Editor’s note: This is one of the episodes in the second season of Upstanders, a collection of short stories that asks what it means to have courage in today’s America. Produced by Howard Schultz and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Upstanders help inspire us to be better citizens.
Standing in front of a classroom of 25 recruits at the Washington State Fire Training Academy, veteran firefighter Michael Washington looked and sounded as strong as they come. At 6 feet, with a bald pate, his linebacker’s frame filling out a navy-blue Seattle firefighter uniform, it was easy to imagine him carrying someone out of a burning building.
The 55-year-old described responding to fiery infernos and horrific car wrecks, being called to a school shooting, and arriving on the scene of a massive, deadly mudslide. He told the red-shirted recruits that in addition to working as a firefighter for 29 years, he had served as an active-duty and reserve Marine for more than two decades and was deployed four times, including to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“As firefighters, as law enforcement, as military, we try to play that tough image,” he said. “I’m tough – and I’m good to go. And we wouldn’t share if we’re having a hard time dealing with something. We internalize it.”
The last thing that someone like him would do, Washington suggested, was disclose his challenges to a room full of fellow firefighters. But that’s what he proceeded to do.
“I was molested when I was about 8,” he said. “I watched my mom almost get killed. If I didn’t wake up and scream – the guy ran out after trying to crush her head with a bottle – she would have died.”
He told them about June 14, 2008, when he was working an overtime shift at Seattle’s Station 16, while his son, Marine Sgt. Michael T. Washington, was deployed to Afghanistan. He saw a white Chevy Suburban pull into the station. A Marine captain was in the front seat. His son’s mother was in the back. Before anyone got out, he said, choking back tears, “I knew that they were telling me that my son had been killed in action.”
He kept a stoic face, even through the wake and funeral. “I wasn’t going to let anyone see me cry. I had to be strong.”
The brave face belied his inner turmoil. “I was going down real fast,” he said.
Washington’s entire adult life has been defined by service.
He joined the Marine Corps after graduating from high school in 1981, craving adventure and wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps. Back then, overseas deployments were rare, and he eventually wound up in a desk job.
After seven years, he decided to seek more excitement. He left the active Marines and joined a reserve light armored reconnaissance battalion, and he became a full-time firefighter in a small Southern California town.
“The fire service had the adventure and camaraderie I was looking for in the military,” he says. “It really spoke to me. We get out here and show up and try to make things right for people when everything is going wrong.”
Most modern firefighters are jack-of-all-trades problem solvers. Only a tiny fraction of emergency calls to most departments across the United States involve fires. Usually, when a call comes in it’s a request for medical assistance. “Our job is all about interaction with the public on what is probably the worst day in their lives,” he says.
Sometimes there is the satisfaction of saving a life, of extricating someone from a car wreck or defibrillating a heart-attack victim, but in big cities such as Seattle – whose department he joined 26 years ago because he wanted even more adventure – almost every week brings another “bad call.” A horrific car accident. A fatal shooting. A domestic assault. An early morning cry from a mother whose infant has succumbed to SIDS. At these times, firefighters and police officers and emergency medical technicians can’t save families from indescribable tragedy.
After the rough calls, Washington, like many first responders of his generation, would return to the station and quietly nurse a mug of coffee. When he got home the next day, he’d have a few extra drinks. He never raised his hand and told his bosses, “I need to sit the next one out,” or, “I need some help.”
“If you did that, the perception was that you were weak,” he says. “If you looked around, nobody else was raising their hands. So why would you do that?”
Firefighters, he says, “like being that person who is running in when others are running out. We’re a macho profession, and we like that. But for too long, it’s been a profession that did not include shedding a tear. It did not include taking a break. It did not include saying, ‘I need to talk to someone.’ When the bell sounds, you need to be the guy who’s ready to go again.”
But the bad calls began to take a toll. There were devastating fires. There were the deaths of children. There was a double murder-suicide in which he followed the first police officer into the residence, searching in vain for a pulse on the victims.
All that came on top of the horrifying memories from his childhood.
And it was followed by the news no father should ever have to receive.
Through it all, he never raised his hand. He never asked for help.
“I’m good to go,” he insisted to his crew.
He began drinking heavily every night. He got into bar fights. He snapped at his colleagues.
Then he turned on himself. He rode his Harley-Davidson motorcycle through red lights, hoping someone would strike him.
He ceased the vehicular Russian roulette after realizing that it would be a firefighter who would have to pick up his corpse. He didn’t want to put one of his buddies through that.
So he walked up to the edge of a bridge. He stepped back when thoughts of his daughter and his grandkids entered his mind. He couldn’t bear causing them pain.
Back at work, though, he stuck to the same refrain: “I’m good to go.”
