While Gary East­erling was in Iraq as an Army National Guardsman, his wife, with whom he is now sep­a­rated, fell through the bathroom floor during a shower after it col­lapsed under­neath her. His friends from the police and fire sta­tions rushed to his house as soon as they heard and repaired his floor, free of charge.

As a thank you for their charity, East­erling decided to bring home a patch from the fire station at Camp Victory in Baghdad and donate it to the Hillsdale Fire Department’s patch col­lection, com­posed of patches from fire sta­tions all over the world. Camp Victory was one of the bases to which East­erling trans­ported mil­itary VIPs through mortar fire and sur­prise attacks by Iraqi ter­rorists.

Although his convoy was hit many times, East­erling never lost a man, and always delivered the VIPs safely to their des­ti­na­tions. Today, East­erling fights a dif­ferent battle —  he works for the American Legion, where he pres­sures the U.S. gov­ernment to give more to vet­erans who, in their service to America, weren’t as lucky as East­erling to have returned home unharmed.

His story is just one of the stories behind the more than 100 patches adorning a wall of the Hillsdale Fire Station. For some, they simply rep­resent a col­lection of fireman mem­o­ra­bilia, but for others, they’re an ever-present reminder of their national broth­erhood as firemen.

“We look at each other as a family. You love those guys and there can’t be a doubt when you fight fires together,” Eric Pressler, a captain at the fire department, said.

According to Pressler, the idea for the patch board came to Hillsdale through fireman Steve McDowell and Ted Jansen, who decided to buy patches online, in hopes of encour­aging others to collect patches when vis­iting dif­ferent fire depart­ments. McDowell said that now, less than half of the col­lection is from Jansen’s online orders.

“Some are Ted’s, some we trade, and a lot of them come from fire­fighters vis­iting other towns,” McDowell said.

Almost every patch on the wall has a story. A patch from Cal­i­fornia was donated by a Hillsdale fire­fighter who fights fires on the West Coast for a month every year. A patch from New York was donated by Pressler’s daughter Kristen, cel­e­brating the city fire department’s service during 9/11.

“9/11 changed a lot of the way firemen do their jobs,” said East­erling. “The attacks helped sta­tions get up to equipment stan­dards. It used to be that there was only one station with the jaws [of life], but since 9/11, almost every station around here’s got one.”

Pointing to a dark blue patch with a red border embla­zoned with the word ‘bomberos’ and an Italian flag, McDowell added, “one of our guys… went to Italy and picked up this patch while he was there.”

‘Bomberos’ is the Italian word for fire­fighter.

Many on the board are from local depart­ments — Reading, Litch­field, and Jonesville, for example, have all donated patches, pri­marily through trading with Hillsdale. Other sta­tions have patch boards as well, and many of the Hillsdale firemen have seen other sta­tions with similar boards. McDowell said that Ypsi­lanti has a patch board with at least seven panels, while Hillsdale’s only has two. No matter the size, the idea behind the board is the same.

“There’s a union in it — fire­fighters really need support. A Lansing fire­fighter was mur­dered by a dis­gruntled citizen after they had a verbal fight just a few days ago, and as brother fire­fighters we feel that pain, too,” McDowell said.

Now happily home with his wife and their repaired bathroom floor, East­erling said he thinks of his patch in a much more intimate way than most of the other donors.

“I like getting things that rep­resent what I’ve done with my life. It’s mem­o­ra­bilia but it’s also a token of what I’ve accom­plished, and I’m happy that my story will live on through that patch,” East­erling said. “I have two sons who are fol­lowing my foot­steps in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I’m proud that what I’ve done has encouraged them to do the same.”