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The volunteer spirit

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Chaplain Wil Keith said he’s lost 12 pounds working out with Midway firefighters.

Keith, rector at Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Episcopal Church, has been Midway’s chaplain for over a year and has trained alongside the men and women who are willing to risk their lives for others in emergencies.

“That’s a two-way street,” Midway Fire Chief Doug Eggiman said about his chaplain’s sweat equity. “He’s benefitting, but they benefit from the connection and the trust that gets built with that.”

Keith will be named Georgetown County’s volunteer of the year at Tuesday’s County Council meeting at the Old Courthouse in Georgetown. He was presented Midway’s meritorious service award at the department’s annual awards banquet in December.

“We can’t say enough about what he’s done for the department,” Eggiman said. “He’s very approachable, and we don’t even know how many hours he’s putting in that aren’t recorded on a report or a training log.”

Keith said he gets “a bunch of brothers” by volunteering at Midway. He’s close in age to most of the firefighters and took to the job with enthusiasm.

When Midway firefighters were training in smoke at their facility on Beaumont Road, Keith put on the breathing apparatus and mask to see what they were going through. “You can’t be part of the flock unless you smell like a sheep,” he told Eggiman. Firemen smell like smoke and, in Keith’s case, so does a fire chaplain.

“He’s gained a tremendous amount of trust with our people to where they can relate to him and are confident talking to him,” Eggiman said. “Post-traumatic stress, suicide, divorce, alcoholism — the fire service has tremendous rates of those. Before Afghanistan, the fire service had a higher instance of PTSD than the military because of what we see and deal with on a daily basis. We see the best of humanity, people putting themselves ahead of others, and a lot of times we see the worst of humanity. It’s not like you go home and share that. You end up compartmentalizing it, keeping it to yourself.”

Fire service chaplains were rare 10 or 15 years ago, Eggiman said. Emphasis was on the physical well being of firefighters rather than the spiritual or mental. “Now more and more departments have that person, a person you can reach out and talk to,” Eggiman said. “Wil does a great job because he nurtures that connection. The message he’s giving and being around and talking has made a huge difference, no question in my mind.”

Keith said he learned about the pressure on firefighters by asking simple questions and letting them talk. “There’s an invincible mentality,” he said, “that if you seek help, you are weak.”

By helping wash fire trucks and being around the station, Keith has become a “comfortable guy” to confide in. “Memories of the stuff they see often has sharp and jagged edges,” he said. “The more they can talk about it, the more those edges are filed down so it doesn’t hurt so much the next time it comes up.”

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