A group of his veteran buddies eventually concluded he wasn’t all right. But they knew he wouldn’t own up to it. So they hatched a plan.
In 2015, they organized a trip to a post-traumatic stress retreat in California run by a nonprofit organization called Save a Warrior. Washington thought he was going as a counselor to help young veterans dealing with post-combat stress.
When he arrived, he realized he wasn’t there to help, but to get help. The session set him on a path to address his mental health, beginning with the realization that he needed to talk to a counselor about a lifetime of trauma. That led him to stop abusing alcohol, and to stop toying with his life.
While Washington was getting help, he realized his pain needed to be channeled into helping his fellow first responders. He redoubled his work with the Seattle Fire Department’s Critical Incident Stress Management Team. Even as his own stress was eating at him, he had been among a small group of department veterans who helped their fellow firefighters decompress after major events.
His journey of recovery provoked an epiphany: If he wanted to keep fellow firefighters safe, he needed to share his story – to encourage them to seek help if they needed it. He had, and he didn’t fell a bit weaker.
He then did something remarkable in the world of good-to-go firefighters: He opened up. He visited fire stations across Washington state and told them about his childhood abuse, the stress of combat deployments, the years of bad calls, and the death of his son. His colleagues were riveted. And their tough facades gave way to raised hands.
While the challenge of post-traumatic stress among those in the military who deployed to combat zones has received widespread attention in recent years, comparatively little focus has been devoted to the burdens borne by our nation’s approximately 10 million first responders. Washington wanted to address that gap.
His story broke through in ways that efforts by mental-health professionals and department leaders had not. When tough-as-nails Mike Washington opened up, others felt free to do the same.
He began to take his story to the state’s fire academy – to tell recruits that there is no shame in stress. Some of them look at him with disbelief, but he is unperturbed. He knows it’s too early for them to feel stressed out. That will happen later. And when that happens, he wants them to think back to his talk.
“Mike’s story has a very powerful lesson,” says Seattle fire chief Harold Scoggins. “You can be strong and still ask for help.”
When Washington talks to firefighters who have been involved in serious incidents, he gives them his personal mobile phone number with a plea to call him any time, day or night.
“I always answer,” he says. “I think to myself, ‘It could have been me on the other end of the line.’”
He’s the first to acknowledge that he’s not a professional counselor. He offers himself up as a confidential, nonjudgmental colleague, someone who will listen and can offer some perspective. Sometimes that’s all his fellow firefighters need. On other occasions, he paves the way for them to seek professional counseling.
“We all need someone we can talk to about what’s eating at us,” he says. “I know because I didn’t have anyone like that.”
On March 22, 2014, a rain-soaked hillside slid into the town of Oso, Washington, burying dozens of homes and leaving a mile-wide swath of apocalyptic devastation. Among the first to respond was Dennis Fenstermaker, the chief of the volunteer fire department in the neighboring town of Darrington, nestled in the foothills of the Cascade mountain range.
Fenstermaker served as the initial incident commander, supervising the frantic effort to rescue survivors. He and his crews stayed on the site for days and participated in the search for the bodies of the dead, who ended up numbering 43.
Although the 64-year-old Fenstermaker has been a Seattle firefighter for 39 years, nothing prepared him for the near-total destruction of his own community. The dead and injured included people he knew. Within a few days, his stress began to impact his leadership of the Darrington force.
“I felt threatened by things that maybe I didn’t think I was doing well,” he says. “I lost confidence in my ability to lead. I had marital difficulties.”
In the days after the slide, first responders from across Washington state charged into Oso. Among them were Mike Washington and members of Seattle’s Critical Incident Stress Management Team.
Fenstermaker, who knew Washington casually – they are assigned to stations on opposite ends of Seattle – was amazed at how members of his small volunteer department gravitated toward him.
“Mike has charisma,” he says. “People feel comfortable around him.”
One day not long after the slide, Fenstermaker struck up a conversation with Washington. Fenstermaker immediately felt at ease. He instinctively trusted Washington, and told him about the weight on his shoulders.
“This is a guy that understands exactly where I’m at because he’s already been there,” he says. “He’s gone through this, so I’m gonna learn something from him that I wouldn’t probably have picked up from somebody else.”
After the conversation, Fenstermaker decided to speak with a professional counselor.
“I wasn't going to go talk to somebody,” he says. “I was a tough guy. I could figure it out and work it out myself. But having a conversation with Mike will give you the license to go someplace you wouldn’t otherwise go.”
The conversation also affirmed Washington in his own journey.
“If baring my soul helps other people, then it’s worth it,” he says. “I don’t want people to end up like I did.”
Fenstermaker and other Seattle firefighters admire Washington and his life of service and sacrifice.
“Every team needs someone like Mike,” he says. “His life inspires us.”