On December 18, 1944, US Army General and acting Division Commander of the 101st Airborne, Anthony Clement McAuliffe was faced with a decision placed upon him by opposing forces.
He and his troops were defending the town of Bastogne, Belgium surrounded by German forces during what would later be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
The Germans who surrounded this pivotal town wanted the General and his men to surrender and allow them to overtake and control Bastogne.
This put the General in the position of having to make the choice between standing up for what he knew what right or to caving to the forces who had a completely divergent belief system.
He chose the former by sending back a one-‐word reply to the Germans. Nuts!! When the German soldiers saw this message they were a bit confused as to it’s meaning and asked for a plain English explanation. The American soldiers obliged and explained it basically meant, “Go to Hell”.
In making the decision to stand up to the opposing forces the General knew that he may be outgunned at this point but he knew that what he was standing up for was right.
He didn’t let intimidation or fear mongering, disrespect or taunting fog his values or mission.
He simply heard them out and continued on the course he believed was right.
He didn’t do this simply to satisfy his ego however. He did it because he knew through his experience, his education and his military upbringing that it was the right things to do.
He knew if he used the knowledge that was passed down to him, the knowledge he’d gained by his personal experiences and the intelligence he gained through his preparation to meet this enemy that there was a high likelihood that he would be met with success.
So he forged on in spite of what others might say or think. He believed in what he was doing and he believed in the mission and most importantly he believed in his men.
Recently I read an article and an unrelated post on a social media site that I think have some correlation to this story and to how all of this applies to the fire service.
Chief Dave Cline a correspondent for Hooks and Hooligans wrote an article entitled A Fireman! No More? In it he discusses the fact that in order to remain effective as you move through your career in the fire service that you must always remain a fireman.
So what does that mean? Of course I am a fireman. Well are you? In my estimation and I believe in Chief Clines as well we can train anyone to be a firefighter, but it takes a little bit more to be a fireman.
In the article he talks about desire and core values. Do you still have the desires to do the job the way you wanted to do it when you started? Are you willing to live up to the value system that should be at the core of everything the fire service does?
He asks, “Do you think of service before self?”, “Do you think of brothers before self?” He goes on to ask, “If not, then why are you still here?”
So lets look at General McAuliffe. If he weren’t still a soldier, if he didn’t still live the seven core values of the US Army would he have made the same choices?
If he didn’t still believe in the mission and the operational mindset of his service would he have placed himself and his personnel in harms way for the good of the whole?
If his life wasn’t centered on those values and ethos would he maybe have allowed more personal agenda to seep into his decision making process?
What would the outcome have been then? And what could the outcome be for you if you don’t conduct yourself in a similar manor?
Much like the US Military’s mission to protect our citizens from our enemies or those who wish to do us harm, the fire service has sold it’s self as the thin line of protection between fire and the American public.
We’ve said we will be the ones who will be here when you need us most and we will do our very best to protect you and rescue you from danger.
But we cannot do that if we don’t believe in the mission. We cannot effectively do it if we are not fully engaged in being prepared for the day the battle arrives.
Never have we had more opportunity to learn, to share knowledge and support each other than now.
As well, never before have those who don’t fully support the mission or who care more for their personal agendas than our overall well being , had the ability to so quickly attack or degrade those around them for being fully engaged in the mission.
General McAuliffe, could have chosen to surrender against seemingly overwhelming odds. He could have said we gave it our best, but there are to many of them. He could have caved to the opposing forces.
But he didn’t. He believed in his mission and he believed his job was to carry that mission out because he knew so many and so much depended upon him and his men and their actions.
“If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” John E. Lewis
The second article or post that I read recently is from Aaron Fields. In it he wrote, “The truth that many folks prefer not to say aloud, because it is deemed ‘aggressive’, is that there is two choices, solution or problem.”
He goes on to say that because of our vocational choice that we must be the solution.
This couldn’t be more correct.
When the public calls upon us for help there is no one else. When you’re at a fire and its not going well whom do you call? You call more of us. There is no magic department that you can call to bail you out.
Sure you can bring in the assistance of other types of agencies but the responsibility never transfers elsewhere.
Could General McAuliffe have called for help? I am sure he did, but it wasn’t available, or it wasn’t going to be there in a timely fashion. The burden was his.
He didn’t complain about it because he knew it was his when he took the job.
Actually, it was somewhat thrust upon him because he was placed in command of the 101st while his commanding officer, General Maxwell D. Taylor was back in the United States at a conference.
So when the Germans launched their surprise offensive Gen. McAuliffe had no option but to act. His actions, however, were solid because he was prepared to step up when the time came.
He had studied, he had been engaged and again he believed in the mission. He didn’t sit around saying, that will never happen, or that that is someone else’s job.
He knew his responsibilities, and he knew his obligations having signed up to be in the military. And he honored those.
Did he know on which day the responsibility would become his? No. Would it have been easy to say, let’s just hold the fort down till the boss gets back?
Sure. But he didn’t and the world is quite possibly a different place because of it. He honored his obligations and was prepared to rise up when the time came.
Is it easy for us to sit in the station and not be fully engaged in our job? Sure. Is it easy to say that we don’t have to put that much time into training because that just doesn’t happen here or that we already know how to do that? Sure.
Is it right? No. Not if you are honoring your obligations to the community and to the brotherhood and your family.
Not if you are doing the things you that you have told the public and the municipal officials over and over that you are the only people able to carry them out.
You can not sell yourself as the only solution if you are not fully prepared to be the only solution.
You can not sit back, disengage and expect that when the Battle of the Bulge arrives at your front door that you will be prepared for and effective in the mission thrust upon you.
So when Chief Cline asks, “When did you quit being a fireman?” And you can answer that question, then you need to ask yourself his next question, “Why am I still here?”
If you feel the need to be “wheels up” all day, you should ask yourself that question.
If you can’t get yourself to check your rig and equipment, you should ask yourself that question.
If you feel the need to bring others back down to that level so you feel good about yourself, you should ask yourself that question.
If the highlight of your day is to comment negatively on what everyone else is doing when you haven’t really done anything yourself in a long time, then you should ask yourself that question.
The true judge of your character will come when you answer that question and what you chose to do about your answer.
If you answer and say I never quit being a fireman, then your challenge is to keep it up and to continue to improve, learning and doing every day.
If you can identify with any of those questions then you need to look deep within yourself and say, is this for me? Have I become a product of my environment? Am I surrounded by people who are holding me back or building me up?
If you had to today, could you look into a mothers eyes and say I did everything I possibly could have to save your child, or could you look at a brothers family and say we did everything we could have and actually mean it?
When the General made his decision he did so with confidence, he did so knowing the road would be challenging and painful but he did so because he knew it was the right thing to do.
He didn’t stop where he became uncomfortable, he thrived where he became uncomfortable because he knew that this day could come and he was prepared for it.
We all get a bit off course form time to time. And those are the times we should look to our brothers and sisters for support and to bring us back in line. But if we alienate them from us because of the effort that they put in, will they still be there to support you? I’m sure they will but they may never truly consider you their brother or sister again.
When Aaron Fields says, “What makes family is work, those things we have done together. The trials and tribulations create the bond. In order to be brothers and sisters we must be actively involved in the work that creates those bonds. It isn't simply that we work in the same occupation.” He could not have hit the nail more squarely on the head.
Who will you be when your Siege of Bastogne arrives? Who will you have surrounded yourself with? Will you have done enough to perform at your best?
Waiting until that day to answer those questions and take action will be entirely too late.
Your family, the public and your brothers and sisters depend on you to rise up and be prepared every day because much like General McAuliffe you never know when your moment will arrive.