I wonder how much government money is
spent on this?
Volunteer fire chaplain meets men where they are
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 27, 2007 06:06 PM
Don Coble is all smiles as he makes his way around
Mesa Fire Station 206 patting backs and cracking
Wearing his navy blue fire department T-shirt, the
silver-haired 71-year-old grandfather blends in with
the firefighters getting ready for lunch.
Any other day, Coble might stay around and have a bite
of what he calls the too-healthy fare they serve up.
Don, and anyone who knows him, will tell you he
prefers old-fashioned cake donuts.
But the department's volunteer fire chaplain can't
stick around today. He's busy heading to another
station to finish his goodbyes.
Wednesday is his last on the job.
For five years, Coble, a pastor, trauma counselor and
retired Army Lt. Col., has gone wherever needed
providing counseling, comic relief and encouragement
to the nearly 500 firefighters and staff in Mesa.
It's a job Coble never sought, but one he has learned
Coble was a pastor in California when he had a heart
attack and decided to stop full-time preaching. He and
his wife, Jackie, moved to the Valley to be near their
oldest son. They had barely unpacked the boxes when
Mesa fire called. A friend of his son, Capt. Dean
Morales, thought of Coble when the department was
looking for a new fire chaplain.
It's a difficult job to fill. The chaplain is part of
a peer critical incident stress management team that
is called out around the clock to the most traumatic
calls firefighters handle, like a child drowning or
line-of-duty injury. A firefighter's job is stressful,
working 24-hour shifts, providing medical care or
fighting fires. When someone notices another
firefighter having a tough time, they'll give Coble a
Coble will show up, ride on some calls, or hang out at
the station and talk. He has visited firefighter's
families in the hospital and officiated at funerals
Coble, who volunteers about 30 hours per week, tell
firefighters that they need to manage the stress from
the job and their own lives or it will manage them.
Morales says the stress doesn't stay on the job but
can follow you home.
"Some of these guys have been dumped on since kids,
had some hard knocks and serious losses in family
members and tough situations," Coble said. "We got to
know each other and talked and shared and they opened
up and healed and laughed and are high-fiving and
giving it 100 percent."
Firefighters credit Coble with saving lives, holding
families together and keeping them on the job.
"He does it so quietly. A lot of people don't realize
the outstanding impact he has made on this
department," said Michele Adamczyk, a fire and life
safety specialist. "He has made a difference in
It's the mixture of Coble's military service, trauma
counseling and life experience - he just celebrated
his 50th wedding anniversary - that make him the
perfect fit for the job.
Don't let the jokes and donuts mislead you, Coble is a
"man's man." He is as tough as it gets but also is
easy-going, genuine and unassuming.
Coble lost his father in high school. He joined the
Army and was one of the first 500 men sent by
President Kennedy to Vietnam. He served two tours
there, oversaw hundreds of men in his command, and
eventually worked at the Pentagon. When he returned
from Vietnam Coble felt "buddy" guilt because he had
survived. He dealt with the trauma and stress by
throwing himself into his work.
"What he saw, the physical and emotional trauma, we
can't match that. He has been there and came out the
other side looking good and in good shape. I think it
makes the difference," Morales said. "I know that in
20 years I have had only one call that took me out of
the game for a short time and haunted me. After
talking to Don, he got me back in the game again."
It was his wife's return to faith that turned his life
around. One morning, Coble's son asked him while he
was nursing a hangover why he never went to church. He
got an electric razor, cleaned up and went.
At 35, he gave his life to Christ.
Just before leaving the service, he found himself
jumping on picnic tables preaching to men. Some local
pastors approached him over coffee and donuts, telling
him they thought he had a calling to preach to men.
Coble jumped in with both feet. He attended seminary,
started churches in Alaska, Oregon and California, and
became certified in trauma counseling.
"He is easy to talk to and very personable," says
firefighter Mark Keller. "He gives you good advice.
Something he has already lived or something he has
learned in school . . . He helps you without you even
When Coble started volunteering as chaplain in Mesa,
he spent the first year riding with different crews to
get to know the staff and the job. He declined to keep
a log of visits with the firefighters because he knew
people wouldn't come to him.
For Coble, his work is about defusing the crisis,
providing encouragement, and helping identify the
"When you sit in the room and see the lights come on
in these people's lives, that's all the reward I ever
want because God does the work, I don't," Coble said.
"It means I am the screwdriver, a pair of pliers, a
socket wrench in the hands of Christ and he fixes it."
Greg Adams, a firefighter and member of the critical
incident stress management team, credits Coble with
breaking down barriers and boundaries.
"I am not a religious person at all. Some make you
uncomfortable with the way they behave. You don't get
that from Don," Adams said.
Both Adams and Morales say Coble has been a mentor,
teaching them life and leadership skills.
"He leaves you feeling good. He is a father figure,"
Adams said. "They look up to him because of his
background and the way he handles situations straight
forward. He will tell you what he thinks and you
believe him because he has been there."
Along with firefighters, Coble credits his wife,
Jackie, for supporting his work.
Always the joker, Coble says he plans to spend time
fishing, picking lint out of his navel and playing
"kissy face" with his wife as he heads into
But until a new chaplain is found, firefighters tell
Coble to keep his pager ready. And when they call him,
they better be bringing the donuts.