Wineka column: Isler, Monroe honored at national service
EMMITSBURG, Md. ó It was a quiet Sunday morning.
A couple of hours before thousands would fill the grounds, the National Fire Academy campus stirred only with the mournful warmup of bagpipes and a rolling tatter of drums.
Early arriving honor guard members straightened their uniforms and tightened their white gloves. Someone performed sound checks on the public address system.
Volunteers with rags went down row after row of plastic folding chairs and wiped them dry of the morning moisture. Others followed behind them putting a remembrance program on each seat.
A breeze gently pushed several of the huge American flags suspended high in the air from ladder trucks. The wind also was enough to send a continuing stream of leaves to the ground.
A few firefighters walked alone, looking for the names in brick of fallen friends. The brick Walk of Honor connects the campus chapel to the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial, where black cloth still draped the plaque listing 103 names of firefighters.
When all the seats were filled later in the morning, the black cloth would come off honoring men and women who had answered their last alarms.
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The names of Salisbury (N.C.) firefighters Victor Isler Sr. and Justin Monroe now live in this Maryland countryside, tucked next to the Catoctin Mountain range and basking as always in a harvest moon.
Every fall, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation holds the official tribute to all firefighters who died in the line of duty the previous year. It’s a weekend affair that mixes moving public ceremonies with special programs for surviving family members and co-workers.
On Saturday evening, a candlelight service honored the fallen firefighters ó a luminary for each.
The luminary bag holding Isler’s candle, which became a keepsake for his family, was decorated with hockey stick decals and hand-drawn art such as a heart with wings.
Monroe’s bag included decals of duck, deer, shotguns and shells, reflecting his love for hunting. Fishing was not ignored, either, thanks to the decals of a tackle box and rod.
The bag decorations also featured fire equipment and turnout gear for both Salisbury men, who died from heat and smoke exposure after being caught in the Salisbury Millwork Co. fire March 7, 2008.
“Real Heroes Keep Moving Up the Ladder,” one of the messages on Monroe’s bag said.
Though Isler, 40, and Monroe, 19, were a generation apart, they were bound together by their passion for the fire service ó something all of us take for granted.
“We can sleep because they don’t,” said U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, House majority leader and representative for Maryland’s 5th Congressional District.
Firefighters such as Isler and Monroe are always there, valuing their duty more than their lives.
“We don’t hope they are,” Hoyer said. “We know they are.”
Chief Kelvin Cochran of the U.S. Fire Administration said it still another way for the men and women remembered over the weekend.
“All give some; some give all.”
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Upwards of 100 people from Rowan County and Salisbury traveled to Emmitsburg, including the families of Isler and Monroe, 35 Salisbury firefighters and some in their families, officers from Miller’s Ferry (where Monroe also was a volunteer firefighter) and honor guard participants from the Rowan County Fire and Rescue Association.
The Salisbury group honored Isler and Monroe in a special way Friday, stopping at the Arlington National Cemetery where Fire Chief Bob Parnell, Rick Fleming and Bob Thompson were able to lay a wreath in their honor at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Sunday’s memorial service was filled with pageantry, music and tradition. Bagpipers from across the country performed as one solid unit. The longest honor guard recessionals ever seen had opening and closing duties.
A flock of doves were released near the end of the service.
Congressional and U.S. fire officials placed the presidential wreath at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial, and numerous readers told the stories of some of the most recently lost firefighters as American flags, roses and keepsake medallions were presented to each family, one by one.
Vic Isler’s widow, Tracy, and their children Vic Jr. and Ryan-Ann, received their flag. Justin Monroe’s parents, Eddie and Lisa, and their son, Mark, walked to the front to receive the flag in Justin’s honor.
The flags presented have either flown over the U.S. Capitol or at the memorial itself.
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The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation provides travel, lodging and meals for immediate survivors of the lost men and women.
Most of the family members stayed in Frederick, while others coming in for the weekend lodged in nearby Gettysburg, Pa.
The plaques that surround the memorial date back to 1981 and contain the names of more than 3,300 lost firefighters.
This year, the deaths in 36 different states occurred from vehicle accidents, falls, helicopter crashes, building collapses, training incidents, heart attacks, burns and in natural disaster responses.
North Carolina and Oregon had the most firefighter fatalities in 2008 with nine each.
Each year, beyond the fatalities, firefighters also suffer 80,000 injuries in the line of duty.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology supports a research agenda aimed at preventing line-of-duty deaths. But they still happen, about one every third or fourth day.
The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation has set a goal to reduce the annual deaths by 25 percent in five years.
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Lisa and Eddie Monroe said the weekend was both beautiful and overwhelming.
It meant a lot to them.
“It’s sharing with other families,” Lisa said. “You see so many other people going through the same thing.”
No matter what you think you’ve gone through or how rough it’s been, Eddie added, you realize it’s just as bad or worse for many others.
Lisa said the weekend helps survivors know the country is appreciative of what firefighters do every day.
The memorial service weekend isn’t meant to be closure for the families left behind. This is a journey they are all taking together and, for a couple of days, they just happened to spend it side by side, not scattered across the country.
The sobering note for all of them is knowing that come next fall, other families will be here.
Under one more harvest moon.