Brendan McDonough wasn’t the likeliest person to join the Prescott, Az., Fire Department, let alone join the Granite Mountain Hotshots that are tasked with fighting deadly wildfires. But he did, and the then 21-year-old McDonough gained unfortunate notoriety in 2013 when he was the lone survivor of the Yarnell Hill Fire that killed his 19 fellow Hotshots.
He is portrayed by Miles Teller in the new film Only The Brave and is this year’s featured speaker at Beth El Synagogue’s annual Heroes Among Us fundraiser. The event is Dec. 7 at Beth El. A portion of the proceeds from this event will help underwrite Beth El Synagogue’s Minnesota National Guard unit support initiative, directly benefiting the 257th Military Police Company, currently deployed to U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay.
Family members of deployed 257th MP soldiers can attend this event free of charge, and discounted general admission tickets are available for those with a valid military (active or reserve duty), police, firefighter, or EMS ID.
“Because of his young daughter, Brendan turned his life around and compelled him to join,” said Rabbi Avi Olitzky, who helped start Heroes Among Us in 2013. “He had bottomed out as a heroin addict, but then after surviving the fire, he went on another spiral: What capacity does it take to survive the fire, but also the struggle within ourselves? How do we overcome the forces of the world that are aligned against us? We feel that story is incredibly compelling.”
On June 30, 2013, while McDonough — “Donut” as he’d been dubbed by his team — served as a lookout, they confronted a freak, 3,000-degree inferno in nearby Yarnell. The relentless firestorm ultimately trapped his hotshot brothers, tragically killing all 19 of them within minutes. Nationwide, it was the greatest loss of firefighter lives since the 9/11 attacks.
McDonough offers his take on the spirit of service and whose story of struggle and redemption encourages people to become their best selves, and to seek out support when struggling. This message is especially poignant as we call to mind not only those families whose loved ones are currently serving overseas in harm’s way, but also whose loved ones have returned forever changed.
The event is moderated by KSTP-TV reporter Bill Lunn, who covers many veterans’ issues and wrote a book that was released earlier this year about an Army Ranger from Rosemount who was killed in the line of duty.
“I’m not a veteran, but my son is in the National Guard and my dad was a Navy veteran,” Lunn said. “That’s part of what drives me. The last 15 years I’ve seen people come home wounded or with PTSD, and I have such admiration for them – and all of those who have served throughout history. The least I can do is tell their stories.”
Lunn moderated last year’s event, which featured Mike Williams, a survivor of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. He was portrayed by Mark Wahlberg in last year’s movie Deepwater Horizon. Lunn said he recalls when the Yarnell Hill fire happened, and the toll it took on the Hotshots.
“It’s an amazing story,” he said. “Like military people, firefighters and police don’t do it for money. It’s a calling; they do it because they want to serve. The dangers are just as severe and there’s a risk involved.”
Olitzky said that Beth El’s Military Support Initiative is one of the only ones run by a synagogue in the country, if not the only.
“There’s a sense in the broader community that Jews don’t serve in the military and that’s not a all the case,” said Olitzky, who was in the Navy’s Chaplain Candidate Program Officer while in rabbinic school. “I know at least a couple people annually who are families at Beth El that have a child, grandchild or niece or nephew who enlist or go to an academy. I’m nearing a decade at Beth El and hear it annually. We pride ourselves on the relationship with the military.”
General admission tickets are $36, with reserved seating and VIP packages available. Tickets can be ordered at the Beth El website.