*names changed to protect anonymity
His big boot-clad foot taps to the smooth saxophone of Charlie
Parker emanating from the creaky, antique radio in the corner
of the firehouse kitchen. The six-foot-five paramedic leans against
the corner of the beige, granite countertop, a red flower-patterned
apron stretched across his muscular stomach. He pushes a few
strands of floppy blonde hair out of his face and his sea-green
eyes peer intently at a large cookbook. Light from the flickering
candles reflects off his silver necklace, forming an aura around
the small figure of St. Florian dangling at his throat. “He
is the patron saint of firefighters. My mother gave it to me
for protection,” he says, fingering the delicate chain.
Three hours earlier, Greg Peterson* was teetering fifty feet
in the air over billowing flames, hauling seventy pounds of gear,
and praying that his oxygen tank would withstand the heat. Now
he flicks on the burner of the gas stove and carefully pours
cream into a glass dish for lobster bisque. “Cooking is
just another way for us to get to play with fire. I think most
firefighters are really pyromaniacs at heart,” he jokes.
The large candles on the counters create a warm ambiance and
the smell of tarragon and garlic wafts through the room.
Peterson arrived at the local firehouse two years ago, with an
acceptance letter from a prestigious university emergency medical
program. The fire chief, impressed with his experiences in the
field, asked him to live at the firehouse and work four nights
a week as a volunteer firefighter.
In May, Peterson graduates with honors and will leave immediately
for Iraq, where independent contractors are recruiting paramedics
and firefighters to aid in the reconstruction of the war-torn
country. There is little military protection for civilian workers,
but the $100,000 minimum salary provokes many paramedics to take
their chances. “I’m so scared for him,” Peterson’s
mother, Katie*, admitted from her home in Colorado, her voice
quivering slightly as she spoke. “But he is smart and careful,
and I know God will watch over him,” she said.
While the impressive salary is not Peterson’s primary motivation
for going to Iraq, he will not deny that money is an important
factor in his life. When he was six-years-old, his mother underwent
a simple surgery that resulted in a malpractice disaster, leaving
her nearly paralyzed and bedridden for years. “Her morphine
doses needed to be extremely high to handle the pain, and she
was addicted almost immediately. One dose of her medicine would
kill a grown man,” Peterson says angrily, his knife forcefully
splitting an onion and sending juice squirting across the counter.
The costs of incessant medical bills and medications left the
family struggling to make ends meet. “People who tell you
that money doesn’t matter don’t realize how tough
it is not to have it. It would come down to a choice between
weekly groceries or my mom’s medicine in a given month.
We received some money from the government, but it just wasn’t
enough,” he says sadly.
Peterson first encountered paramedics when he was eight years
old. His mother, spiraling into deep depression, felt she was
a burden to her children and attempted suicide with an overdose
of pain medication. “I found her lying there and she wouldn’t
wake up. Her face was pure white and somehow I knew she wasn’t
sleeping,” Peterson remembers as he absently stirs flour
into the broth, his eyes troubled and distant. The small boy
called 911 that stormy night and saved his mother’s life.
Paramedics stormed through the front door, their black raincoats
dripping with water. “They didn’t say anything to
me, but they didn’t ask me to leave either,” Peterson
reflects. Katie was not breathing and the paramedics had to use
an AED machine to restart her heart. Peterson stood by the bed,
his small arm clutching the bedpost, and watched a man take two
paddles and press them against Katie’s chest. “I
will never forget the image of my mother’s body jumping
off the floor like a limp rag doll,” he murmurs, his eyes
Exposure to emergency medicine at such a young age fueled Peterson’s
desire to work in a field that would allow him to help people.
