Eleven years ago, Loudoun firefighters Josh Pebler and Rob Cockerham, like many children, were likely sitting in a school classroom when the worst terrorist attacks on American soil unfolded.
But with more than a decade gone by, a new generation of first responders – many inspired by that day – have emerged; ready for the call to service should that tragic day on Sept. 11, 2001, ever happen again.
For Pebler and Cockerham, that day had a vast effect on their career paths. They watched as the day wore on their families.
Pebler, 28, remembers wanting his father, Leesburg Police Sgt. Steve Pebler, to come home. No matter how many times the then-teenager asked, his father told him he needed to stay at work; there were other people that needed his protection too.
“He was at work on that day, he couldn’t come home for three or four days,” Pebler said. “Seeing how much he gave for public safety for everyone else, taking care of everyone who needed him, that drive that determination to help was instilled in me from a very early age,” said Pebler, a career firefighter and paramedic stationed at the South Riding Safety Center.
For Cockerham that day was even more personal. His father, who was serving in the Army’s 82nd Airborne at the time, lost one of his best friends at The Pentagon during the attacks. His father was also one of the first to deploy overseas in the aftermath.
“[My father] served his whole life in the service of others and my mother (a former Army nurse) as well … It’s something where I never really considered doing anything else,” the now 20-year-old volunteer firefighter and EMT, who is stationed at Arcola Volunteer Station No. 9 said.
Pebler and Cockerham say they know the risk they take each day. But it’s part of who they are.
“It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. I started it, tried it and it really wasn’t something I really thought much of at the time … it’s now become something that’s become my career choice right now,” said Cockerham, a ROTC cadet at George Mason University, where he’s studying pre-law. He said he plans to make firefighting a full-time career once he’s graduated.
For Pebler, it was the adrenaline rush that first attracted him to the career. But as time went on, he realized he was part of something bigger than himself.
“To be that person that people look to for help and ask for help … I’m actually leaving for work in the morning and looking forward to it,” Pebler said.
Both men said the hardest part of the job is watching residents of Loudoun County lose something they love, whether it be a child or their homes.
“It’s always hard to put yourself in the shoes of those who lose something in a fire,” Cockerham said. “Especially living in the same area where I work, I’ve run calls where people that I’ve known, or at least known of, have lost everything. It’s sobering to not be so distant from the bad things that happen around you.”
Both said “I know it’s a cliché, but ...” to describe how they feel about their jobs; they’re humble about their work.
Yet both know they’re making a difference – they say they can see it in the faces of those they help.
“Actually meeting someone at the worst time of their life, the absolute worst moment they’ve ever had and making a change in that in some way,” Pebler said when asked to describe the best part of his job. “Just by talking to them, in offering hope or courage or saving someone’s life.”
Cockerham relates his job to that of the life he grew up around: the military. The team he works with is the reason he continues to put his life on the line each day as a volunteer.
“The 20 people I work with have become some of my best friends. It’s like the military. You have the same mindset and common goals that bring you together.”
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