I have always been in awe of people who did the work of heroes: police officers, fire fighters, military. Every single time I have witnessed a terrible disaster, whether personally or seeing coverage on television, I always have admired the bravery and selfless attitudes modeled by these men and women who rushed into the face of disaster without a thought given to their own safety.
In 1995, loved ones of mine were victims of a terrible house fire — one survived, but was badly burned; one was killed. This fire took place in a rural area in Marshall County, Minnesota, and volunteer fire departments and rescue personnel from both sides of the Red River banded together to fight the fire and try and save the lives of those trapped in the house.
In the dark days following this fire, I wished I could properly express how grateful the rest of the family and I were for their service and bravery. Some of these volunteers were boys I went to high school with — one in particular was someone I had always thought of as big and tough, strong and cocky. He had a quick wit and a big smile and a booming laugh. He was someone I always considered immune to distress, despair, or tragedy. I remember the day after the fire, I witnessed that big, brave boy — now a man, cling to a relative of the victims, his chest heaving while he wept. He was apologizing for not being able to get the one victim out, he felt personally responsible for the tragedy. We saw him as a hero, he saw himself as falling short — fatally.
I made a point to reach out to him, to hold him and look him in the eyes and tell him that he was amazing and how grateful we were to him. I learned later that this tragedy stayed with this man for a very long time. I was told of him being unable to sleep, that he doubted his abilities, and that he became hypervigilant to any tragedy — expecting the very worst at any time. My heart broke for him. It still does.
There was no name to put on what this man was going through — no diagnosis. Now we know — it is called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is real. It is terrible. It is MISUNDERSTOOD. It is mocked. It is widely dismissed.
If a fireman is trapped in a burning building and a ceiling caves in on them and they are burned — are they told to “get over it”? Are they asked “what the hell did you expect when you decided to become a fire fighter?” Are they told that they are “weak”? Of course not, that would be preposterous. Why then, I ask, is an illness that can be just as debilitating as a burn injury that is a direct result of employment (just like a burn), talked about in hushed tones and not taken seriously? Why is an injury to the mind perceived as a mere shadow to any injury to the body?
I recently have been given the opportunity to fight for the rights of one of these heroes. I am simultaneously humbled and invigorated by the battle — one which I am prepared to see through to the day this hero receives justice. This hero is strong. This hero is smart. This hero is a survivor. This hero is unsung, but I will not rest until that changes — for the heroes everywhere who fight the good fight — even after the fire is out.