“I knew at that moment that this was my path. These men
and women are the life of our society. They get paid crap, and
yet they work inhuman shifts at ridiculous hours of the night,
wade through blood and vomit, and risk disease and death so that
one person can go on breathing. That night the one person was
my mom and I will never forget it,” Peterson says as he
chops green onions on a cutting board and pours them into the
Peterson began working for a volunteer rescue group in Colorado,
commonly known as the “body finders,” when he was
sixteen years old. With Colorado’s unpredictable and severe
weather, it is very difficult to find a lost person alive on
the mountain. “The first time you find a human body it
is shocking. It was the smell that hit me the worst, like burning
rubber and burning hair put together. Animals had gotten at it,
so there wasn’t much left. It didn’t even look human,”
There are exceptions, however, and sometimes the team gets lucky.
Five years ago, on a stormy day in October, a little boy drifted
away from his family’s campsite on a popular Colorado hiking
mountain. The team combed the terrain at least a dozen times
and found nothing. Because a light rain had eliminated all hope
for tracking footprints, the rescuers relied on a grid system
and worked their way across the mountain. Peterson came on duty
on day five of the search. “I was rushing and grabbed the
wrong pack. It had a map in it that was for a different park
down south. I was working off three hours of sleep in over a
week and didn’t notice the difference,” he says.
By following this map, instead of the correct one, Peterson led
a small team completely off the search grid. They found the boy
curled up under a tree, nearly starved and extremely dehydrated.
Brian Reed*, the team leader, incredulously recalled the incident.
“When Greg came out of the trees, I swear, it was like
an angel descending. We heard a shout and saw Greg, a huge smile
on his face and a small body draped in his arms,” he explained
as his voice rose in nostalgic excitement. The team, convinced
of divine intervention, nicknamed Peterson “the saint.”
Peterson received his EMT certification two years later, and
his laid-back personality and quirky sense of humor made him
popular among his coworkers. Kevin Black*, Peterson’s friend
and coworker, laughed as he recalled one of Peterson’s
various experiences. “I was working at the hospital on
the graveyard shift. We open the back door of the ambulance and
Greg and some woman are swaying back and forth, their arms locked
together, howling ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ at the top of
their lungs,” he remembered. The woman was a psychiatric
patient and had overdosed on her medication. Highly delusional,
she was convinced that she was Elvis. Peterson laughs as he remembers
the call. “I’m eighteen years old. Most kids my age
are out playing beer pong, but I am stuck in a really small box
with a crazy person. Now I could remain professional, but the
whole thing is just so absurd, so I start asking for requests.
Pretty soon we are singing together as the ambulance careens
around corners,” he chuckles. “She was a great lady.
People react two ways to the stress of emergency medicine. You
either close yourself off and deal with it inside, or you have
a sense of humor,” he says as he reaches into a cupboard,
pulls out a bottle of sherry, and pours a small amount into a
In Iraq, Peterson will be working for an international security
company, as a paramedic. The work is daunting, and he will be
one of only five or six men assigned to a specific detail. Because
he will work as a shooter and a medic, arms training is required
and he will attend basic training similar to the U.S. Army program.
“It is strange being trained to save people and kill people
at the same time,” Peterson says, the corners of his mouth
turning up at the irony. The company is building emergency clinics
throughout the area, but the chance of recruiting a doctor as
a member of the staff is slim. Peterson understands the realities
he will face overseas. “They don’t sugar-coat it.
I was told that I would have to stabilize people in the street
under fire with a fifty-fifty chance of evacuation. There are
no rules out there, only personal choices. No one will sue you
if you walk away and leave the guy to bleed to death. If it comes
to that choice, a choice between risking my neck or walking away,
I don’t know what I will do,” Peterson says, cleaning
up vegetables on the counter as if trying to distract himself
from the thought.
Yet, Greg is ambivalent toward the war in general. He explains
that while the doctors and paramedics will fight to protect their
lives, they are not there to fight the war. “We are in
Iraq to preserve life, not to take it,” Peterson emphasizes.
He realizes, however, that he may be faced with difficult decisions.
“It goes against every paramedic’s nature to kill.
Day after day, we fight to capture that last breath. We shock
people until their hearts start beating again or they are good
and dead, and it doesn’t matter who they are. If an Iraqi
soldier was dying in front of me, I don’t know how I could
just stand by and watch. It isn’t about us versus them;
it’s about life versus death,” Peterson explains.
