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Firefighter in Hastings, Iraq

Steve Holmes, back row, center, poses for a photo with Iraqi firefighters. Holmes is a member of the Air National Guard and taught firefighting techniques to Iraqi firefighters while stationed at Ali Air Base in Iraq.

When Steve Holmes was deciding what specialization to pursue in the Air National Guard, the decision wasn't a difficult one.

Since he was a kid, Holmes has been around firefighters and pretty much grew up in the Hastings fire station. His dad, Mark Holmes, was a 30-year member of the department and was chief for seven years before he retired. Simply put, firefighting is in Holmes' blood.

After graduating from Hastings High School in 1999, Holmes, 28, took a year off and then joined the Navy. He went to school for a year to learn about avionics, the electrical systems that allow planes and boats to run.

Holmes was stationed in Fallon, Nev., for two years on the same base as the Navy's Top Gun flight school. He was then assigned to duty on the USS Nimitz, an aircraft carrier, where he worked with the avionics on the boat and the planes it carried.

Holmes was on the Nimitz for a little more than two years and got to see a lot of the world. The boat's course took him to San Diego, Hawaii, Guam, the Koreas, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Australia. At each place, he usually had about four days off the boat to sightsee.

"It was a good way to travel," he said.

In July 2006, Holmes got out of the Navy and joined the Air National Guard in December of the same year. He said the reason he decided to join the Guard instead of re-enlisting in the Navy was the Guard's connection to Minnesota.

"I wanted that state service," he said.

He became a member of the 133rd Civil Engineering Squadron based out of Ft. Snelling, and around the same time was hired as a paid on-call member of the Hastings Fire Department.

He chose to pursue fire suppression in the Guard, and went to Texas for military firefighting school in April 2007. That training was pretty similar to the firefighting training he went through here at Century College, Holmes said, but the biggest difference was the six-week course on airport firefighting. There he had to learn a lot about different aircrafts and their electrical systems, fuels and aircraft rescue operations.

When his training was complete, Holmes and the rest of his unit were deployed to Iraq in Sept. 2008 and stationed at Ali Air Base, which is near the city of Nasiriyah. The base was home to about 13,000 soldiers, mostly from the Army. Holmes' unit was responsible for firefighting operations on the base, which included buildings, vehicles and aircrafts.

Holmes' most gratifying experience in Iraq were the twice-weekly training sessions with about 30 Iraqi firefighters.

Where fire departments in the U.S. have the most modern equipment and vehicles, he said the Iraqi fire department they were working with had just one truck from the 1970s, and he saw some of the Iraqi fighting fires in sandals. They had just one good fire suit on the truck, and it was only used if they had to send someone into a burning building on a rescue mission.

Holmes' unit taught them basic firefighting operations, first responder tactics and automobile extrication. The firefighting trainings were done with actual fires.

To better prepare the Iraqi firefighters, there's a program set up where American fire departments donate used equipment to the Iraqis. Holmes' unit helped facilitate the distribution of that gear and taught them how to use it.

"That was the most rewarding part," Holmes said.

The desert heat wreaked havoc on the electric systems of much of the equipment in use on the base, Holmes said, and the most common fires they ran into were due to those systems overheating.

Next to Ali Air Base is an Iraqi-controlled base. There was a fire on the Iraqi base during Holmes' time there, one that originated at a bakery. The bakery uses diesel fuel to heat its ovens and stores it in huge, 500-gallon tanks on the building's roof. That was the biggest fire Holmes fought in his time in Iraq.

Holmes returned to the U.S. in January and started school at the University of Minnesota for civil engineering. He plans to graduate in spring 2011.

Holmes got engaged to his girlfriend, Jamey, in November. They were together while he was in Iraq and he credits her support, and the support of family and friends, for getting him through his time there. He and Jamey were able to stay in contact via e-mail and phone while he was in Iraq.

At a Minnesota Timberwolves game in November, Holmes was honored as a "Hero in the Making," and presented with a $500 grant from the Minnesotans' Military Appreciation Fund, which he said he'll put toward his schooling.

Holmes was able to attend the game and watch it from a suite and at courtside for part of it. He was also presented with a team-signed ball.