Transparency, Vulnerability, Honesty, Bluntness . . .
Who is Thom Taylor to the wildland fire service? We believe it’s important to address this question as a bit of an intro for you to Thom’s latest “rad” piece of writing that we are featuring in the following blog post.
Like many of us, Thom has lots of fire experience. You can’t get lots of fire experience without picking up some serious general life experience—the full spectrum. In both the fire and general life realms, Thom has some big-deal firsthand survivor stories that are worth noting.
This man has survived two fire shelter deployments. One on the 2001 Thirtymile Fire, which took the lives of four of his fellow crewmates, and another on the 2004 Nuttall Fire. Thom has also endured the standard set of near misses. But near misses are anything but standard once you’ve suffered a direct hit. All of this has an impact. Thom vividly details these impacts in his blog post. As you will see, this is where Thom is in a league all his own.
Transparency, vulnerability, honesty, bluntness . . . Thom gives it to us straight about what resilience actually looks like. Spoiler Alert: It’s not all roses and sunshine. Portions of the picture Thom paints are gnarly, but this gnarliness is matched with an equally intense effort to adapt, advance, and live through.
The utility in sharing Thom’s story is not by virtue of it being rugged and raw, but rather by the meaning he manufactures with strength, hope, and the genuine desire to contribute. And, of course, style points count. Thom has mad style and spice. As you read, every wince you may experience is paired nicely with a chuckle or a smile. Such flavor holds great value.
So that is a bit of the who and the why behind this piece. It involves detailed descriptions of mental health dilemmas, emergency room visits, medication, talk therapy, coping, struggling—and always getting up and trying again. The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center sees great value in posting Thom’s first-person story here because we believe it will empower many of us to do exactly what Thom suggests: “If sh*t gets weird ask for help.”
Hello Darkness . . .
By Thomas R. Taylor
Fire Operations Specialist, Payette National Forest, Council Ranger District
The walk back to the truck was frustrating and dismissive, like many walks I’ve had before. It starts with an energetic gear-up phase where I grab my pack, put on my hardhat, and grab my trusty friend Mr. Pulaski. It had said hello again during the season of 2019. The first few steps from the rig are always welcome as my feet settle into my boots like a perfectly worn saddle, my hips greet my pack strap like the dance with an old lady friend. Then it happens, my heart burps and releases a warning to my brain that I’m going to have a heart attack and die.
Cut bank to a steep slope or, in this instance, a flat piece of ground next to a river in the rain. Division whatever on the 2019 Nethker Fire.
This fire is on my home unit, the Payette National Forest. It had started out as the perfect assignment. All the right resources, great crews, engines, middle management, and friendly faces both new and old. Subalpine fir goodness, plenty of water handling equipment, the fire fell on its face with a weather change and we could grab onto the main fire to contain it and then play whack-o-mole with all the spot fires and grid-o-thon 2019. Perfect, right? Yeah, no. With the rain came an idleness that enabled my brain to eat itself and let the demons out.
I’m Used to This Happening
I was assed-out in my truck next to the river enjoying a cup of coffee, a rather large upper, and my music. My only friend. This stems from being a Latchkey Kid and having my little Boom Box next to my bed and numerous cassette tapes to keep me company. Mostly the Doors, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and Rush.
So here I am in my truck in 2019. My window is down and the stereo up when my heart rolled and the blood rushed to my head and my feet started to tingle. By this point in my life, I’m used to this happening. It has been happening and discussed in depth with my Talk Therapist, first in 2005 when it happened on a wet fire scar looking down into Hells Canyon as the fog rolled in and again in 2008 while staring out over Bellingham Bay in November.
The feeling is always the same and the unmistakable and irreplaceable feeling that occurs both during and after the heart roll crushes me just as I would be crushed every Saturday in the 70s waiting for “he who shall not be named” to pick me up. (I won’t say his name, but this is reference to my Father who split when I was two. Inherently from him I gained the traits of womanizing and the ability to hold my liquor—something I reflect back on with great shame, Thanks?)
Me sitting on the curb was always followed by my Mhom walking out of the house with a bologna sandwich made with Oscar Meyer, Wonder Bread and French’s mustard. (In the eighth grade I decide to add an “H” to my first name. As crazy as that seems, my Mhom stills spells my name “Tom.” So now all my cards and such sent to her I spell her name with an “H.” Just as crazy!) Next, my Mhom would bring me back inside the house to watch Fat Albert and settle down, so I could go back outside to the dirt pile to play with green army people, Hot Wheels and Adventure People.
