By Master Sgt. David Hodge, 6th Space Operations Squadron
/ Published April 17, 2015
SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
My phone rang as my family and I walked into the grocery store to buy last minute Christmas dinner items on the night of December 22, 2014. Checking my phone I saw it was a blocked number. Though I wasn't on crew standby for work I had previously received calls from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operations center at all hours. It wasn't typical to receive a blocked call, but I didn't want to ignore it, so I answered my phone.
"Hello?" I asked, as if questioning why this blocked number is calling me.
"This is Colorado Springs police. Do you live on Kern Circle?" The male voice asked.
"Yes," I responded.
"Is anyone in the house right now?"
"No! Why do you ask?" I said a bit puzzled.
"I want to make sure everyone is out of your house safely because your house is on fire."
So began the blur that has taken over our family's life for the last few months. As we all know very well, the Air Force, and military in general, spends a lot of time training and preparing for the worst case. Planning how to handle everything from a trash can fire, a bomb threat or a base attack. Yet, no matter how much we plan, practice, and prepare, nothing will ever fully prepare you for a house fire. Nothing will brace you for the onslaught of emotion, fear, panic, sense of helplessness, grief, confusion and that rush of adrenaline that swarms your body and mind all at the exact moment. Like a cold wind hitting you in the face and taking your breath away, I was momentarily shocked. Mere seconds seemed to crawl by like hours.
However, the years of Air Force training did pay off with regards to calmly handling a crisis. Within seconds I collected myself, my wife, my 5-year-old daughter and 13-month-old son, and drove home. Calming my wife I simply said, "Hon, there is nothing we can do. No ifs, no buts, no nothing." Clearly upset and just as shocked at the situation as I was, it was enough to calm her into acceptance. The same acceptance, or rather disbelief, that we each encounter when we experience a life tragedy. But we had each other. The family was safe. The house was, after all, just a thing full of stuff. At least that's what I told myself during the seven minute drive home. Mental state is very important when dealing with a life tragedy.
As we arrived in our neighborhood it was going on 7:30 p.m. What would normally be a dark night on an uneventful street was instead a scene of controlled chaos. In front of our house were six fire trucks, the fire chief, and four police cars. Smoke was still rising from our house, ladders extended to the roof, fire hoses everywhere and two news crews filming the whole event. The hardest part wasn't seeing the firefighters on my roof, or the damage done to our house. The hardest part was telling my daughter that the fire destroyed her room, all her clothes and every doll and stuffed animal she owned. Thus far in my life and in the years I've been a father that was my toughest moment.
"But we are safe daddy." She told me with tears on her cheeks. To this day it is her strength and resilience to losing "just stuff" that has helped hold us together as a family.
After speaking with the firefighters and police I instinctively called my First Sergeant. I told her my house was on fire and that my family was safe. Soon, my Operations Superintendent arrived at our house, followed by a couple co-workers. Immediately they offered help, a place to stay, anything we could possibly need. I'm not sure how I would have made it through the first couple hours if it wasn't for the wingmen that came to my house and gave me their shoulders to lean on and their arms to hold me up.
I want to stop my story here because the focus of this article is not meant to be what happened to my family. Instead, I want to take this time to share what I learned following this tragedy to help and prepare others in case they too are faced with a similar event.
I want to explain and share who, how, and what help was provided and offered to my family and share what resources are out there for everyone. I also want to take this opportunity to go over a list of key things I've learned from this event that I hope will help others.
We have insurance, and yes, they got us a hotel room and took good care of us. So that was not an issue. Even with that in mind, everyone offered help and support. Members of my unit, 6th Space Operations Squadron, offered me a place to stay. Both the 310th operations group commander and the 310th wing commander offered their houses for us to stay as well. I spent the next two weeks answering phone calls, emails and text messages.
I was overwhelmed. Not from the fire itself, as that would come later. I was overwhelmed from the enormous outpouring of help, clothing, food, and most importantly Christmas presents for my daughter and son. I have a hard time asking for help. I've spent the last ten years being the one doing the helping. From Search and Rescue, to HAM radio, to assisting with Red Cross shelters during the Waldo Canyon fire and Black Forest fire, I've always been the one to be there for others. Nothing is more humbling than having the conversation with yourself that you now need help and that there is nothing wrong with asking for help. This can be difficult. It's easy to say you'll always ask for help if you need it, but it's a completely different beast to be in a situation where you and your family literally have nothing but the clothes on your back.
I eventually admitted our needs, and the Air Force family and local community stepped up and gave us their hearts. The Air Force truly is a family and let me tell you, the 310th Space Wing motto Family of Professionals is an understatement. The actions of all the people from across the Front Range bases, Buckley, and the local community quickly reminded me that no matter what, in life family always comes first!
The Airman and Family Readiness Center was a tremendous help to my family. From the Chapel, to the Chiefs Group, to whole squadrons of Airmen that I have never met that went out and bought my children clothing and gifts. I cannot begin to tell all the stories of kindness that my family was blessed with nor can I put into words what everyone's support and actions mean to us. From the bottom of our hearts, THANK YOU! God bless all of you!
