I knew Saturday, Oct. 16, would be a rough day. It was the last day I’d get to work with my friend and mentor, a man we affectionately call Wayne-O. 

Wayne-O is a Seattle firefighter like me. He was granted a temporary exemption to the COVID-19-vaccine mandate, however, he is not allowed to return to work and may soon be forced to quit Seattle Fire after nearly 32 years of service.  

Wayne-O worked dutifully up to the final moments of what could be his final shift, even polishing the windows of the fire apparatus. At midnight, he silently gathered his gear before I could say goodbye.

“Wayne-O!” I yelled and ran toward him in the darkness. 

“I wasn’t leaving just yet,” he said, as I hugged him. “I’m so sorry,” I said, trying to say something, anything. His eyes filled with tears. “We love you,” is all I could muster.  

Flashbacks to the Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy have come back to haunt me during this time of forced separation. The vaccine mandate reminds me of my experience as an openly gay man in the military. I know this pandemic is different, but there are similarities. After four years of serving in the Navy, I was lucky to get an honorable discharge. By law, it should have been a dishonorable discharge, but my commanding officer showed mercy and changed the course of my life forever. It didn’t, however, change the fact that I no longer could serve my country, and the policy ended my Navy career. 

Advertising

When faced with such oppression, you find yourself in a dark place. I worked through the depression, isolation, grief and anger. It was hard. And then I found a place to call home: Seattle was a pillar of inclusion, and I was proud to go to work for the city and to help build on this ideal. The last time I wrote for The Seattle Times was as the first openly gay fireman in the department. It felt precarious stepping out and writing that Op-Ed. This guest essay feels the same.  

Today, I feel like that ideal of inclusion and equity is being torn from the fabric of our community. I am pro-vaccine and grateful for the scientific breakthroughs we’ve seen. I was one of the first to get the vaccine. Even so, I got a breakthrough case of COVID, and it hit me hard. I was out of work for three weeks. I’m grateful for the protection the vaccine has to offer, but originally, I thought I wouldn’t get sick after vaccination. As with everything we’ve seen so far about this pandemic, the science is evolving. 

When the vaccination mandate came down, it became the only topic in our firehouses. I quietly listened to the myriad reasons of those who couldn’t get it or didn’t want the vaccine. I thought this was their fight, and I needed to take a back seat. Now I realize that this isn’t just happening to them. It’s happening to all of us. The Fire Department is family.   

My heart grieves for the future these firefighters who are forced out will face. The depression I experienced after leaving the Navy is something I would wish on no one, no matter our ideological differences. That gnawing depression is something I feel again. In normal times, the daily burden of our jobs is enough to bury even the strongest of us. Add to that the weight of the pandemic. But to take the career away from someone who has dedicated their life to this calling, simply because they are different, or hold differing views, what odds for survival do they have? For those of us who stay, these scars will remain. 

On their first day of separation, the men and women who served this city with the dignity of the uniform, did so again in civilian clothes. On Tuesday, they served food to, and ate together with, people experiencing homelessness, a powerful symbol of our shared humanity.    

Currently, according to the department, there are five firefighters facing separation for not turning in their paperwork; six others are on leave, and 66 firefighters like Wayne-O filed for an exemption but are not allowed to come to work and most expect to be fired.

Advertising

I won’t be at peace with myself if I don’t do something for Wayne-O and the others. Take, Shellie, a paramedic with 27 years on the job. She was granted a medical exemption, concerned the vaccine could be harmful to her medical condition. Or my friend Matt, who may be forced out. When I was on the verge of becoming a Seattle fire recruit, Matt found out that there were no openly gay men in Seattle Fire. “We love you,” he told me and promised he’d be there for my journey. Well, I’m here for him now. 

There has been so much confusion during this pandemic. It’s hard to keep the whirlwind of facts straight about the vaccines. I don’t presume to have a handle on the scope of this unbelievable human event, but there is one thing that I must raise my voice to in all this madness, and that is for mercy.   

We all are in pain. We are confused and grief-stricken. We are not OK. Please, I am begging the mayor, the governor, the citizens of our great city and state: Have mercy on my firefighting family. Someone, somewhere, can do something. It’s not too late to accommodate.