That feeling of shame and guilt as if I had done something wrong warranting him to ditch me on Saturdays is now the feeling of guilt and shame of if/when the crew would find me dead from a heart attack and have to deal with my stupid ass. Or I’m a liability when it comes to managing risk and supporting the resources I’m graced to work with.
Falling Down the Well . . .
Having to hide these thoughts and feelings has taken its toll on me and I’m only now being able to completely manage it by taking LEXAPRO. Yes, LEXAPRO as prescribed by Head Doc. (This is not an ad for Big Pharma.)
Hello, LEXAPRO, my new Friend.
Usually what happens after a heart roll is that I check my surroundings for any type of threat. This is a tool I learned long ago. Thanks, Doc. Survey the scene to see what the threat is, relax the shoulders and take some deep breaths.
As per usual, there is typically no threat and then I shake my head in frustration and get antsy. Hence, driving back to DP 93 on the Nethker Fire and gearing up to go for a hike. Not 27 feet from the truck it happens again. In utter defeat, I go back to my truck and hide for a few hours until the feeling of guilt and shame and a hollowness—that can only be described as falling down the well with no dog to run back to the house and alert the masses that Tommy has fallen down the well—once again, subsides.
Then the mask comes back on and I’m “fine.” The rest of the shift goes by, the sun peeks out, the ground starts to steam as the walking dead come out of their hooches to reengage securing the edge, mouth breathing at a stump hole whilst making fun of each other.
(Let’s remember folks, mop-up is dead, we secure the fire’s edge to prevent escape.)
The shift ends and we all embark back to camp. They ran out of meals so I’m stuck with a plate full of rice and an internal dialogue of “How can you run out of food 20 miles from town?” and it happens again. A big ole heart roll. What the f*&k!!!! It is frustrating in a way that is describable in the terms of a tree sitting back on you, or the caterer running out of food, or a crew getting bed bugs.
Check the Date, Dummy
My first heart roll while eating was in the Fall of 2001 while being graciously invited to NIFC by Jim Cook to do some IRPG stuff.
They put me up at the Grove Hotel and took diligent care of me. What they didn’t know was that after shift I would head to the Cactus and finish off a fifth of Crown, go back to the Grove, wet the bed, shower and repeat. Hence, me stating in the 30 Mile Fire video that was/is still being used by introducing myself and saying: “On July 11th . . .” Check the date, Dummy! [Editor’s Note: The Thirtymile Fire claimed the lives of four of Thom’s fellow firefighters on July 10, 2001.]
Any who, we were at the Ram eating some fancy burger and enjoying a really big beer when it happened. Took a bite of the aforementioned really big burger and whamo, heart roll, sweats, and a feeling of “Oh, sh*t.”
My medical training came into play and told me not to go to the bathroom. This is due to the fact that dudes will get up go to the bathroom, splash some water on their face and boom! Down they go. So, what did I do? I went to the bathroom splashed some water on my face and Boom! Finished my really big burger and tall beer, walked to the Cactus, chugged a fifth of Crown and Miller High Lifes, wet the bed at the Grove and finished a video with the wrong date in the intro to an event that was only three months prior.
My point is that it also happens when I’m eating. In this instance on the 2019 Nethker Fire I went back to my tent, which is uncommon cuz tents are rarely used by me because they remind me of being in my shelter and I’ve cut my way out of a few tents with my knife while having very vivid dreams while tented up.
I zipped the fly up and laid my head down wondering if anybody would find me if I died in my tent from a heart attack cuz I had a heart roll at dinner.
As per usual, I was able to navigate this most current episode of “heart roll city” and demob from the Nethker Fire and take a few days off and resume normal programming.
It’s All Upstairs
In 2014, I told the Forest Service to get stuffed and started taking A/L during the second full week of September so I could enjoy the Pendleton Round-Up with my Mhom. She was Round-Up royalty in 1952 so it’s quite the spectacle to enjoy. Growing up she would ditch us and go let her hair down during the Round-Up.
She raised four boys on her own (I’m the youngest and smallest) so I can imagine the break was needed. When I was asked to go during my teenage years, I always said “No” so I could stay home alone and crank Iron Maiden and “Risky Business” it for a week.
