How my fire chief father’s suicide changed my life
Firefighter Andrew Puckett’s life turned upside down when his father ended his life in 1999; he now tries to live in the moment and help fellow firefighters with depression
By Andrew Puckett
Has there been a specific event in your life that made you the person you are today?
I was born into a family of firefighters and public servants. My story began before I was even born.
But, most importantly, my father’s story ended where mine began.
After my father’s service in the Air Force, he returned to his hometown of Richlands, Va. My father was trained to become a police officer, but he quickly learned that it was not the job for him.
He started a sporting goods store and volunteered for the Richlands Volunteer Fire Department.
Having a good grasp on accounting, they voted him in as treasurer/lieutenant. He recruited his two younger brothers to join the department, and quickly became the fire chief.
On the night I was born, my father drove his chief’s car to the hospital while my uncle, an EMT, tended to my mother. I was almost born right there in the chief’s car. And my uncle who almost delivered me later became the chief of police.
Years later, I became the firehouse kid. When the pager would go off, I was first to the chief’s car. In September 1998 I became a member of the Richlands Fire Department — the month of my 18th birthday.
During my official training, my father and uncle, a captain, would drill me and the other recruits in what it would take to become a firefighter. One of my favorite memories is when my dad and I went in together to make an attack on a fire. I was on the nozzle and my dad was my back-up.
Life and death
Most memories fade as time passes. But I’ll never forget April 20, 1999.
On that dreaded day, my father walked into the woods and used his old police service revolver to end his life. He never got to see me get my Firefighter I certificate.
After his death, I stayed in my hometown and found myself doing nothing more than going to school and working at the fire station. I never thought of doing anything with my life other than staying in Richlands.
One day, my uncle pulled me aside and told me that my life was not meant to be so unhappy and in my father’s shadow. I took that as a wake-up call to continue my education and get my bachelor’s degree.
I attended Radford University in Virginia and majored in criminal justice and minored in psychology. My psychology minor was where I spent many hours learning about depression and suicide.
While in college, my sister introduced me to Camp Comfort, now Comfort Zone Camp. Comfort Zone Camp is a bereavement camp that transforms the lives of children who have experienced the death of a parent or sibling.
The camp grew after the tragedy of 9/11 when Time Magazine published a story about the camp. Now Comfort Zone Camp has partnered with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and the Hal Bruno Camp.
This is where I heard the most profound statement of my life — and it was told to me by an 11-year-old.
To paraphrase, it goes: I am sad I have lost my loved one, but if they were still here I would have never been here with everyone.
Back to the brotherhood
After graduating from college, I started working for a police department in central Virginia, but found that the brotherhood I grew up with was not the same.
After leaving the police department, I moved to Maryville, Tenn. I later married my high school sweetheart and we now have twin sons who are 6 years old.
One thing that always impressed me about the brotherhood of the fire service is that at a young age they are your uncles and aunts. But once you start wearing the badge, they become your brothers and sisters to the end.
My father was “that” guy in the fire department. He was always there for you no matter what.
I have missed him on every occasion that is important to a person’s life: wedding, birthdays, first day of kindergarten for my sons and the day I was pinned with my lieutenant’s trumpet.
But like I learned at Comfort Zone Camp, I miss having him but I would never substitute the life I have. All of this is because of all he taught me — even in his death.
And as firefighters, we see the best and worst of human life.
If I’ve learned anything, it is to always be open to talking. You never know how your brother or sister may be dealing with something. And by giving them an open door may give them the path to help.