Under the radar, every day of the year, there are those in our community who selflessly work to preserve and protect our freedoms. Let’s remember them on Independence Day.
By Mike Savicki
For more than a decade, she has lived in the same Cornelius neighborhood, not far from the lake. She knows some of her neighbors, but not all of them. Periodically, when those who know her see her in one of her uniforms, they wave and exchange a greeting before continuing on their way. To the others she is a “ghost,” as a neighbor who is rarely at home.
Hers is a life of selfless service, and not knowing all the neighbors is the result of a choice she first made in July 1993 when she was sworn in to the Air Force. She reinforced this choice in December 1999 when she subsequently became a Charlotte firefighter.
Her life is different than most. As a station captain, she follows a set pattern of alternating 24 and 48 hour duty shifts for about a week before finally getting a full four days free. And on those free days, instead of relaxing around the house or meeting neighbors, she typically gives her time to the military. She uses most of her vacation time to pursue military opportunities, too.
Joining the military came first in her life. Post college, after volunteering to join a friend on a hurricane rescue trip where she lived and worked alongside a team of national guardsmen and women tasked with helping victims put their lives back together, she felt a strong pull to serve. Reviewing job openings with a recruiter the day she returned to her native Tennessee, she signed up to become a flight medic in the Air Force. She only told her parents after she had enlisted.
Now, decades later, as a medical service corps officer assigned to an air medical evacuation squadron based in Charlotte, she has deployed eight times (so far) in her career. When an injured soldier returns from the battlefield to find care in places like Bagram, Afghanistan (where she has deployed three times), she works on the ground with the hospital’s doctors, nurses and surgeons to stabilize the patient and then coordinate transport. Transport happens most often first through Germany, before landing on U.S. soil at Andrews Air Force base.
“Whether I’m at the beginning and see them right as they come in from the field, or at the end when they land on United States soil, clapping and happy to be back, I’m never not amazed by the process, and I feel for the injured soldiers and the work they do. My heart swells every time I see a plane come in carrying our troops,” she shares.
Becoming a firefighter came next in her life, and it didn’t come easily. In her first attempt, she missed completing the agility portion of the entrance exam by 20 seconds and had to wait a year. In her second attempt, she failed the written portion. Finally, in her third year, at age 30, she passed and was assigned to a firehouse.
Reflecting on a career wearing a different service hat, she says, “I have learned that it’s typically one of the worst days of your life when a fireman comes to your house. So, to help diffuse a situation, I look for medals on the wall, or family photos on tables that include someone in uniform. I tell them that I serve, too, and I thank them for their service. Even a simple gesture like that makes whatever problem they are having just a bit less traumatic.”
As extraordinary as her story appears, she is not alone in our community. You don’t have to look far to find others who live similar lives. The Cornelius fire department is fully staffed with similarly selfless men and women – former Army now National Guard, Coast Guard, Air National Guard, Navy, Marines, and Army. The same holds true in the firehouses of Huntersville, Mooresville, Mount Mourne, Denver and beyond.
“Do you still feel a sense of patriotism as Independence Day approaches?” I ask her one afternoon. “And what should we do to thank those like you who serve?”
“Absolutely I do,” she replies. “We have all heard that freedom isn’t free and every day, even when we are not at war, there are those who continue the rotation of service that not only protects our country, but keeps our communities safe and our nation free. We should remember them.
“I look for the older veterans, those from World War II, Korea or Vietnam, and I thank them for their service because they were never thanked when they returned,” she adds. “But being patriotic can mean different things to different people, so just do what you think is right and remember those who work so hard to let us enjoy our freedom.”
Her name is Denise Osborne and she is a soldier, a firefighter, a patriot. And she is our neighbor.
This article was originally published in Currents Magazine in 2016.