Thursday, December 24, 2015 –
ITHACA, N.Y. - A lot can be said for first impressions. When I first met Staff Sgt. Russell Vidler at a pit in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, during the 108th Training Command’s combined Best Warrior and Drill Sergeant of the Year competition, he struck me as the kind of Soldier who will stop at nothing to get the job done.
Vidler was barreling through a mud and barbed wire obstacle course, emerging with a torn and bloody finger he reluctantly agreed to have addressed by a medic.
That’s where I caught up with him. Not one for small talk, he responded briefly to a few questions before he was off and running to the next task.
I can’t say I was surprised with his professional demeanor and military bearing. As Drill Sergeants, Soldiers like Vidler are the standard-bearers for young recruits. As the 98th Training Division (IET) Drill Sgt. of the Year, he also stands out among his peers.
But as Citizen Soldier, with often separate and distinct career paths, I often wonder who these outstanding Soldiers are at home, and in their civilian careers. My first glimpse came later that year, at the TRADOC level Drill Sergeant of the Year competition at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
Again Vidler performed like a man possessed. But after the winners were announced and all the hoopla had died down, I made my way over to get a few words with him.
As I approached him during the awards ceremony, I saw this big, gruff guy in his Army service uniform with a baby in each arm and another tugging on his trousers, his wife next to him, juggling a diaper bag.
So when Vidler offered to take me on a ride along at his job with the Ithaca Fire Department in Ithaca, New York, I leapt at the chance.
And that’s where the story truly begins.
I made the trek through the mountains from the Syracuse airport to Ithaca, checked into my hotel and then headed over to Central Station. I was met by a host of firefighters, many of them veterans themselves, each one extending a firm hand shake and a first name. I was then led upstairs to the weight room where I met with Vidler who was finishing up his pre-shift workout. After a quick handshake, he gave me a brief tour of the station, and set up his gear by the fire truck.
Throughout the tour, Vidler’s story unfolded. He left the active component in 2004 to pursue a degree in history. Not unlike any other 22-year-old coming out of the Army, his plans were subject to change at a moments notice.
“I know I’ve always wanted to be in the Army and I know that being a fireman is something that I’ve always wanted to do. The camaraderie in both is amazing. We’re like a family,” Vidler said.
“The biggest thing that I missed coming off active duty was the camaraderie. After the Army I spent four years in college and I had one friend. Four years, one friend. I missed the camaraderie terribly.”
So having earned his degree, Vidler joined the Army Reserve in 2009 as a drill sergeant and later landed a job in California working private security.
That’s when he got the call from the fire department back home in Ithaca.
“Everybody loves the fire service. It doesn’t matter what we get called out for people know we’re there to help,” said Vidler. “I love being the guy that when things go south people call. And the same goes for everyone in that ready room.”
Peter Snell, one of Vidler’s coworkers and our chauffeur for the night, prepared our limousine - engine 901. Snell who started out as a volunteer in 1993, was hired by Ithaca in 1999 and has worked with a whole host of veterans throughout the years.
“This job comes with quite a bit of downtime but has a tendency to go very south, very quickly. You take comfort in knowing that when the s-- hits the fan those guys are going to be around to have your back,” Snell said.
With the pre-shift formalities out of the way, we made our way to the kitchen where a whole host of firefighters were busy doing what firefighters are best known for across the country, cooking.
“I love my family, I love my job, but I really love my food!” Vidler said. “Everybody likes to eat and here we like to eat well.”
After assembling a huge pot of what appeared to be spaghetti with a zucchini sauce and garlic bread, everyone gathered around the table to eat. It was the first time since I had been there that there was total silence, however short lived. No more than five minutes into a remarkably tasty meal, we received our first call for the night. Everyone scrambled to their trucks and we sped out with lights blazing.
We arrived less than a couple of minutes later at a store front, where a couple of members of the Ithaca Police Department were patiently trying secure the door of a local shop. Vidler, Snell, and Lt. James Wheal, all searched for a master key carefully tucked away for such incidents to no avail.
Wheal finally grabbed some medical tape from the engine and managed to secure the forgotten door by pulling the tape and latching the inside of the door from the outside.
“I learned that in class,” Wheal announced proudly. We said our farewells to the two law enforcement officers and shuffled back to the warmth that engine 901 provided.
Back at Central Station the four of us managed to finish off our meal while others on shift took part in CPR training.
“There is a direct correlation between being in the Army and being a firefighter,” Vidler said. “Training is paramount in both. That’s what we do when we’re not on a mission in the Army and also when we’re not on a call here.
Assistant Chief Rob Covert, who has served with the department for 23 years, took the relationship a step further.
“I think the choice to serve the community and public is a large motivator for most of these guys. I think that’s why most people join the military and when veterans look to transition to the civilian world a lot of them look to places like the fire department to continue that service,” he said.
Throughout a night filled with broken sleep, we had only a handful of calls ranging from medical checks to a suspicious gas odor coming from a building that turned out to be a nothing more than a skunk warning passers-by to keep their distance. But for each time the alarm rang, I saw a group of guys, each with a unique personality, coming together as one team.
“Like the military, the fire service is a very team oriented business and people coming out of the military enjoy working in that type of environment,” Covert said. “Our profession gives them the opportunity to continue to work together as a group in order to solve problems for the community. Working in that type of environment and the camaraderie that comes along with it is something that our veterans really seem to excel at.”
Vidler said he plans to continue serving in both the Army Reserve and the fire service for as long as they’ll have him; hoping to commission someday in the Army Reserve and climb the ladder to assistant chief with the fire department.
At the end of the night, Vidler raised the flag, and we said our goodbyes to his shift mates while simultaneously greeting the relief. He dropped me off at my hotel then hurried home, hoping to get in some quality playtime with Buddy and the twins before doing it all over again the next night.
“I couldn’t imagine sitting behind a desk doing the same thing every day. Just showing up to work each day and not knowing what to expect is an awesome feeling. I can’t see myself doing anything other than this. I’m livin’ the dream.”
Leaving there, I would have to solidly agree; yes, Russell Vidler, you truly are livin’ the dream!