reminded the audience that the attacks against America were a “never forget moment.” He also encouraged us to share stories with airmen who may not clearly remember the events or may not have been born before this tragic day.
The day also served as a reminder to me of the importance of our first responders and answering the call.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was assigned to Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. A friend of mine, Don Arias, a former New York City firefighter, was then the 1st Air Force public affairs chief. He had learned his brother Adam, who worked in one of the towers as a financial adviser, was safe. Shortly thereafter, Don learned his brother was one of the heroes of that day.
Adam, first missing, was later found in the rubble near his fellow firefighters on that tragic day 21 years ago. Adam had escaped a tower and then entered it again to save lives. Like Don, he was also a firefighter.
Our new Malmstrom fire chief said firefighters run toward danger when others run away. This is true.
After 9/11, I had the opportunity to serve for a few weeks at 1st Air Force assisting Maj. Gen. Larry Arnold, the commander at the time. First Air Force was the organization responsible for launching combat air patrols in U.S. air space. I saw the combat air patrols and America spring into action. I also saw imagery and sounds from that day I will never forget.
I’ll never forget the haunting sounds and images of people choosing to jump to their death rather than burn alive in the towers. I will never forget how the evil acts of a few can impact so many.
On that day, nearly 3,000 people, including 343 firefighters, lost their lives.
I can’t help but think about our firefighters who remain ready each day to risk their lives for others.
That day gave me tremendous appreciation for our firefighters and consequently stoked the interest, which many passionately share, in building understanding and ensuring they are properly resourced and supported by the Department of Defense and our nation.
After all, at our base alone, our firefighters respond to more than 300 calls each year, to include wildfires and the unexpected. Surprisingly, most of the calls are medical in nature.
This is because we don’t have an ambulatory service on base. Our first line responders for medical emergencies as well as the more traditional fire response falls to our firefighters.
Our fire department has responded to fires, medical emergencies and a host of other outreach and base activities. Last year, our Malmstrom firefighters helped save the city of Great Falls as they partnered to prevent a fire from jumping a firebreak in its path and heading toward the city’s largest medical facility.
Our fire department has responsibilities for the base proper and many parts of Montana. We have 48 mutual aid agreements with various counties due to a shared community responsibility and, in part, a necessity to pool and leverage resources.
Firefighters do the right things for the right reasons. They expose themselves to danger and deal with unseen trauma.
September is suicide prevention and awareness month. The exposure firefighters have to a range of human trauma requires enhanced awareness, vigilance, action and resiliency program options. Processing tragedy and life and death situations can take time, and the psychic fallout can go undiagnosed for years. It can lead to anxiety, depression and sleep issues. Also, consider the stress their families may face, especially when tragedy surfaces.
We need to keep a close watch on this and do whatever we can to make them feel supported and valued, and accept nothing less. This requires the best equipment, training and mental health assistance. Removing barriers is key and no ask is too large or too small.
As we look toward providing support and investment, we must also factor in heightened costs due to inflation, labor and supply shortages. For instance, existing minor construction thresholds governed by various appropriations will continue to impact the ability to invest in future fire department upgrades. The military services and Congress can help here, as well as with enhanced training, equipping and resiliency programs to ensure mission success and care for our emergency responders. This benefits from enhanced understanding, dialogue and advocacy.
Our firefighters adjust to the environments they encounter and make the mission happen. They always answer the call. Where we fail to adjust to our environment and become more flexible in meeting the needs of our people, it impacts readiness. These heroes are often our first call and deserve our sustained support and enduring appreciation. They deserve this and so much more.
Who will answer their call and ensure action before it matters most? We must all do our part.
Col. Chris Karns is the 341st Mission Support Group commander at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana.
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