It’s tempting to mention the irony of Philadelphia firefighter John Slivinski, Jr. killing himself just after I wrote about PTSD, but it would be foolish to do so, because we don’t have the complete story on his death yet, and I hope we do get the complete story one of these days.
All we have now from press reports is a stack of facts that don’t add up to an explanation. All we know is that the young man, 31, was a member of Rescue 1 in the Philadelphia Fire Department. We know he was the son of a Philadelphia firefighter who also served at Rescue 1. We know the family has no statement about the death right now. We know the Philly Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers was shocked and surprised and reduced to the usual cliches in vain attempt to react to someone so young who seems on top of the world putting a gun to his own head. And we know one of John Slivinski’s fellow firefighters at Rescue 1 offered vague comment to the press that John had been dealing with personal problems lately. Maybe an allusion to his marriage falling apart, which begs the question of why the marriage fell apart.
But we don’t know what those problems were for certain. It could also have been PTSD from the Marine Corps, from firefighting, from marriage, from Catholic guilt, survivor’s guilt, from fear of fame—the calendar was scheduled for release this year. Who knows.
It happens. One dark autumn evening we had a call to a residence, and I drove to the address from my apartment to park near the ambulance and the pumper. Nothing was going on, though, or it seemed so because the ambulance and the pumper just sat there with no lights on other than headlights, so I just hung out until one of the other firefighters walked over slowly to tell me that a 14-year-old kid in the house across the street had hung himself. The scene was somber, of course. Silent. Nobody knew what to say, and we all felt useless. Once my brother had a call to a failed suicide attempt when a woman jumped three stories but survived with two broken femurs. And a New London firefighter received recognition last year for pulling a potential suicide off the Thames River Bridge. It happens.
So it goes, Vonnegut wrote. The typical disbelief following the suicide of someone who seems on top of the world is compounded because John Slivinski, Jr. took his own life on a particularly violent weekend in the city he protected. 33 people were killed or wounded in Philly last weekend who didn’t want to be killed or wounded in mindless gun violence.
Or maybe the word “disbelief” is incorrect. Suicide is condoned in the male culture in this country, and men in almost every country where data is collected kill themselves much more often than women. We praise the sacrifice made in war when a soldier falls on a grenade and dies to save the lives of comrades. We praise the rear guard in a retreat, those who know they’re doomed but need to stay behind anyway in the face of certain death. We praise firefighters who risk their own lives going into buildings other people are trying to leave. Fact is, according to the philly.com obituary, “In 2004, a friend of Slivinski’s, Lt. Derrick Harvey, died when he went into a burning house to help Slivinski and another firefighter. A friend said Slivinski kept a small memorial to Harvey in his home, using Harvey’s helmet.”
No doubt exists about the courage needed to be a firefighter, the physical courage, the emotional courage, but sometimes being as tough as John Slivinki is not enough. Sometimes the courage needed to just get up the next day just isn’t there, and tough guys just don’t know how to ask for help. Keep it to themselves. Once another firefighter and I spent a day in the New London hospital emergency room as part of a PR stunt allegedly to help improve communication between emergency services and the ER staff. I got to hold the head of a screaming infant while the RN used a restraint board to keep him from squirming while the doctor stitched one suture through the kid’s skull skin to close a laceration. The doctor figured the kid would scream anyway if he gave him a local, so why not just hold his head and run the needle through with that one thread. It worked, the suture, but that infant was stronger than I ever imagined, and I had to grip his head, especially after the doctor barked at me to hold him still, hard enough to crush a cantaloupe.
Shortly after the infant episode, the RN demonstrated the defibrillator paddles with the power turned way down. She held them to our palms so we could hear and see our pulse, and I was surprised to hear that the other firefighter with me was more nervous than I was; his pulse was over 100. He always seemed like a rock. Strong silent type who’d been on the crew of Air Force crash trucks. I tended to talk and get loud when under stress, but that was just a release that kept me sane. My pulse was near normal, even after holding the screaming infant—who turned out to be just fine.
It happens. But it doesn’t have to.