Although he looks forward to the fast-paced environment in Iraq,
Peterson has no shortage of excitement at the firehouse. Living
in a station, going to school full time, volunteering at the
hospital, and working as a paramedic and firefighter is a rough
schedule to handle. “Red bull. Red bull keeps me going,”
Greg says seriously. Despite waking up at all hours of the night
to go on calls, he will graduate at the top of his class. “Getting
up for a call isn’t so bad because it becomes automatic.
It’s like getting up to go to the bathroom and coming back
two hours later. You get used to strange hours,” Peterson
laughs as he adds canned lobster meat to the simmering pot.
Emergency medical workers have to be careful not to wear themselves
down because lives depend on their efficiency and ability to
think quickly. On his first day on the job, the team called Peterson
to a structural fire at a local warehouse. The firefighters needed
to get up six stories, and the ladder on the truck was malfunctioning.
Ten minutes went by and the ladder was still broken, but the
fire was spreading through the bottom floors, and the only way
to get people out was through the window on the ninth floor.
The fire chief remembered the call vividly. “We were in
a panic because time is everything when dealing with fire. Greg
was the rookie, so no one was paying much attention to him. Suddenly,
we see a crane coming down the street toward us. I thought I
was delusional, but there is Greg in the driver’s seat,”
he said. Peterson borrowed the crane from the construction site
down the street and, using it like a ladder, the firefighters
scaled the bars to the top of the building. “I remembered
passing a construction sight on the way, so I asked the foreman
if I could borrow his crane,” Peterson explains as he throws
a pinch of white pepper into the boiling pot.
Improvising is a common aspect of the profession because paramedics
and firefighters never know what they will face. It is difficult
to make decisions with so little information, and Peterson does
not underestimate the mental toll of his job. “Watching
a person die for the first time is shocking to the system. One
second he is looking up at you, and he is a person, and then
he is just gone. I know it sounds stupid, but you feel a chill
pass through your body, as if everything around you is cold for
a moment. You are left there holding this shell and wondering
if you could have done something differently. The night after
is the worst part because you stare at the ceiling and go over
every little action in your head. Once you see some things, your
dreams are never the same. I always remember the eyes of a dead
person because they are human eyes, but void of all life, empty
and glass-like. It is the eyes that are haunting,” he says,
dispelling the disturbing thought by brushing the vegetable remnants
into the trash.
Sometimes paramedics seem cold and calloused about death, but
Peterson explains that it is only their way of dealing with the
horrors of the job. “You have to separate yourself. If
you see everyone as someone’s daughter, brother, or mother,
you will go insane. Sometimes we even joke that the dead people
are the easiest calls because you can’t really hurt them
and they don’t really change or complain.” Peterson
smiles wryly, “Actually, they are really easy to treat.”
Peterson is considering medical school after Iraq and wants to
be an ER doctor. He rejects private practice because he believes
that Emergency Medicine is where his skills can really make a
difference. In his room at the fire station, his EMS certification
hangs above his high school diploma on the wall, and he believes
it will probably hang above his college degree. “This is
what matters most to me,” he admits.
Iraq will give Peterson the opportunity to work with various
professionals in a uniquely stressful environment. It will require
every piece of experience and endurance that he has gained in
nearly a decade of public service. However, he will never forget
the respect that he has for the men and women at the fire station.
“Being a firefighter is not about bravery. It is about
moving forward when you are scared, tired, cold, and lonely and
all you want to do is turn around walk away. It is about running
into a burning building when every instinct is screaming at you
stop. People curse you and attack you and sometimes you just
want to throw your helmet on the ground and say, ‘fuck
it, why bother,’” he says.
Peterson turns the stove off and pours the creamy bisque into
a dish, looking thoughtful. “But it is all worth it,”
he says finally, throwing a sprig of parsley on top of the steaming
soup. “It is all worth it because one day a little boy
might call 911 because his mother isn’t breathing.”
A cocky smile returns to Peterson’s face and he removes
the red apron. “And the ladies love the uniform,”