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A Talk on the Wild Side.

The Makings of an American Hero

Firefighter in the brush at Okefenokee NWRFor nearly eight weeks from April to June this year, hundreds of Service employees from across the country helped manage the West Mims Fire at Okefenokee  National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia. Photo by Mark Davis/USFWS

What makes a hero?

It’s a deceptively easy question. I’m sure each of us could easily define the term. But those definitions would be subtly unique. That’s because how we define heroism goes to the heart of how we define ourselves and our values.

As we celebrate American heroes this week, across the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, heroes are all around us – defining heroism in many different ways.  Many risk life and limb on a daily basis to protect visitors, safeguard wildlife and enforce our nation’s laws.

We’re fortunate to count among our ranks Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agents, Wildlife Inspectors and Refuge Law Enforcement Officers working around the clock to combat wildlife crime and keep the public safe on our refuges and hatcheries. These dedicated professionals often risk their lives to apprehend dangerous criminals and help people in trouble.

Their ranks include professionals like Russell Haskett, Federal Wildlife Officer at the Southeastern Idaho National Wildlife Refuge Complex. In the course of his career with the Service and as a Tribal Wildlife Officer for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, of which he is an enrolled member, Russell has saved the lives of multiple accident victims,  while arresting scores of dangerous wildlife violators.

A few months ago, he helped rescue a family whose kayak had overturned and who weren’t all wearing life vests. And back in December 2012, Haskett responded to a call and found two waterfowl hunters suffering from severe hypothermia after their canoe capsized in the freezing waters of the Snake River near Minidoka National Wildlife Refuge. Risking his own life to rescue the two hunters – one of whom was already unconscious and clinging to life, and the other who couldn’t speak – he waded into the river and pulled them to safety. Both men were transported to the hospital and recovered. He won a Valor award from the Department of the Interior for this rescue. 

Earlier this month, the Department presented additional Valor Awards to three other Service employees, including Federal Wildlife Officer Deb Goeb who belly-crawled through silt to rescue two stranded boaters.

And the day before they handed out those Valor Awards, at Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, Federal Wildlife Officers Dan Shamhart and John Below saved a man and his son who were floating down the Mississippi River north of Dubuque, Iowa, toward a dam with multiple roller gates and very turbulent, high velocity water. Without swift action, the two would have likely been drawn into the roller gates and possibly drowned. The man told the officers that his son had dropped a toy into the river and jumped in after it. The man then jumped in after his son. Fortunately, both had life vests.

Special Agent Paul Montuori worked on Operation Pongo, an investigation that sent two wildlife smugglers to prison.

Lest we think all heroes wear a badge and a gun, one of those 2017 Valor Awards went to maintenance supervisor Joseph A. D’Arrigo who led an evacuation during a flood at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma.

The daring women and men of our fire crews are certainly heroes. With firefighter and public safety as their top priority, the inherent risks of this profession are evident as they work under dangerous conditions to protect our nation's valued natural resources – as well as visitors and surrounding communities – from damaging wildfire.

For nearly eight weeks from April to June this year, hundreds of Service employees from across the country helped manage the West Mims Fire at Okefenokee  National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia protecting many lives and hundreds of nearby homes.

One of them was Michael Dueitt, an incident commander of the Southern Area Red Team. He was also incident commander for the deadly fires in Gatlinburg last year where we helped our sister agency, the National Park Service. Like many of our other dedicated fire professionals, he performs his leadership duties and “walks the walk,” setting a great example for his team and others in the field.

Fire Management Officer Bill Waln and Assistant Fire Management Officer Deon Steinle play key roles in the Mid-Plains Interagency Fire Management Zone. They coordinate complex, prescribed burning efforts that enhance habitat for wildlife, then immediately answer the call to leave home and work on an incident management team’s operations section, involved in large scale wildland fires. Their roles put them in position to directly guide firefighters to do their jobs safely.

And there are so many more! I wish I could single out all of the hundreds of American heroes across the Fish and Wildlife Service, but I want you to know that I am humbled by your successes, and honored to help you achieve even greater things in the years to come.


Greg Sheehan, Acting Director, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


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