Page 1 of this week’s edition of your favorite weekly newspaper serves as a good object lesson in what’s really important.
In Prairie du Chien, the members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 229th Engineer Company got the sendoff the 229th has never gotten before in any of its previous deployments.
From before I left Platteville for Prairie du Chien Saturday morning until after I came back Saturday evening, the Platteville Fire Department was fighting the Chicago’s Best building fire, trying to put out the fire and save neighboring buildings from catching fire. Seven other fire departments were in Platteville assisting firefighters.
(If the owners of Chicago’s Best, Randy and Judy Grimes, can feel any consolation about Saturday’s fire, it’s because of the number of people who came up to them while I was there and talked about how they enjoyed their food and the atmosphere there, and how they’ll miss it. Three words in my case: Homemade potato chips.)
The similarities of the two events hit me as I was going from one to the other Saturday. I wanted to get to the Potosi Brewery’s Brewfest and the Potosi Legion steak fry, but the first two events crowded out the other two. Both Brewfest and the steak fry are worthy events, but sacrificing those two pales in comparison to what Saturday’s main events represent. (As I suspect those who put on the steak fry can attest, since they are veterans.)
The soldiers of the 229th are putting their lives on hold for about nine months while they serve their country in a hostile land. Whatever Platteville firefighters planned to do Saturday, their plans evaporated as soon as the fire siren went off.
I was at the Platteville sendoff ceremony for the 229th’s first deployment in 1990, before Operation Desert Storm. Other than seeing the plaque in the Armory that still amuses me today — that one realizes when going into war that every soldier’s equipment was built by the lowest bidder — the ceremony struck me as deadly serious on everyone’s part.
Saturday seemed less so, a sort-of pep rally (complete with the 132nd Army Band) at the high school followed by what felt like the combination of an end-of-summer party and a family reunion. (However, I didn’t stay around for the goodbyes.)
Part of it may be that many soldiers of the 229th are on their second and even third deployments, so many of them know the drill. Part of it may be that, unlike in 1990, 15 years after the end of the Vietnam War ushered in a period in which the U.S. seemed to actively avoid military conflicts, we’re now used to National Guard units being sent into overseas harm’s way in addition to dealing with disasters at home.
Part of it also may be that, thanks to the Internet and cellphones, staying in touch is easier than for previous generations of soldiers, to the extent access to each is granted by the brass. Still, thinking of missing a year of your children’s growing up is not easy for a parent to ponder, not to mention going a year without seeing your spouse and your other family.
I met the company commander, Capt. Jesse Augustine, after the ceremony Saturday. Augustine’s superiors, the top Wisconsin National Guard brass, spoke highly of him during the ceremony, and after talking to Augustine I understand why. He didn’t seem like a rah-rah kind of leader. He seemed like someone who knew what he was doing, has deep faith in his soldiers, and possesses appropriate confidence but not, as he put it, overconfidence.
I doubt any Platteville firefighter would claim that fighting a fire is like going to war. But one thing soldiers and firefighters have in common is that they do their duty with the possibility they might not survive it. Police officers have that in common too; the plaque in memory of Grant County Deputy Sheriff Tom Reuter in City Park is evidence of that.
I’ve spent a lot of time with the Platteville Fire Department since I started at The Journal because they’ve been quite busy. (Including in training. Based on my experience with the PFD at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College, I can attest that structure fires are hot, loud, potentially claustrophobic, and difficult to accomplish anything in.)
What strikes me about the firefighters is their enthusiasm for what they’re doing, despite the fact that they’re paid nothing. They were dog-tired when I saw them Saturday evening, and yet they were there until nearly midnight, then went back during a flareup on Sunday. Two of them went to the hospital for heat exhaustion Saturday, then came back to the scene. If that doesn’t demonstrate a sense of responsibility to your fellow firefighters, what would?
The Platteville, Cuba City and Lancaster EMS also were at the fire in case firefighters needed medical assistance. They are paid, but only per call. Both firefighters and EMTs spend a lot of time in training, which takes away from anything else they could be doing. That, along with such cultural trends as people working somewhere other than where they live, is why both the Platteville Fire Department and the Platteville EMS are in need of additional firefighters and EMTs. (And Platteville is better off than some area communities, where calls are paged two or three times before enough firefighters or EMTs arrive for the call.)
The Platteville police also served by keeping traffic and bystanders away from the scene, including throughout Saturday and Sunday night. (On Saturday night, the duty of guarding a building that’s not going anywhere except possibly down contrasted with the activities of the well-lubricated of Second Street across the barricaded street.) Police officers get paid for police work, obviously, but police officers don’t go into police work to get rich. And as mentioned three paragraphs ago, there are few lines of work in which your next day at work could be your last day on earth.
We are lucky to have such people serving us.