Last Friday night I was sitting in my living room, preparing to go to bed and get some rest in preparation for a busy weekend. Being somewhat of a news junkie, I picked up my iPhone to check the latest local headlines before retiring for the night. I was hoping, in particular, for a positive update on a story I read earlier in the evening; that two Chicago firefighters had been seriously injured on the job. Throughout the evening, my mind flashed back to the morning of December 22, 2010 when I watched a live television feed of Chicago firefighters desperately trying to rescue their colleagues from an abandoned building that had collapsed in flames. Corey Ankum and Edward Stringer lost their lives that day trying to find people that may have been trapped in the building. I hoped for a different outcome this time, but a few hours after the story initially broke, a lone headline appeared on the first page of my display; A HERO FOR OUR CITY.
A career as a public servant can be the most challenging and gratifying, yet still most frustrating experience in the life of a person who chooses that path. At the time of this writing, I have completed a little more than half of a “Citizens Police Academy” offered by my village police department. It’s a 30-hour class, spread across 10 weeks, designed to educate community members about the many facets of law enforcement and police operations in this Chicago suburb. To simply say this experience has been eye-opening would be quite understated. I’ve gotten to know and respect the person behind the badge. I understand better the complex and immense responsibilities that come with that badge. I learn of officers who put their personal life on hold for decades because of their unwavering dedication and tenacity for the job. I hear their stories of success, of failure, and of sheer terror as they recall events that escalated out of control and placed them in grave danger. I try to understand how they cope with these pressures while facing the ever-flowing spigot of criticism which comes, often rightfully so, from those who they have sworn to serve and protect.
All our public servants, from our local police and firefighters to our President, face a level of intense scrutiny that most of us never will. The election season produces a staggering amount of criticism, misinformation, disagreement, and even vitriol. There is no end to the stories of those who have failed in their civic duties and deserve their downfalls. But there are also countless stories of heroes that will never be told. This month, as we make important decisions about our public leaders and celebrate the national holiday of Thanksgiving, we should remember those who have set aside their own interests for ours.
Throughout the weekend that followed, the details of Friday night emerged. Captain Herbert Johnson had been recently promoted to his position after more than 30 years of service. “Herbie” was so well-known and loved by his colleagues that he “didn’t need a last name.” He traveled to New York after the September 11th terror attacks to assist with the rescue efforts at ground zero. During his career, he received the state’s Medal of Honor for bravery, the highest honor given to Illinois firefighters. He was the first one to enter the burning home on the city’s south side, and without hesitation, he climbed the stairs to extinguish the flames at their source. But even a veteran with decades of experience could not predict the next moment. The local news coverage noted the cause of Captain Johnson’s death in sanitized terms – smoke inhalation and airway injuries resulting in cardiac arrest. The raw truth was that he was caught in the attic as it exploded in flashover, the 1000-degree heat burning through his protective equipment, scorching his face, and searing his lungs shut. He likely died in unimaginable agony. While these details are difficult to hear, they are possibilities that every firefighter knows he may face someday, and they offer a stunning reminder of the bravery and selflessness that characterize our rescuers.
Thank you, Herbie, for your willingness to help others at any cost. Chicago will be grateful forever. Thank you to all the other heroes whom I’ll probably never have the privilege to meet or to hear about. I may hear hundreds of accounts of politics, failure, and criticism in my lifetime, but yours are the stories that I will always remember.