From his career in the Marines Corps to fighting fires in Maryland and Virginia, to five trips back to his native Liberia to help build skills and resources in the country, Fairfax County Fire Chief John S. Butler knows the meaning of public service. In January he completed his fifth trip to Liberia, bringing his skills, experience and his desire to serve.
On this trip, Butler spent a week helping to assess the nation’s fire challenges, conduct trainings, deliver the keynote speech at a Liberian National Fire Service graduation and visit a local orphanage.
Butler and his family immigrated to the United States when he was a young teen, fleeing after an attempted coup in 1980. As an adult, Butler served for more than two decades in the Marine Corp before working his way up through the Howard County Fire and Rescue Department to the position of chief. In 2018, he joined Fairfax County. Despite his obvious commitment to his community here, he has never forgotten the needs that still exist in Liberia. On each of his trips, he devotes the bulk of his time to the fire service, which is always in need of firefighting training, apparatus and equipment.
Butler calls the trips a “labor of love,” using personal leave and finances to make the treks. He cites the 3Ts of giving when it comes to his efforts. “One oftentimes has ‘time, treasure or talent’ to contribute to others. While I don’t have a lot of treasure, I have some time and some talent—I think—to help others more disadvantaged than myself,” Butler explains. “Right now, I’m not affiliated with any formal nonprofit or group. This is just a thing that I do with my vacation time.”
And though his contributions are admirable, Butler says he gains as much as he gives. “Like any other circumstances, when one lends a helping hand, both the helped and the helper benefit,” he says. “We learn from each other. We often inspire each other. Most notable is how alike we are, rather than different.”
The trips also serve as a reminder of how much there is to be grateful for and Butler says he’s always impressed by the gratitude he sees during his travels, even from those who have so little.
“Whenever I return from trips such as this, I’m reminded of how fortunate we are to have the things we have, infrastructure and quality of life that we enjoy and most often take for granted,” Butler notes. “I am also reminded that happiness isn’t related to material things. Some of the happiest people with the most electrifying smiles I’ve ever met were at the orphanage.”
While this sort of vacation may sound like work to many, Butler finds his trips incredibly rewarding. “For me, it is an honor and a privilege to serve others, to share knowledge, skills and talents we’ve been blessed with. Be it here in the local community, or thousands of miles away,” he says. “We should cherish that servant spirit. The world needs more of it.”