Heater performed all the tasks that the cadre of new recruits was put through while hiding that he did not have a leg.
A new cadre of heroes has been receiving training from Suffolk Fire and Rescue for the past 12 months, with a unique recruit in the class. Chris Heater, an amputee, will become the first like him to be a firefighter at the Suffolk fire department, reports Wavy News 10. “I actually grew up watching Backdraft. So, I don’t know. It was just always a calling,” he shared. Heater, at 33 years old, is the oldest among his class of recruits. “It makes it a little rougher trying to compete with the young guys.”
The trainees are placed in demanding and uneasy circumstances. Heater performed all the tasks that the cadre of recruits was put through while hiding that he did not have a leg. “I hid it from them for the longest time that I didn’t have a leg,” he said. “We put them in confined spaces. We put them at heights where they have probably never been, 100 feet on a ladder,” explained Lieutenant Durand Coltrane, who supervises the training for Suffolk Firefighter recruits.
Before this, Heater shared, he was a Marine, adding, “I always wanted to be in the fire department, but, you know, 9/11 happened and I was in the 8th grade, so I joined the Marine Corps instead.” He served in the Marines for 14 years.
In 2018, he sustained a non-combat-related 25-foot fall. Doctors at Walter Reed were forced to amputate Heater's right leg below the knee after a year of rehabilitation. “You start to really think, like, this is probably it. I’m done. You know? You see a lot of vets that just can’t get forward, so you have to figure out what you’re going to do. You get into Walter Reed and those guys up there, they’re world-class. They really start to take care of you, and the mindset changes when you’re up there,” Heater explained.
Heater attributes his perspective shift and the reawakening of his dream of becoming a firefighter to the staff at Walter Reed and his family. “I started volunteering out of Moyock, and I just said we’re going to go all for it,” he said. He decided to pursue his dream professionally and focused on Suffolk Fire and Rescue. “Chief Barakey and Chief Adams actually laughed because I showed up to my interview with no leg on. I was actually on crutches. I think I was a couple of weeks out of surgery,” Heater recalled. Lt. Coltrane said his team really wanted to meet him after learning of his story. “I heard he was prior military as well as many of us here at the fire department. So, I was rooting for him,” he added.
Heater said, “My biggest thing was I didn’t want to be treated different. I just want to be the same as everybody else. I don’t want them to be like, ‘Oh, he’s only got one leg.'”
When Marine Corps veteran Chris Heater graduates from Suffolk's fire academy later this month, there will be no other firefighter like him in Virginia.— WAVY TV 10 (@WAVY_News) October 6, 2022
“I hid it from them for the longest time that I didn’t have a leg.”https://t.co/R02RvSBCud
On the first day of training, Heater was asked what the most difficult obstacle would be, to which he replied, “I told them we’d figure it out together because I don’t know. You don’t know until you’re in that situation.” There were challenges, but Heater and his team overcame them by making modifications and employing humor. “I did get caught up on a few things, and I had to tell people, ‘Hey, I think my leg fell off.’ Or ‘I think my leg is loose.’ So, we needed to address that, but Walter Reed was able to fix those issues, so it won’t happen now,” he explained.
Lt. Coltrane expressed that it has been inspiring for him to watch Heater train, and lead. Heater is now the class president, treated just like everyone else! “He went through what we call ‘The Worm’ one time, and we literally said, ‘You’re going to get out of here even if you have to lose a limb. You have to get out of here to save your life.’ And when he went through the worm, he actually lost his leg in there, but he kept working, and got through it, and got out of there with his team. He turned around and helped the rest of his team get out of there. So, that’s commendable,” Lt. Coltrane said.
Now, about to achieve his dreams when he graduates on October 27, Heater reflects on his darkest moments and reminds himself, “There’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”