Make A Difference: Ex-firefighter tells how United Way changed his life

Make A Difference: Ex-firefighter tells how United Way changed his life
Jeff Bahr Oct 8, 2021 - Grand Island Independent

Brendan McDonough, the lone survivor of the Granite Mountains Hot Shots Crew, was the featured speaker at Thursdays United Way Kick-off at Riverside Golf Club. McDonough told his life story and talked about his brothers who all lost their life fighting a fire about ten years ago.

Brendan McDonough, who lives in Prescott, Arizona, was the only firefighter who survived a 2013 fire near Yarnell, Arizona. Nineteen firefighters, all fellow members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, died in the Yarnell Hill tragedy.

McDonough said his life was similar to the children shown in a video at the beginning of the campaign luncheon. Those children and their families received important assistance from United Way agencies.

McDonough grew up without a father figure. His mother worked two jobs. In his words, he did a lot of drugs and lot of partying. At the age of 18, with a daughter on the way, he went to jail. He was on his way to becoming everything he always feared becoming.

When he applied for a job with the firefighting crew, he had done heroin just three days before.

But with that crew, he found a man who became a mentor and a supporter. Even before McDonough’s job with the Granite Mountain Hotshots was secure, the members of the crew took part in a 10k run.

McDonough struggled in the run. But Eric Marsh, superintendent of the crew, told him if he quit running, he’d quit at everything the rest of his life.
McDonough kept running.

After the 2013 fire, McDonough had a hard time dealing with the guilt of being the only survivor, the anxiety and the shame. Finding refuge in alcohol, he felt alone again.

When left on your own, he said, you find the worst in yourself. He came close to committing suicide. It took him four years to recover.

But he succeeded in becoming “the man I never had.” He found faith in God and a purpose again.

The key step was a recommendation to get counseling, made by a man he respected.

McDonough doesn’t know if he’ll ever go back to the fire service. He now runs a substance abuse and trauma treatment center, working with people who’ve had experiences similar to his.

He is now married with three children, ages 10, 9 and 2.

The changes in his life, he said, were brought about by people just like those in the audience. His kids have a father “because of people like you,” he said.

There is no greater love than being in service to others, he said.

Even if we don’t see the effects of helping those people, that assistance is vital.

“Keep doing what you’re doing,” he said. “I’m just here to tell you it works.”

Enjoy the small things in life, he said, because we never know when they might be gone.
Heartland United Way President Karen Rathke said McDonough’s trip to Grand Island was made possible by this year’s campaign co-chairs, D.J. and Kathy Eihusen.

McDonough authored a 2016 book, “Granite Mountain,” copies of which were available Thursday. He served as a creative consultant for the 2017 film, “Only the Brave,” which starred Josh Brolin, Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Connelly.

McDonough was played by Miles Teller in the film, which had a free screening Sept. 30 at the Grand Theatre.

On Thursday evening, McDonough appeared at a first responders reception at Third City Christian Church.

United Way shares details campaign

D.J. and Kathy Eihusen are the co-chairs of this year’s Heartland United Way campaign, which kicked off Thursday with a luncheon at Riverside Golf Club.

Eihusen joked that he and his wife agreed to become co-chairs because “we ran out of excuses in telling Karen no,” referring to Heartland United Way President Karen Rathke.

Actually, he said, the Eihusens are “incredibly passionate” about United Way. He likes the way the organization improves lives and creates possibilities.

They are thrilled and honored to head the campaign, he said.

Everyone in the room, he said, is “passionate about what happens in our communities.”

Heartland United Way serves Hall, Hamilton, Howard and Merrick counties.

Contributors will have a chance to win a 2021 Jeep Gladiator Willys 4 by 4, donated by Tom and Kim Dinsdale.

Eihusen said he doesn’t know if this area has ever had a more philanthropic couple than the Dinsdales.

To have a chance at winning the Jeep, United Way supporters must contribute $260 annually, or $5 a week.

The goal for this year’s drive is $1.5 million. That goal is a bit of a stretch, but “we think it’s very attainable,” Eihusen said.

The goal is about 8% more than last year’s total, he said.

The theme this year is “Where there’s you ... there’s a way.”

For the fourth year in a row, the Hamilton County United Way chairperson is Kurt Johnson. The other county chairs are Tia Jerabek of Howard County and Chelsea Paup of Merrick County.

United Way supporters, Rathke said, give children a chance and families a future.

Music was provided by Daniel Deida of Peace Lutheran Church. This year’s loaned executive is Diane Atchity of Principal.