Leadership, Safety & Health

From Widow to Wounded Warrior

My life is now measured in two parts

By Melanie Clark

Widow, a word I never imagined I would use to describe myself during this phase of life.

It’s a word I immediately despised but have come to some sort of veiled acceptance. This new identity was forced upon me on October 11, 2018. I was and still am a proud firefighter’s wife. I had the T-shirts, the coffee mug. I lived a charmed suburban life. I was married to my dream guy. We loved our careers and our children and often daydreamed about where we would live when we were both able to retire. We could almost smell the ocean air and see the palm trees swaying at our home in the sunshine state.

Our love story started at the innocent age of 19. We were instantly attracted to one another. He had mesmerizing hazel eyes that completely drew me in. We both were crushing pretty hard. Brad had the most beautiful smile you have ever seen. His toothy grin would light up any room he entered. He had a way of working the room, filling up all the empty space and making it all his own. Over time, we established a friendship and love that would carry us through some difficult moments. We were more than a passing relationship; he was someone I trusted and relied on.

Although distance separated us when he enlisted in the Army in 1995, we remained friends and wrote to each other often. We eventually married other people, but our respect and friendship always kept us connected. We reconnected again in 2010 and decided it would be forever. I married my best friend November 2014. Brad was a dedicated fireman, a true, gritty fireman’s fireman. He wasn’t afraid of getting dirty; he was 100 percent all in. Besides being a husband and a daddy, his passion was the fire service. The fire department wasn’t a job; it was his calling. He was a constant student, always eager to learn improved techniques that could enhance his skills and help to protect the citizens he served. He was a humble and an efficient leader who always put his crew first. Brad trained diligently and earned respect from others in the fire service. He was a mentor who embraced the fresh-faced young men and women in the fire service and sparked passion within them.

I suppose I should take comfort knowing he died doing the job he was called to do.

There are still moments in time when I have no idea how I got here. I can barely recognize the splendid life I had before. In some ways, this past year without Brad has seemed like forever, and in some ways it’s all a gigantic blur.

We both knew and recognized being a firefighter came with great risk, but losing him this way was impossible for me to accept. I have lived the worst fear and nightmare of every firefighter wife: My husband was instantly and tragically snatched from my life.

My life is now measured in two parts: before October 11, 2018, and after.

To say the events of October 11 were tragic is the greatest understatement of my lifetime. That life-defining moment happened on a windy, rainy, and gloomy Thursday night.

On that fateful night, tropical storm Michael would hit Hanover County, Virginia, with a vengeance. I was working that day, as was Brad. He called me at work that afternoon and requested me to come home early from work to ensure my safety. Brad was not an alarmist, so I knew I should heed his warning. Hanover Fire and EMS requested additional units; he and the firefighters at the station were making preparations for the storm.

I spoke to Brad several times that Thursday; we regularly exchanged text messages and pictures to keep us connected while he was on duty “living his dream.” The last phone call I would receive from him would be around 8:45 p.m. I was on the phone with him when he received his last call. I heard the tones and quickly told the love of my life one last “I love you.”

Brad always contacted me after clearing from every call; this night would be the only exception.

At about 9:00 p.m, a call was dispatched for a single motor vehicle accident on I-295 southbound at mile marker 38 in the median. Brad was riding in charge of Engine 6. When the engine arrived on scene, it assumed a right-hand blocking position in lane 1 (the leftmost lane) with all emergency lights activated. Brad gave a quick size-up and the crew got out of the engine. Almost immediately on dismounting the engine, Brad saw a tractor-trailer coming at them. Instinctually, he yelled a warning to his crew, which saved their lives.

There was two gravely injured firefighters and one fatality. As I was laying in our bed that fateful night, I received multiple phone calls from my family asking if I talked to Brad. After not receiving word from my husband, I checked Facebook and found out there was an accident involving my husband’s crew.

My heart sank; a feeling of despair and dread filled my soul. I instantly dropped to my knees and screamed. When I was able, I drove myself to the fire station. I wandered around the bay for what seemed like an eternity. The chief of the department accompanied by a chaplain came in the lieutenant’s office. Our family slowly trickled in while the chief was confirming what my heart already knew: My husband was dead.

There are no words to accurately describe the devastation I felt–and still feel. My heart was ripped out of my chest that evening. The trauma is unimaginable. The days, weeks, and months that followed were filled with pain but also gratitude and a continued purpose for living.

Our community and fire department sustained us during a devastating time of loss, while honoring him well. The brotherhood bond is unbreakable and strong. Brad’s most trusted brothers would carry me through the most horrible days of my life. They took turns sleeping on our couch until January 13. They, along with my family and faith, are the reasons I have the strength to fight. Brad would not die in vain.

The months following Brad’s death were met with countless hours at the Virginia General Assembly. Over the weeks, I met many Virginia delegates and reminded them of the sacrifice my husband made. I walked the halls ready to meet any legislator who was willing to talk about strengthening fines and penalties for motorist who disregard the safety of our firefighters and police officers by failing to move over or slow down.

I testified on multiple occasions, allowing my pain to be on public display. The Virginia House and Senate passed the Move Over amendment; Governor Ralph Northam signed bill 1911 on May 2, and it became law in Virginia effective July 2019. In addition to pounding the pavement at the Virginia Assembly, our family and close friend worked tirelessly to honor my husband with a Virginia Move Over license plate.

This license plate bears the likeness of Brad with the message to Move Over; this will hopefully serve as a reminder for Virginia’s motorists to Move Over and Slow Down for all emergency vehicles. These plates should be on our roadways by this spring.

I have made it my life’s mission to turn this pain I feel into purpose, to do what I can to prevent another avoidable accident and shield another family from suffering the loss of a loved one in this manner. This is not the life I anticipated when I married my firefighter, but this is the life I have. I will do my best to live life to the fullest like Brad did. I unfortunately offer a unique perspective and can help to advise firefighters on how to protect their families should they suffer a similar fate. My husband protected me in so many ways, although there were more protections that should have been in place. I now travel to fire conferences, speak at fire academy graduations, and talk to peer support groups and at various other venues to educate and protect the brothers and sisters Brad lived and died for.

It is my honor and privilege to continue his memory in this manner. Moving forward is what Brad would want and expect for me to do. I will continue to be a fierce advocate for highway safety for our firefighters and police officers. Our family will strive to educate Virginia’s young drivers of the importance of Moving Over and the potential dangers of distracted driving.

Brad’s buttercup will never give up.

MELANIE CLARK is the widow of Lieutenant Brad Clark of Hanover (VA) Fire-EMS, who was killed in the line of duty on October 11, 2018, while operating on the interstate. Since her husband’s death, she has become an advocate for firefighter safety, working to improve laws and regulations related to first responder safety, and lectures on her experiences in dealing with the tragic loss of her husband.

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