QUANTICO, Va. – Hundreds of firefighters from multiple states were joined by military members, police and the public honoring a fallen, lifesaving firefighter, Navy veteran and avid motorcyclist during a memorial service on June 5 and 6.
Navy, Air Force and Army service members, joined firefighters from the District of Columbia (D.C.), Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina in honoring Fire Department BattalionChief John (“Johnny Mac”) McDonald.
Naval District Washington (NDW) Commandant, Rear Adm. Markham K. Rich, Naval Support Activity Washington Commanding Officer, Capt. Monte L. Ulmer, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling (JBAB) Individual Mobilization Augmentee, Air Force Col. Monique Minnick, Senior Chaplain (and Navy Cmdr.) Wesley Sloat and JBAB Operations Officer, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Mike Rickett, were among the military members present.
Members of the public lined streets, some saluting or holding their hand over their heart, as the long funeral procession, consisting of many dozens of fire trucks, made its way from the church service in Stafford, Virginia to Quantico National Cemetery, where military honors and McDonald’s internment concluded the two-day memorial service.
A large motorcycle escort, consisting of Department of Defense police, as well as police from Stafford County and Prince William County, Virginia, and members of the Fire and Iron Motorcycle Club led the procession.
McDonald served as vice president of the Northern Virginia chapter of the motorcycle club, which consists of firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics who are also motorcyclists. His motorcycle, club vest and helmet were on display at his viewing.
McDonald, 54, passed away while on duty at the JBAB-based NDW Fire and Emergency Services Central Battalion in the early morning on May 30.
Before becoming a paid firefighter with NDW in July 1984, McDonald began his firefighting career in 1974, while still a teenager, as a volunteer with the Stafford Volunteer Fire Department (SVFD) in Stafford, Virginia.
McDonald is credited with the saving of at least seven lives during his career and mentored many rookie firefighters.
McDonald served four years in the U.S. Navy as a boatswain’s mate, most of which was aboard the destroyer USS Caron (DD-970), during which time he earned a sea service deployment award.
He is survived by a wife and two children.
Friend, mentor, hero, servant of God
During the service, members of the two fire departments, friends and family, eulogized McDonald.
NDW Fire Chief Charles P. Miedzinski, told the audience about the lives of people that McDonald and the crew of JBAB-based Tower Ladder 21 saved from a burning apartment building in Oxon Hill, Maryland, a community located just outside of the nation’s capital, as just one example of McDonald’s lifesaving efforts.
SVFD Fire Chief Dave Luckett, related how McDonald served as a mentor to many rookie firefighters and helped them in many ways, professionally and personally.
“He took me under his wing when I joined the fire department at age 15. He taught me and even helped me get a firefighting job at the Quantico Marine Corps Base,” Luckett said.
Miedzinski added, “He was not just a Battalion Chief, he was a friend to all firefighters – at work and at home. He always took good care of his firefighters.”
Luckett recalled, “He made us feel good as soon as he walked into a room. He took the time to teach us the right way to do things and pushed us to always be the best.”
While McDonald was the fire chief at SVFD, which is also known as Stafford County Fire and Rescue Company 2, the department’s motto, “Committed 2 Excellence” was coined, according to firefighter and SVFD president, Curt Avis.
As a lasting tribute to McDonald, his name and chief’s title was painted on the passenger doors of fire engines at JBAB and the adjacent Naval Research Laboratory, for all firefighters entering the trucks to see, each and every time they enter to perform their duties.
With his volunteerism, lifesaving and his endless quest to help others in need, McDonald was a hero to many people, but most of all to his family.
“During snowstorms, we’d go out in his four wheeled drive truck, looking for people stuck in the snow, to help them in a goodwill, genuine, heartfelt gesture,” McDonald’s daughter, Ashley, said.
His giving and helping nature will live on, Ashley reported. The donation of his bones and tissue will continue his legacy of helping others in need, she said.
While helping others was his passion; leading and helping his family was his love.
NDW Acting Deputy Fire Chief Mike Murray, read a letter from one of McDonald’s close friends. The friend called McDonald, “Hard working and hard playing.” The friend’s letter emphasized McDonald’s love for his family. “His accomplishments were his family,” the friend wrote.
“There was nothing dad wouldn’t do for our family,” McDonald’s daughter, Katie, remembered.
He was also a God-loving man, dedicating his life along with his family to Jesus Christ, she said.
A slide show, featuring many photos, spanning much of McDonald’s life and set to county and western music, including the Garth Brooks’ song, “Friends in low places,” brought both smiles to faces and tears to eyes as fellow firefighters, friends and family viewed and recalled many of the scenes.
Miedzinski and Luckett presented McDonald’s family with the folded and cased flags of both fire departments. The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) awarded McDonald its Line of Duty Death medal. McDonald is the 2,294thIAFF member to fall in the line of duty.
Closing the church service, a firefighter played out the longtime firefighting tradition of striking a fire bell with the traditional code and bell pattern of 5-5-5; three separate batches of five strikes of the bell, signifying the last alarm for McDonald.
Following the church service, McDonald’s remains, contained in an urn, were driven to the cemetery on NDW Tower Ladder 21, by the same firefighter that drove McDonald on a fire truck, after McDonald was promoted to serve as the fire captain of that fire company, before being promoted to battalion chief.
Upon arrival at the cemetery, Luckett and Miedzinski carried McDonald’s remains and a U.S. Flag from the fire truck and turned them over to a lead petty officer from the JBAB-based U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard, following an exchange of salutes between the fire chiefs and the Sailors.
The handoff signified the transition between the full honors fire department funeral to the execution of a precision military funeral and internment at a national cemetery for Veterans.
A Navy Band bugler played Taps and Navy Ceremonial Guardsmen rendered honors, including a gun salute, before presenting a U.S. Flag, folded by the Sailors, to the family.
Miedzinski presented the family with McDonald’s Battalion Chief’s fire helmet, well scarred by the many fires the he helped fight during his time as a chief.
During the ceremonies, hundreds of firefighters stood at attention, saluted and looked like a sea of blue, just as they had during the church service, earlier.
The words of a pastor, uttered during the church service, remained fresh in the minds of those at the cemetery. “Johnny is not dead, he’s been promoted to paradise. This is a time to celebrate that he lived, not that he died. This is not the end, but rather, a new beginning.”
“Johnny Mac lived well; loved well and laughed well. He is not dead, for the best is yet to come,” the pastor stated.
Likewise, the words contained in the friend’s letter read by Murray, included, “You can shed tears because he is gone or you can smile because he lived.”
Similarly, a letter read on behalf of McDonald’s oldest brother, Rod, encouraged the crowd to “Count your rainbows, not your thunderstorms.”
A Stafford County Fire and Rescue dispatcher transmitted a last call voice alarm over the fire department radio in honor of McDonald and concluded the dispatch with the statement, “He will be missed.”
D.C. Fire Department’s Pipe Band played Amazing Grace as the memorial service came to an end.
“Remember the good times, his smiles; and remember him often,” daughter Ashley suggested.
She continued, “I hope you will take the lessons of my dad’s life; what he taught you, and do as he did, helping others in any way that you can. Let his legacy live forever,”
“Do for others as he did for you. Teach others as he taught you,” daughter Katie concluded.
“He was a valuable asset at JBAB. His loss will certainly impact all of us. We will not soon forget his long and dedicated service and fellowship,” JBAB Commander Navy Capt. Frank Mays said earlier.
Mays’ statements reflect those of hundreds of other people who knew, personally interacted or worked with, were taught by or benefitted from McDonald’s volunteerism, professionalism, integrity, love, friendship or generosity.