Ramstein fire chief inducted into Military Firefighter Hall of Fame

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Kirby Turbak
  • 86th Airlift Wing/Public Affairs

For many, their jobs don’t involve battling scorching flames, towering extreme heights or crawling through claustrophobic spaces, all while
wearing 75 pounds of gear.

For Chief John Thompson, 86th Civil Engineer Squadron fire chief, this description depicts his life for more than 36 years.

“Growing up, I had a newspaper route and I delivered to our local fire station. Every morning, I would go into the fire station to drop off the paper and I got to meet the firefighters,” Thompson said.

Those early years interacting with the firefighters was the spark that lit the flame within him. In high school, Thompson was given an opportunity to try his hand fighting fires.

“That led me to take firefighting in high school,” he said. “My senior year they had an alumni from our vocational school come to brief us on the Air Force and how great an opportunity it was. So in February of 1983 I signed up.”

At 19 years old, Thompson graduated Air Force basic training and proceeded to Chanute Air Force Base, Illinois. for technical training as a fire protection specialist.

From there Thompson would spend the next 20 years of his enlistment working at Air Force bases around the world including Zweibrucken Air Base, Germany; Chanute AFB; Iraklion Air Station, Greece; Andersen AFB, Guam; Kadena AB, Japan; Clear AF Station, Alaska; Al Udeid AB, Qatar; and then retiring at Nellis AFB, Nevada.

Thompson didn’t end his firefighting career there. He continued through the civilian sector as an assistant fire chief at Nellis AFB before becoming a civilian fire chief at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Michigan. His desire to move saw him taking positions at Anderson AFB, Nellis AFB and then in Jan. 2019 he became the fire chief at Ramstein AB, Germany.

For Thompson, he loves the job because it’s an experience few others have.

“It's just one of those jobs where you're different. And it's kind of cool being different,” he added. “It's one of those jobs where you run into people, whether they're a communication troop, a services troop or civil engineer troop, you hear ‘I always want to be a firefighter.’”

The fire fighter schedule and camaraderie often afford those in the unit the same experiences people enjoy while deployed. By working long hours with the same people, the team is closer and are quickly able to work out problems, Thompson said.

No job comes without its challenges though. For Thompson, his hurdle has been the every-changing career field.

“The changes we've gone through throughout time from different types of fire trucks and manning has been a challenge,” Thompson said. “I think that we're a very traditional profession, Fire Department as a whole, whether it's Air Force or civilian. If you can adapt to change, then I think you're going to go far and in this profession.”

As a firefighter, Thompson has continued to adapt which has allowed him to go far in the profession.

“Less than a month ago, I was looking through emails and there was an email from a (technical sergeant) at Goodfellow. It said, ‘Congratulations, you've been selected by a board of your peers to the Military Firefighter Heritage Hall of Fame.’” Thompson said. “I called my wife and read her the email. Everybody thinks firefighters are big tough guys and all that stuff, but my voice starts to crack and I started to cry.”

Thompson had been one of two Air Force members selected this year to be inducted into the Military Firefighter Heritage Hall of Fame, which is located at Goodfellow AFB, Texas, home of the Department of Defense fire academy. The Hall of Fame was created in 2013 by the Military Firefighter Heritage Foundation - an organization
dedicated to preserving the heritage of military firefighters.

“I've known a few people that have been inducted, great people – those guys had great careers and did wonderful things for 30, 40, 50 years. Only a handful of people have been inducted,” Thompson said. “Even after having a month to think about it, to put it into words what it means or how it feels, I couldn't tell you.”

While Thompson’s official induction ceremony is currently being held-off until April of 2021 due to the coronavirus disease 2019, he plans on celebrating by video messaging with his good friend and fellow inductee Fire Chief David Donan, 673rd Civil Engineer Squadron fire chief.

For helping him get to where he’s at today, Thompson acknowledges the following: Fire Chief James Rackl, Senior Master Sgt. Keith Hale, Fire Chief Bob Borges, Chief Master Sgt. Bill Lonsford, Chief Master Sgt. Tony Rabonza, Fire Chief Mike Boley, Col. Mac Crawford, Fire Chief Dave Donan, Fire Chief Kimo Kuheana and Fire Chief Kevin Smith for their immeasurable advice to him over the years.

Through all the professional mentors and team mates who helped him along the way, his wife Amy was his constant support, weathering nine different bases and 13 household moves.

“She is my biggest cheerleader and the biggest reason for my success,” Thompson said.