“The first year after my brothers passed, all I did was attend funerals, memorials, fundraisers, and go to the bar. After a memorial I’d drink until I was numb. I was trying to keep it together and uphold an image of a hero, but I fell into a deep depression.”
Brendan McDonough explained the aftermath of the tragic day that forever changed his life. On June 30th, 2013, 90 miles Northwest of Phoenix, his firefighting unit was called to combat a wildfire ignited by lightning. “I was the lookout that day. Things changed very rapidly and fast,” he said. A couple of wind shifts happened and the fire turned on my brothers and ultimately they passed away.” The Yarnell Hill Fire claimed 19 of his Hotshot brothers, leaving him at 21-years-old, the Lone Survivor.
“I lost my family that day. The hotshot crew was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Brendan remarked. “It saved my life. I probably would have continued doing drugs. I probably would have ended up in prison or overdosed – or dead. I was a Dad before I got hired and felt like a failure because I couldn’t support my daughter. Nobody wanted to hire a felon, but they hired me.”
“I Was Living From Couch To Couch, And Had Just Sold My Car To Buy Drugs”
Two and a half years earlier, through much contemplation, Brendan walked into a local fire station as a felon, while addicted to methamphetamine and heroin, and took a shot in the dark. McDonough went on, “I drove back and forth multiple times before actually making the decision to go in. I thought – I have no place to be here. I’m not clean or sober or physically fit. They’re definitely not going to hire me. But I turned back around and thought, ‘I’ve felt rejected my whole life, so what’s the worst I have to lose?’ I was living from couch to couch and had just sold my car to buy drugs. I was too ashamed to go home.”
Introduced to drugs at an early age, Brendan took to partying and selling marijuana in high school. Progressing to a daily habit of smoking and drinking, McDonough enrolled in college. Putting down the drugs had been harder than he thought. “I started hanging around the wrong crowd,” he noted. “My friend had stolen some stuff out of a car on our way to a party. After a couple of months we were arrested for that. At the time, my daughter’s Mother was five months pregnant. There was a couple of break-ins going on in the city and they pinned it on us with no evidence. I was looking anywhere from 10 to 13 years. Thank God I had graduated from the fire academy and had some sort of direction beneath me.”
The Downward Spiral
Released as a felon with a newborn daughter in sight, Brendan notes that he had became ashamed of who he had become. Ultimately progressing towards a downward spiral, he fell into the grips of an addiction that he promised himself he would never get to – heroin and meth.
Reflecting back, Brendan divulged. “I would go on these benders. I’d wake up in places like Vegas, Havasu, and Phoenix. I remember my moment of clarity. I was at this drug dealers house in Phoenix, and there were these little kids playing video games and I was about to have a daughter. We were sitting there smoking heroin, and this guy banging on the door was trying to score a bag. A gun was pulled. Things were getting out of hand.”
“I Had Bullshitted My Way Up Until This Point”
McDonough went on, “During my job interview at the fire station, my superintendent, Eric Marsh asked me, ‘what does integrity mean to you?’ I remember sitting there thinking that I had bullshitted my way up until this point in my life. I had done drugs, been arrested, and gotten into trouble. Giving him a couple of answers, he knew I didn’t know what it meant, but I had to lay everything out on the table, including my drug use.”
Since that day, Brendan has been clean from drugs. However, through the years to come, the simple question asked that day would foreshadow the life Brendan McDonough would come to live. “That day, Marsh looked at me and said, ‘if you can keep up, you’ve got a job.”
One of Brendan’s major turning points was during a 10K run with his crew. Explaining that significant day, he went on, “I wasn’t trained whatsoever, so obviously, I was in last place. My superintendent runs up besides me and doesn’t say a word. I’m huffing and puffing and he finally looks over at me and says ‘you quit now and you quit the rest of your life on your daughter.’”
Ambition, Motivation, & Purpose
Brendan describes that moment as the day he decided to stop quitting on himself. The summer brought ambition, motivation, and purpose – fighting fire throughout the country. Participating in saving thousands of homes and lives, Brendan saw the worst and fought fire for two years up until the fateful day of June 30, 2013. That day he was left as a lone survivor.
Now began a whole separate demon. Survivor’s guilt, depression, and PTSD plagued McDonough as close as an ominous shadow. He explains, “After a memorial I’d go to the bar and drink until I was numb. I was trying to keep it together and hold an image. The town was watching and every few weeks I’d just get obliterated. I tried to be this hero and this young man that had gone through this terrible tragedy. I thought God must have something so fucking special in store for me to survive. I was trying to live up to that.”
Left with unanswered questions, the emotional despair and agony left a flood of inner turmoil for McDonough. Through angry and confused nights at the bar, McDonough fell into trouble. “I thought drinking wasn’t an issue because I wasn’t doing heroin. If someone would push a girl, I’d take an opportunity to beat the shit out of them. If opportunity presented itself to stand up for something, I’d take it. I took the image of a hero mentality to a new level.”
“I Thought Drinking Wasn’t An Issue Because I Wasn’t Doing Heroin”
Through a year and a half of binging on alcohol with intermittent periods of sobriety, Brendan came into contact with his high school pastor who had started a faith based recovery group. Brendan felt an inclination to help out with the newly formed group. He explained, “Overdose had been on the rise in Prescott, and I’d see this group of guys walking downtown with not much respect for others – they were clearly doing and dealing drugs. I found myself really angry and thought that something had to change. I thought, either shut up or put your money where your mouth is.”
Brendan started attending his pastor’s recovery group while mentoring young men who fell ill into the grips of addiction. “I would talk to them about my drug use, I had been clean off drugs since 2011, but then my alcohol use would come up,” he notes. “I would say, ‘it’s in a weird place for me right now.’ I didn’t know what to do with it.”
Living On Through Sobriety
After months of attending this group, a publication of his personal account from the Yarnell Hill Fire was released, entitled, “Granite Mountain.” It was then, Brendan came to the conclusion that if he wanted to continue helping others, he had to give up alcohol and ultimately face his demons.
He added, “I didn’t tell anybody that I was going to quit because I didn’t want to fail. I stayed completely sober for three months and finally said something to my pastor. I didn’t want it to be a big deal.” At that point, a major motion picture, “Only The Brave,” was in the works to depict the tragic story of his 19 lost brothers as well as himself.
Retired from Firefighting, the Yarnell Hill Fire was the last fire that McDonough fought. Today, Brendan relies on his family, friends, and ultimately his faith to maintain his sobriety. “A couple of months ago, we started another recovery based group at my church that I help out with. I travel to speak and work with a non-profit.”
Clearly, Brendan McDonough has found his definition of integrity, as he has come to live it on a daily basis. As a miracle and a lone survivor, the kinship and brotherhood from his hotshot family is something that cannot be broken and continues to be carried on through McDonough’s heart, integrity, and sobriety.