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.”