So, after the Nethker I went to the Round-Up only to experience more heart rolls than I could shake a corn dog at and went to the Emergency Room to get treated for heart attack-like symptoms. As always, things checked out. I didn’t have any enzymes commensurate to a heart attack and was sent on my merry way.
Still seeking approval of my symptoms, I even went as far as seeing a cardiologist in Boise for a stress test and all that goodness to reaffirm that I was indeed having a Heart Attack and not experiencing anxiety and PTSD.
Like a dumb-dumb I went to my appointment wearing overalls and my trusty Chucks as I thought it was a consultation. Only to find out I was to take the treadmill test shortly thereafter. So here I am flat-footing it on a treadmill in my underwear, Chuck T’s and Forest Service-issued socks pulled up to my knees. For some reason [smiley faced halo emoji] multiple nurses came in to check my progress. After all the Hijinx, the same conclusion was met.
Heart is healthy and it’s all Upstairs. In my head. Same as it’s been since 2001-2005-2008-2019. Rad!
No Wind and Deathly Quiet
I then take all this intel home, settle in for the winter and go for it. I am a slide-around-with-stuff-on-my-feet bum after all. Thirty-two official seasons since high school and counting. Then one magical day at Brundage, on the backside, it happened. I had the whole place to myself, it was snowing chicken feathers, no wind and deathly quiet.
Just as it is after a shelter deployment.
The fronts have passed, it’s quiet and you’re numb. This has happened before on the chairlift, but this is the first time I’ll admit that it totally f&*ked me up. My heart rate increased, I pulled out my phone and went to call 911. Luckily it was snowing so much that the kisses of the snowflakes on my phone created a barrier on the screen and I couldn’t get the keys to work. So, I went back to surveying the scene, assessing the threat or lack thereof, relaxing my shoulders and taking a few deep breaths.
As I get to the top of the lift I’m faced with a few choices. Go home and hide or go for it and have a heart attack during one of my favorite tree runs and once again have someone find my body, buried under snow in the trees. So, I went for it and it took seven runs to finally settle out of it and finish the day with a slight sense of a short-lived victory and an “Epic Bro” day (gross I know) in my “Safety Zone.”
With increased weekly talk therapy sessions, meditation (I meditate every morning), yogurt (yoga) and other bullsh*t hippy stuff I managed to squeak out the winter season without any more occurrences and was able to enjoy myself. I also cleared my schedule of F.O.S. (Fire Operations Specialist) stuff that was comprised of Stress First Aid, You Will Not Stand Alone, Entrapment Avoidance sessions and the likes, to take care of myself and just live for me for a winter. I figured things would be good. I wasn’t quite sure why I had hit the wall until my talk therapist told me to try and capture one year of work stuff:
- 8-10 Stress First Aid sessions.
- 2-3 You Will Not Stand Alone sessions.
- 8-10 Sand Table sessions based on 30-Mile.
- 10,000 miles traveled by land and air.
- Then FOSLY (Fire Operations Specialist) duties locally and then Fire Season.
Not that much really. Though I am told that I’m running from something or stay busy, so my brain won’t eat itself. I will now say it’s a lot and took its toll.
Spilling My Guts
Last winter and spring were going to be different! I was overly excited to be at home, not travel or to do FOS stuff and slide around with stuff on my feet. (Please note that “FOS” stands for “Fire Operations Specialist” and I was sworn to secrecy as to what it is that we actually do.) Then COVID-19 happened and the Ski Area closed. I worked from home and self-isolated with an Ex.
We had a Forest-wide call with the Forest Supervisor and as usual I threw a couple of rocks from the back of the call and lo and behold, I was voluntold to join the COVID Continuing Operations Team that afternoon. Yay?!
The distractions were nice but so much for my break. Why must I stick my nose in everything to “help” people at my own expense?
I made an office at Feral Manor which helped tremendously and patiently waited for the snow to melt so I could go out in the woods and do FOS stuff. Which is even more trippy because I’m spilling my guts to y’all about my “stuff.”
10 Mgs of Lexapro
The month of May rolls around and I’m out “patrolling,” which means I’m opening roads, listening to music, giving illegal firewood cutters the stink-eye and pulling over for all the UTV people “enjoying the woods” with their fancy chariots and Natty Ices during a global pandemic/lockdown. Boom! I’m racked out at the top of No Business Summit listening to NPR Saturdays and I have a heart roll and start to flip out.
