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IAFF Fallen Firefighter Memorial Service, 2002
Colorado Springs, CO, Sept. 21
Back to News Net's IAFF 2002 main page
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An Interview with Lieutenant/Paramedic John Edward Coburn, Jr.
by Bill Coburn
The following article was written in December, 2003 from question and answer type e-mails between the author and his brother, in late September and early October of 2002. The delay in the writing of the article was solely due to the failure of the author to follow through on putting the pieces together until now. The author has chosen to prepare the first part of the article by compiling various responses to questions in the e-mails, the second part of the article includes actual questions as posed and the responses provided.
John E. (Jay) Coburn, Jr. was born the tenth child of ten children and was the third son of John E. Coburn and Rose Marie Coburn, nee Barr, in Riverside, New Jersey. At the age of 17 months, the entire family moved to Bradbury, California. While he was in kindergarten, the family moved to nearby Monrovia, where Jay received his primary and secondary schooling, graduating from Monrovia High School in June of 1983.
Jay entered the Air Force shortly after graduating, beginning six weeks of basic training in May of 1984 at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. He then entered the fire academy at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois, followed by a four year stay at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington, where he served as firefighter, engineer, crew chief, dispatcher, and non-commissioned officer in charge of dispatch. It was here that he met his future wife, Chris. He spent two years at Comiso Air Station, in Sicily, as crew chief, station captain and filled in as assistant chief. He then returned to Chanute as an instructor at the Department of Defense Fire Academy for nearly three years, and was then assigned to Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Antonio, TX as an instructor. While in the Air Force, he achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant (E5). He left the Air Force in August of 1993, joining the staff at the Matteson Fire Department as a full-time Firefighter, while also training to become a paramedic. He was an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) through St. James Hospital while attending Prairie State Community College, then was an EMT-P (Paramedic) at Christ Hospital while completing his schooling at Moraine Valley Community College. He received his Paramedic Certification in November of 1994.
When the interview was conducted, he was a Lieutenant/Paramedic at Matteson Fire Department, out of House 1. House 1 covers the west side of Matteson and all of the village of Olympia Fields. It ran a Truck, an Engine, and an Ambulance at that time. The house employed a minimum of 3 firefighters, with as many as 5 on a rare day. Three to four on duty was typical.
At that time, Jay was also a member of Associated Firefighter of Matteson Local 3086 of the International Association of Firefighters. He was serving as Vice-President at that time. He became a Union negotiator in 1997/1998, as a member of the bargaining team negotiating the pay and benefits of the department with the City. In February of 2002, he was inducted as a member of the Associated Firefighters of Illinois (AFFI) Honor Guard. The AFFI is a state organization within the IAFF.
At the time that Jay sat down and answered my questions about his life and his experience at the IAFF Memorial Service of 2002, Jay helped out with youth football (he used to be the athletic director, and a coach), was a member of the high school football booster club, a member of the PTO, and in the past had also coached baseball, run the umpires for the park district, volunteered at the school, was a crossing guard for a year, went back to school to earn his bachelor's degree, worked part-time as a cast technician, and was a full-time husband and father.
Q. - How old were you when you decided you wanted to become a firefighter?
A. - I remember being in high school when I knew what I wanted to do, although I've had people tell me that I told them this is what I was going to do as early as 8th grade
Q. - What were your reasons?
A. - I'm not sure why I decided this is what I wanted. I've tried to figure out what it was, but I can't put my finger on it. I just knew it was right.
Q. - Were you sure right away, or did the desire grow with time?
A. - I do know that it just seemed like this was it. I was never unsure about it. It was just what I was going to do.
Q. - When did you leave the Air Force?
A. - August, 1993.
Q. - Why did you make that decision?
A. - I got out because I had had to move my family every couple of years. My sons were getting old enough that it was hard on them, and I wanted something more stable for all of us. The military was changing, and although I still loved being a fireman, the military wasn't as good a fit as it had been when I was younger. I think I had gotten what I needed from it, and I needed something more stable for my family. My initial goal was to get trained as a fireman, get some experience, and then move to a city department. It was time for me to move on. (Editor's note - I think Jay has simplified this answer a little. When he says the military wasn't as good a fit as it had been when he was younger, it should be remembered that in 1993 there was a significant downsizing of the military taking place during the Clinton administration, and at 28 with nearly ten years of service, a decision needed to be made to commit to a downsizing service with no guarantees for the future, or try to find a firefighting career position while still at an age where one could be found).
Q. - How do you feel about your job?
A. - I love my job. I can't imagine doing anything else.
Q. - How do you feel about your role in the community, as a fireman?
A. - I guess I don't think
too much about my role in the community. I know what I do is important, but it's
my job. I try to do the best I can, but I think most people do that in their
careers. I don't think I'm too different than anyone else. I once heard someone
say "Firefighting isn't what we do, it's who we are." I think that sums it
up. This is me. That's how I fit into my community.
Q. - How do you feel about your fellow firefighters?
A. - I feel like my fellow firefighters are my brothers (and sisters). For the most part, they're good people, who I have a lot in common with. Most firefighters are the same type of people. I think this kind of job draws a certain type of personality. The one thing that I'm always impressed with is that I can talk to a fireman anywhere, without even knowing them. That's one of the things I wanted you guys to see when I invited you to Colorado. I can walk into a bar, or any other place, and when I find out there's a fireman there, it's like it's an old friend I just ran into. Don't get me wrong, there are assholes in every crowd, but I think for the most part, firemen are a great bunch of people.
Q. - Why did you decide to become actively involved with the Union?
A. - The union is what protects me as a worker. I became involved because I would not have the benefits I have without the union, and I wanted to be a bigger part of what protects the benefits I have, and works to secure more benefits for me and my co-workers (and my brothers and sisters across America and Canada).
Q. - How do you feel about your union and its role in advancing the security of firefighters?
A. - I think my union is indispensable. Firefighters, and workers in general, have been taken advantage of for a long time. The union is what gives me a voice that my employer has to listen too. In most cases if you're not in a union, you have two choices if your employer establishes a practice you don't like, or agree with: You can do what they say, or you can go work somewhere else. With a union contract behind you, you can voice your opinion, and have input that your employer has to listen to. Some employers may listen without the union there, but in the end, it's their decision. With a union on your side, it becomes a consensus decision. My union has done so much in the way of firefighter safety, I can't begin to count how many lives it has saved. My union has also fought so that I can earn a competitive wage, and provide for my family. I would not have anywhere near the benefits I have today if I were not a union fireman. A lot of people have no idea of the scope of issues a union deals with. If it happens in the workplace, the union is involved. I can not imagine working for a fire department that did not have a union in place to protect me, and my brothers.
Q. - How do you feel about your union and its role in assisting the families of those who have fallen?
A. - The IAFF has played a role in assisting the families of our fallen that no other organization could have fulfilled. Because of the IAFF's efforts in Washington, the death benefits to survivors of fallen firefighters have more than doubled in the past year. There is no price that can be put on the life of our fallen, but at least I know that if I die in the line of duty, my family will not have to worry about how they will be taken care of. In addition to the financial support, I think anyone who was at the Memorial understands that there is a phenomenal support system in place. What it comes down to is this: if my wife or children need something, I have over 255,000 brothers and sisters, and their families, who would be willing to help with whatever my family might need. That comes from the strength, and solidarity, of the IAFF.
Jay was originally planning to be part of the Honor Guard Flag carrying contingent, and was taken out of that role shortly before the ceremony. He then was supposed to be among the firefighters chosen to present a folded flag presented to the families of the fallen. He was bumped from that twice. The following questions were asked to get his feelings about his disappointment (if any) at not being among those participating in these roles in the ceremony. I think his answers show that while he had hoped to be more involved in the ceremony, he, like everyone there, recognized that it was those who have fallen, and the families that lost them, that were the focal point of the ceremony. The pageantry and the pomp, while an important and well-deserved part of the event, are secondary to and mere instruments of the real purpose for the event - to honor those who fell, and show those who have lost a loved one how important their loss is to each of the firefighters and those in attendance, and the respect and esteem with which their loved one is held.
Q. - If you would prefer that I not report on the following, please say so. And again, do not answer any questions that you don't want to. I ask because I think it will enhance the coverage, but I understand if you would prefer not to answer them.
Q. - How did you feel about your role in this year's Memorial when planning the trip?
A. - I felt like my role was going to be pretty important. September is a bad time of year for me to be way from home. I have three sons and September is busy with football, school, etc... I decided I was going to go anyway though, because I felt like if there was ever a memorial to be at, this was the one. I talked to Nate (Editor's note: Nate is his youngest son), and explained that I would miss one of his games (I had never missed one before this), but I explained why I thought it was important for me to give one weekend to the families that had lost their loved ones. He told me that they deserved a lot more than one weekend, and I should do whatever I could for them. I think the wisdom of an eleven year old says it all.
Q. - How do you feel about your role after the fact?
A. - I can't tell you how I feel
about my role now. I have tried to explain the experience to people since I got
back, and I haven't been able to come up with the words to describe what
happened that weekend in Colorado Springs. I can say this: I'm glad I went, I'm
trying to figure out how I can fit that memorial into my life every year because
it is so important, but I wish I would never have to go again.
Q. - What were your feelings when you were not chosen to be among the Honor Guard flag carriers?
I was fine with not being one of
the flag carriers because I found out I would be assigned to a family as a
presenter. That was what I went for, the families. I can't think of a more
important role than to be there for the families who have lost loved ones.
Q. - What are the facts as to why you were not selected, and why you got bumped? I just don't want to report it inaccurately. I may not report it at all.
A. - I didn't participate in the procession because I had not brought a flag, axe or pike pole. I was originally selected to raise the International (union) flag, but they were trying to get people from different states involved, and they already had someone from Illinois, so I stepped down from that. As far as getting bumped from the presenter thing, if there was someone there from the fallen firefighters' department they had "priority." Like I said before, that is how it should be I think.
Q. - What were your feelings when you were bumped from your first family? I seem to remember hearing that you were using the white hat (Editor's note: Officer's privilege/seniority) to get another family.
- Initially when I was bumped, I was disappointed. I knew that I probably would
be bumped, but it still was a bit of a let down. The more I thought about it
though, the better I felt. I was bumped by someone from my fallen brother's
department, someone the family knew and was familiar with. That's the way it
should be. We are all there for each other, but it's more personal when it is
someone from their own department there for the family. The thing about the
white shirt having pull to get another family was a joke. At a ceremony like
this, rank doesn't have any pull in my mind. I just went back and told them I
was available for another family if they needed me.
Q. - What were your feelings when you were bumped from the second family, which if I remember correctly was because there were New Yorkers who wanted to be involved? I seem to remember hearing it was not as important to you to pull rank to get another family after this, presumably because of the NY factor?
The second time I was glad to be
bumped, because of my realization after the first time. It was a family from New
York, and there were apparently several people from that guys company there. I
hope I already explained the thing about rank. My rank is actually pretty
minimal in the fire service, and even if it wasn't, I wouldn't use it to try to
be involved in something like this. I was just there to do whatever needed to be
done. As far as the NY factor goes, their death's were no more or less important
than any other. There were firemen from 22 (I think it was) other states, and
Canada that were honored this year. New York had the greatest number of deaths,
but no one who gave his life for another is any more, or less, important because
of the circumstances, in my eyes.