by Renita T. Shelton, Public Information Officer, City of East Point Fire Department
From the time Charles Shannon Barnette was a youngster, he dreamed of one day having his picture added to the family’s wall of fame, a place of honor in his grandmother’s home with pictures of relatives in uniform who served in the United States Military or Fire Service. “My whole family has been in the military, from my great grandfather, who served in the Army during World War I, to my grandfather, Charles Carter Barnette who was in the Navy during World War II on multiple ships in the Pacific,” stated Barnette. “Even my Dad, Charles Gary Barnette, was in the Navy and completed two tours of duty in Vietnam, loading bombs under planes as they flew during the Vietnam conflict, and secondarily he served as a Firefighter,” said Barnette. “I come from a military family of aunts, uncles and cousins who also have served in the Navy. I guess you can say it’s how we were genetically built,” stated Barnette passionately.
With such a heavy military presence in his family, one would think Barnette’s career path was clear cut, but it was not. “My grandfather’s brother was in the Navy and was Fire Chief of the Phenix City, Alabama Fire Department, which I felt was pretty cool,” stated Barnette. “In addition, I was also intrigued by the many firefighters I saw racing to calls from a fire station a couple of blocks from my grandmother’s home in East Point [Georgia] where I spent a lot of time growing up,” said Barnette. “Back then, firefighters rode on the outside of engines, and I was completely mesmerized as I saw them whiz by, geared up and clinging to their trucks as they ran calls. I would also go to the [fire] station and watch them train, which was fascinating and got me thinking, ‘I would like to do that someday.’” Decades later, Barnette seized that chance, joining the Jonesboro Fire Department in 1995, which today is Clayton County Fire and Emergency Services. Two years later in September 1997, he joined the City of East Point Fire Department, where today he serves as a Lieutenant.
Although joining the fire service satisfied Barnette’s desire to help people and fight fire, it did not fulfil that innate desire that runs as a domineering force in his family–enlisting in the Military. September 11, however, changed that. “Like every American I felt compelled to want to act, to do something to defend this nation, given the events that unfurled that day,” said Barnette. “I was 38-years-old, and thought I won’t go active, but perhaps I stand a chance in being accepted into the National Guard,” said Barnette. “So, I went to the Georgia National Guard, but was told ‘You’re too old’ because the cutoff age at the time was 32 in Georgia. However, I countered with, ‘But I really want to do this. I lost 343 of my brothers [firefighters] during September 11, and I’m really wanting to do something to stand up as an American,’” said Barnette. His impassioned plea resulted in the Recruiter instructing him to go to Alabama, which he did. “I talked to the National Guard in Alabama. They said, ‘We’ll take you.’ The cutoff age was 40 at the time. So, I said, ‘Sign me up,’ and they did,” stated Barnette.
Barnette said he faced challenges training at age 38 for which he had to develop a right mindset to overcome. “The difficulties were that I had lived life,” explained Barnette. “A lot of it is the military breaking you down in the beginning. What they are breaking down and cutting through are habits and behaviors of 18 and 19-year-old kids that have lived at home with mom and dad. And so, they work to break through all of that. But once that’s done, the rebuilding process begins, to get you where the military wants you,” stated Barnette. “This is how soldiers come to respect rank and order from whoever their superior is, whether male or female. These are things we hold traditionally as a military.”
Since joining the United States Army National Guard, Barnette has ascended the ranks of Private, Private 1st Class, Specialist, Sergeant and then to Staff Sergeant, which is the position he holds today. He oversees a platoon of 10 men, with two fire teams under him. “I have a well-trained Infantry unit that is dedicated to going out and achieving our mission,” said Barnette. He says his days start with his unit in mind. “I get up knowing that in the military, I went through all the ranks to get where I am; therefore, I am acquainted with where these guys are below me, and the same is true for the fire service,” stated Barnette. “So, as an Officer, it is my duty to give those who have been entrusted to me the training and tools they need to do a job or mission and show them how to do it and let them go,” said Barnette. “I also believe as an Officer, I’m responsible for taking up the fight for my unit, protecting them and being an umbrella for them, giving correction when needed, and shouldering them from everything else.”
During the nine years Barnette has served in the Army, he completed a Combat Tour in Afghanistan, which he says was eye opening. “When you get to see what the third world is, it changes you,” Barnette stated. “We grow up in the United States, and don’t fully understand what life is like in other countries, what conditions people are born in, and it’s really sad to see,” said Barnette. “My wife Kelly has had the amazing opportunity of working with Doctors Without Borders, and traveled with a group to Africa, where she saw some of the same conditions I witnessed in Afghanistan. However, we both would agree that the silver lining is being a blessing from God to be able to go out and help others.”
When asked how he finds balance in serving in two capacities, the military and the fire service and being a father and husband, Barnette credits his wife. “It’s really hard, but it’s because I have a strong, loving and understanding wife. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t believe I could do it. It’s hard because we have a two-year-old now, and my wife is a full-time student seeking credentials to become a Doctor of Chiropractic medicine. So she’s trying to become a doctor and start her business. So, when I’m not here, she’s taking charge of everything; that’s why I say if it wasn’t for her, I don’t know if I would be able to do it.”
In addition to his wife’s support, Barnette said he finds strength in handling the demands of his calls to duty by something his dad had taught him. “He said we may all have our differences in this country, but the military gives the people in this country the right to disagree. Whereas, in other countries if you disagree with the government you can face harsh repercussions,” stated Barnette. “But with the great American fighting force as it is, we’ve giving the American citizens that right to disagree with the government and others. I think it’s great that I’m part of the United States military and that we’re able to give the people of the United States that voice, or a chance to voice their opinion. That remains as well at the forefront of my thoughts.”
When asked what he would like to be remembered for and where he’s made the greatest impact, Barnette reflected back to the Family’s Wall of Fame. “One of the greatest rewards is that I’m following in my family’s footsteps,” Barnette stated. “The thoughts I had as a child when I surveyed that wall in my grandmother’s home adorned with pictures of my great grandparents, uncles and aunts, all in uniform, and thinking I’d like my picture to also be there one day, well today it is,” Barnette said with a smile. “Now when I go to my grandmother’s house, I take my daughter to see that same wall with all our relatives who’ve served, and now she also sees my picture up there. That’s truly something I’m proud of, and the greatest recognition I could ask for.”
Renita T. Shelton is the Public Information Officer for the City of East Point Fire Department and a freelance writer. Connect with her at http://www.linkedin.com/in/renitashelton