Wishful thinking in the honor of our fallen firefighters

It's nearly impossible not to be moved by the fallen firefighters memorial, and just as impossible to convey that to those who've never felt it

The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation put on the 33rd annual fallen firefighter memorial this past weekend on the campus of the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md.

It's a big deal for the surviving loved ones. And it's a big deal for everyone in the fire service as it gives us time to reflect on the commitment, sacrifice and character of those who died in the line of duty.

It's a big deal for our country as it was covered by the Associated Press and many local media outlets where firefighters were lost. It was a big enough deal for President Obama to send a video message, for Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and FEMA boss Craig Fugate to deliver messages in person, and for U.S. Fire Administrator Ernie Mitchell to carry out his duties at the memorial while on crutches.

The events were somber, respectful, professional and well-orchestrated. It was a classy, first-rate memorial.

This year was the first in what will be a new tradition of flying each flag offered to a fallen firefighter's survivors over the Capitol building. There were 98 such flags handed out this year for the 2013 line of duty deaths and nine other for those from previous years. And of course those 107 names were added to the national memorial.

It was my first time attending in person and videos don't do it justice. Yes, they capture the majesty of the 200 strong pipes and drums corps and the massive American flag hung between two extended towers. They capture the vastness of the 5,000 people fanned out in rows of folding chairs and the uniqueness of each luminaria bag made for each fallen firefighter.

You can watch the videos from Saturday and Sunday here.

The cameras even capture the grieving survivors. But here, it falls short. The reality of the survivor's grief is somehow flattened and dulled on the two-dimensional screen.

In person, it's a gut punch — 107 gut punches to be exact.

I can't remember the names of the inspirational songs or that of those who sang them. And frankly, I expect to soon forget of the president's and other officials' messages.

But I will never forget the faces of the survivors that weekend. I'll never forget the man sobbing uncontrollably or the man sitting next to him and his futile efforts to console. I'll never forget the weeping women with oblivious toddlers fussing and playing.

That grief was like an unforgettable, pungent aroma, one that sits in the back of your throat and instantly returns you to a specific place and time. I heard more than one respond to the "how are you" question with, "I'll be better when this weekend is over."

I wish I could bottle that survivor anguish and mist it into the faces of each firefighter as they are handed their first set of turnout gear. I want them to know that gut punch, to know that the faces and names of those survivors are stand-ins for their parents, spouses, friends and children.

I want each new recruit to get that subtle whiff of grief each time he or she steps off the rig, dons gear, chooses a meal, looks at a seatbelt, fires up a smoke or faces any other potentially life-shortening decision.

I applaud the survivors — both the returning survivors who help shepherd the new survivors through the grieving process and those new survivors who make their very private suffering public. 

I wish there was an effective conduit so that every firefighter could be as deeply moved by the suffering of strangers as I was during my first fallen firefighter memorial.  

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