Finally, what can you do if tragedy strikes? Remember, there is always help available. No matter the situation, someone is there for you. This includes your squadron, your group, wing and base. You may feel you are alone. You may feel stressed to the point that your body and mind shut down. Know you are never alone. From your co-workers to your leadership to the countless organizations on each base; you are never alone. You are never without a wingman.
So, what have I learned for all of this? As humans we learn through our experiences. Our lives are filled with both good and bad experiences. It's not the experiences that make us who we are, it's how we deal with them, learn from them, and carry on with our lives. Our character is determined by our reactions to the actions of life. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
How I dealt with this is far different than how you might deal with the same situation. As they say, your mileage may vary. However, I've come up with a few things that I think everyone could benefit from with regards to being more prepared for large life emergencies. Here is the list I came up with.
Before I mention anything else, this is the most important thing I can tell you! No matter how you feel, just ask for assistance. Whether you are military or not, there are hundreds of organizations whose sole goal is to provide help. Good places to start are the Airman and Family Readiness Center, the Chaplain's office, or any First Sergeant.
As a home owner having home insurance goes hand in hand with having a mortgage. As a renter, the idea of renters insurance might be lost or just simply something that never crossed your mind. If something awful happens to the place you are renting the owner's insurance will cover neither you nor your stuff! Losing everything or almost everything you own really sucks, but losing everything and not being able to replace it is even worse.
Take inventory of your belongings!
Whether it's a list of every piece of furniture, dish, vase, clothing, etc., that you own or detailed pictures of each and every room; make some type of inventory. This is extremely important. You might believe you can recall every item you own but unless you have a photographic memory the reality is you won't remember even half of your stuff. The hardest thing is going through a pile of ash and trying to remember what was there before.
Review your insurance policies!
Be it home owners, renters, car or other, go over the entire policy with your agent, ask detailed questions and make sure you understand everything! Figure out what everything means and what is and isn't covered. Ask your agent to explain every aspect of your policy. And don't forget we have a wonderful legal office on base. Don't be shy. Ask them for help in understanding your policy.
Make sure you have enough insurance!
Once you understand your policy and all the legal jargon, review how much your policy covers. Now that you have an inventory or at least pictures, start placing a value on your stuff. Not sentimental value, but true dollar value as best as you can. Then take your numbers to your agent and make sure your policy covers up to and slightly over that amount. Paying for slightly higher amount is not nearly as bad as being under insured.
Make sure you have the correct riders on your insurance policy!
If you have lots of jewelry or family heirlooms, or any other high value or important item make sure it is covered. This may require additional riders on your insurance policy or higher amounts for current riders. There are hundreds of different riders and amounts that can be added or removed from your policy. Again, ask your agent and get help understanding these so you are properly protected.
Plan for the worst, hope for the best, be a realist!
Be sure your family knows what to do if a fire, severe weather or other event happens. Make sure everyone knows how to get help and where to go if you need to leave your house. Make sure your neighbors have your phone numbers. If it wasn't for my neighbors our house would have burned to the ground. Luckily for us, they saw the flames early and that saved the structure. Sadly, smoke and water damage took most everything else. Don't be shy. Being a good neighbor always pays off. Being a prepared family saves lives.
Find a good contractor!
There are hundreds of contractors out there waiting to take your money and fix your home, car, etc. Your insurance company will recommend contractors to you but it is your responsibility to do your homework and find the best contractor for your needs.
Here is a list of things to consider:
- Ask for a detailed list or line item bid. Have the reasoning for every item explained to you.
- Know the difference between an estimate bid and a fixed bid and which one is being presented to you.
- Costs can change once work begins due to unforeseen issues, however, the total project cost should not be primarily made up of supplemental cost changes.
- Verify the contractor is licensed through the state and the regional building department.
- Verify the contractor has insurance and workers comp for all employees. Ask for proof and if they refuse then that contractor has self-eliminated.
- Ask for tax records and proof of years in business.
- Do not settle for the lowest bidder unless they truly are the best contractor.
Lastly, I want to again say thank you! Thank you to everyone who has helped my family in this time of need. I've always been proud to be in the Air Force but through this tragedy I've gained a new respect for the Air Force family, the services and organizations that support us, and bonds that unite us all. I've gained new insights and levels of respect for our leadership and the trials they face each and every day. In fact, in a recent visit to 6th SOPS by the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody, the first thing he did was pull me aside and ask how me and my family were doing and if there was anything we needed. That proved to me, as it should to everyone, that our leaders place our welfare and well-being above all else. Our leaders truly understand that we are the greatest Air Force in the world, not just because of our technologies and weapon systems, but because of each and every Airman and their families that sacrifice so much to be a part of the great United States Air Force Family.
Master Sgt. David Hodge and family