I know I can call Dispatch because they are rad, I could call 911 which is lame, or I could work my way back to the station along the east fork of the Weiser River because I know that if I do seize-up, someone in the aforementioned Natty Ice drinking chariot can save me or I can make it to a couple of helispots down in the hole and hope that the short haul ship is on and I can order em up through Dispatch.
Now, some folks would say that this is a hefty spew of my internal dialogue when I’m experiencing such heart rolls and I will say it is because it used to happen regularly. Also, some would say why I don’t ask for help or why I even do this job. My answer is I did. And I’m very stubborn and truthfully think I have nowhere else to go. (See Richard Gere and Louis Gossett Jr. in the 1982 film “An Officer and a Gentleman”.)
I started taking 10 mgs of LEXAPRO, thanks Doc!
There, I said it. I need medication to function normally. Wait. “Normal” is relative and antiquated. For those folks that I’ve had interactions with know, I’m far from normal. Or so I’ve been told. One eval I got back from a Stress First Aid session clearly stated that I was “Bat Sh*t Crazy.” Oh well, been called far worse.
Requiring medication is common and though I will say that I always thought it was a sign of weakness, I did take my mask off and have continued to ask for help and am now taking LEXAPRO for anxiety.
A begrudgingly Quadruple Rad. (My mind immediately went to quadruple bypass when I typed that out just now—so some things may not change. They are just more manageable as the trenches of PTSD are being filled in.)
A Few of My PTSD Purple Rainbows
Below are some things I need to be mindful of. I don’t like to use the word “trigger” because when you are talking yourself or others off the ledge who happen to own Fire Arms, it’s best to not use the “T” word.
- Quiet times on assignment. Rain. Securing the edge (not mop-up). Eating those nutrient rich meals (c’mon food unit mafia, please absorb three percent of your profits and stoke us out). Briefings. Mellow hikes. Streams.
- Long drives pre and post assignment. (There is a stretch between Vale and Burns that would always mess with me.) Oh yeah and before Nethker, I did 21 days in Winthrop as DO and flipped out before Brewster and pulled into the clinic in Brewster to get checked out and was placed in the same room as I woke up in post “that one incident” (or Thirtymile for those folks not in the know). I am an idiot; the EKG proved fine.
- Eating in places with crowd noise etc. (Thanks, COVID.)
- Moving my head quickly to one side. I told the Doc I thought I had cancer or something. They smiled and said it was an oxygen increase or decrease associated with such movement. Common, yes; normal, no.
- Being far away from medical/helispots etc. Secretly always knowing where medical is for my fear of heart attacks vs patient care, which was second.
- Snowy quiet chairlift rides. This one rocked me because that’s kinda who I am. That one thing that has always been there.
Noticeable Things LEXAPRO has Provided
- A sense of ease and calm.
- On a few occasions the back of my head went numb.
- Rare hot flashes, though I’m now 50 so it could be manopause.
- FOS stuff in the woods without my brain eating itself.
- The ability to continue to function at a high level as a now qualified Type One Operations Branch Director on some very technical assignments where stuff definitely got weird.
In short (too late), LEXAPRO has put me in a good spot. I’ll keep doing hippy stuff to calm and exercise my brain and thoughts, slide around with stuff on my feet and do my best to stay healthy with a proper balance of diet, exercise and rest. Without the continued support from friends and family and co-workers based on the mantra of Trust and Communication my journey would be much more difficult if not impossible.
So yeah, I got that going for me.
Rad x 13!
I would also like to say that if I or anyone else—and I mean ever!—feels that I’m a Risk to the Resources I work with and I’m a hazard to the GS-03, I’ll pull pitch quicker than you say can “Rad” and finish out my career pawing at this computer or just simply wash dishes. Because as a Dishwasher there is only one objective: Clean Dishes.
Until then I’ll keep asking for help and be the weird old dude cruising around the incident on my chariot trying not to ball things up.
So, What’s My Point?
There is a cost of doing business for working in the woods just as there is a cost of doing business for living in the woods. If sh*t gets weird ask for help and know that what you are going through is common and may not be normal, but in the end, you are not alone.
And by the way, who wants to be Normal?
If you’d like to hear Thom discuss his shelter deployment experience
on the Nuttall Fire, check out this Podcast:
And if you missed it the first time, you might also want to read Thom’s
“Is LCES Dead?” blog from last June: