A lot can be said for first impressions. When I first met Staff
Sgt. Russell Vidler at a pit in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, during the
108th Training Command's combined Best Warrior and Drill Sergeant of
the Year competition, he struck me as the kind of Soldier who will
stop at nothing to get the job done.
Vidler was barreling
through a mud and barbed wire obstacle course, emerging with a torn
and bloody finger he reluctantly agreed to have addressed by a
That's where I caught up with him. Not one for small
talk, he responded briefly to a few questions before he was off and
running to the next task.
I can't say I was surprised with
his professional demeanor and military bearing. As Drill Sergeants,
Soldiers like Vidler are the standard-bearers for young recruits. As
the 98th Training Division (IET) Drill Sgt. of the Year, he also
stands out among his peers.
Army Reserve Drill Sergeant of the Year contestant, Staff Sgt. Russell Vidler, 98th Training Division (IET), the log obstacle on the Fit to Win course during the third day of the four-day TRADOC Drill Sergeant of the Year competition held at Fort Jackson, S.C., Sept. 7-10, 2015. Vidler is in a head-to-head competition with Staff Sgt. Mark Mercer, 95th Training Division (IET), for the title of Army Reserve's top drill sergeant. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Brian Hamilton)
But as Citizen Soldier, with often separate and distinct
career paths, I often wonder who these outstanding Soldiers
are at home, and in their civilian careers. My first glimpse
came later that year, at the TRADOC level Drill Sergeant of
the Year competition at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Again
Vidler performed like a man possessed. But after the winners
were announced and all the hoopla had died down, I made my
way over to get a few words with him.
approached him during the awards ceremony, I saw this big,
gruff guy in his Army service uniform with a baby in each
arm and another tugging on his trousers, his wife next to
him, juggling a diaper bag.
So when Vidler offered
to take me on a ride along at his job with the Ithaca Fire
Department in Ithaca, New York, I leapt at the chance.
And that's where the story truly begins.
the trek through the mountains from the Syracuse airport to
Ithaca, checked into my hotel and then headed over to
Central Station. I was met by a host of firefighters, many
of them veterans themselves, each one extending a firm hand
shake and a first name. I was then led upstairs to the
weight room where I met with Vidler who was finishing up his
pre-shift workout. After a quick handshake, he gave me a
brief tour of the station, and set up his gear by the fire
Throughout the tour, Vidler's story unfolded.
He left the active component in 2004 to pursue a degree in
history. Not unlike any other 22-year-old coming out of the
Army, his plans were subject to change at a moments notice.
“I know I've always wanted to be in the Army and I know
that being a fireman is something that I've always wanted to
do. The camaraderie in both is amazing. We're like a
family,” Vidler said.
“The biggest thing that I
missed coming off active duty was the camaraderie. After the
Army I spent four years in college and I had one friend.
Four years, one friend. I missed the camaraderie terribly.”
So having earned his degree, Vidler joined the Army
Reserve in 2009 as a drill sergeant and later landed a job
in California working private security.
he got the call from the fire department back home in
Ithaca.“Everybody loves the fire service. It doesn't matter
what we get called out for people know we're there to help,”
said Vidler. “I love being the guy that when things go south
people call. And the same goes for everyone in that ready
Peter Snell, one of Vidler's coworkers and
our chauffeur for the night, prepared our limousine - engine
901. Snell who started out as a volunteer in 1993, was hired
by Ithaca in 1999 and has worked with a whole host of
veterans throughout the years.
“This job comes with
quite a bit of downtime but has a tendency to go very south,
very quickly. You take comfort in knowing that when the s--
hits the fan those guys are going to be around to have your
back,” Snell said.
Staff Sgt. Russell Vidler, 98th Training Division (IET) Drill
Sergeant of the Year and firefighter with the Ithaca Fire
Department, retires the national colors for the evening at Central
Ithaca, N.Y., Dec. 16, 2015. Vidler, a drill sergeant with the Army
Reserve, has worked as a firefighter with the Ithaca Fire Department
for two years now. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Brian Hamilton)
With the pre-shift formalities out of the way, we made our way to
the kitchen where a whole host of firefighters were busy doing what
firefighters are best known for across the country, cooking.
“I love my family, I love my job, but I really love my food!” Vidler said. “Everybody likes to eat and here we like
to eat well.”
After assembling a huge pot of what
appeared to be spaghetti with a zucchini sauce and garlic
bread, everyone gathered around the table to eat. It was the
first time since I had been there that there was total
silence, however short lived. No more than five minutes into
a remarkably tasty meal, we received our first call for the
night. Everyone scrambled to their trucks and we sped out
with lights blazing.
We arrived less than a couple of
minutes later at a store front, where a couple of members of
the Ithaca Police Department were patiently trying secure
the door of a local shop. Vidler, Snell, and Lt. James
Wheal, all searched for a master key carefully tucked away
for such incidents to no avail.
Wheal finally grabbed
some medical tape from the engine and managed to secure the
forgotten door by pulling the tape and latching the inside
of the door from the outside.
“I learned that in
class,” Wheal announced proudly. We said our farewells to
the two law enforcement officers and shuffled back to the
warmth that engine 901 provided.
Back at Central
Station the four of us managed to finish off our meal while
others on shift took part in CPR training.
a direct correlation between being in the Army and being a
firefighter,” Vidler said. “Training is paramount in both.
That's what we do when we're not on a mission in the Army
and also when we're not on a call here.
Chief Rob Covert, who has served with the department for 23
years, took the relationship a step further.
the choice to serve the community and public is a large
motivator for most of these guys. I think that's why most
people join the military and when veterans look to
transition to the civilian world a lot of them look to
places like the fire department to continue that service,”
Throughout a night filled with broken sleep,
we had only a handful of calls ranging from medical checks
to a suspicious gas odor coming from a building that turned
out to be a nothing more than a skunk warning passers-by to
keep their distance. But for each time the alarm rang, I saw
a group of guys, each with a unique personality, coming
together as one team.
“Like the military, the fire
service is a very team oriented business and people coming
out of the military enjoy working in that type of
environment,” Covert said. “Our profession gives them the
opportunity to continue to work together as a group in order
to solve problems for the community. Working in that type of
environment and the camaraderie that comes along with it is
something that our veterans really seem to excel at.”
Vidler said he plans to continue serving in both the
Army Reserve and the fire service for as long as they'll
have him; hoping to commission someday in the Army Reserve
and climb the ladder to assistant chief with the fire
At the end of the night, Vidler raised
the flag, and we said our goodbyes to his shift mates while
simultaneously greeting the relief. He dropped me off at my
hotel then hurried home, hoping to get in some quality
playtime with Buddy and the twins before doing it all over
again the next night.
“I couldn't imagine sitting
behind a desk doing the same thing every day. Just showing
up to work each day and not knowing what to expect is an
awesome feeling. I can't see myself doing anything other
than this. I'm livin' the dream.”
Leaving there, I
would have to solidly agree; yes, Russell Vidler, you truly
are livin' the dream!
By U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Brian Hamilton
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