Tech. Sgt. Marie Brehm, Behind the Canvas

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Kylar Vermeulen
  • 914th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Tech. Sgt. Marie Brehm of the 914th Civil Engineer Squadron (CES), was recently promoted to Captain on the civilian side of her career with the 914th Air Refueling Wing, where she is a firefighter and crew chief.

Brehm joined the Air Force Reserve several years ago at 29 years old and came in as a traditional reservist at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station Fire Department.

“I never thought I would join the military,” Brehm stated. “It wasn’t until a little later in my life that I decided that I needed more of a challenge in life, more of a purpose.”

Before joining the Air Force Reserve and working for the fire department, Brehm had a career as a bartender in Eden, New York, and also held a career as a dairy farmer, doing both for about 10 years. According to her, things changed soon after enlisting.

“When I joined the Air Force Reserve and found out they had a fire unit, I was like, that’s really interesting,” Brehm said. “I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I also knew it was something that I wanted to do. I also knew a few people in the department, so that helped with my decision to join them.”

Brehm joined the NFARS Fire Department on the civilian side in 2020, just after the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic.

“I was bartending at the time that COVID hit, but I told myself I wanted to stay productive,” Brehm said. “I want to serve and help people so that’s why I got into the military.”

Now, nearly three years into her journey and with her recent promotion to Captain, Brehm has taken on the responsibility of being a crew chief.

“As the crew chief, you have a huge responsibility to the people underneath you,” Brehm stated. “There’s a crew chief on every truck and they are responsible for their own crew – if you are first on scene, then you are on-site commander until the chiefs come. You become in charge of everybody’s accountability and it is your job to ensure everything is done as safely as possible.”

Like most dangerous but extremely important jobs, being in a role at a fire department comes with many stressors. According to Brehm, there are times where the training kicks in and critical thinking plays a pivotal role in the outcome of a call.

“As soon as the tones drop, you get hit with a bit of adrenaline, anxiousness and curiosity all at once because you want to know what situation you’re about to be dealing with,” Brehm said. “It’s not until after the fact that we think about what we just went through because our immediate response is to do what we have trained to do.”

Brehm’s responsibilities will grow tremendously as a crew chief. She will be responsible for guiding her crew into fires as well as taking the lead in many different scenarios that could arise when on the job. These include emergency medical responses, difficult training programs that are put in place for preparation to real world events, and ensuring that daily details are properly managed and completed.

“You just get thrown into random scenarios and sometimes, you never have enough training,” Brehm stated. “We have training plans that we do monthly and we have to do a specific amount each year so that helps us stay prepared, but sometimes it just comes down to using your best judgement in each scenario.”

Other scenarios include confined space rescues, high and low angle rescues, in-flight emergency, car accidents, hazmat calls as well as mutual aid calls with surrounding fire departments as needed.

The stressors of a job such as hers build up over time. The fire department at Niagara faces a handful of stressors according to Chief Master Sgt. Christopher McArdle, the 914th Mission Support Group’s senior enlisted leader, who is also the Assistant Fire Chief of Operations for the fire department in his civilian position on base.

“Some of the major stressors we face here include manpower shortages, hiring freezes, and unfortunate injuries or even death of other firefighter friends at different departments.” McArdle stated in an interview. “We rely on faith, our fellowship, and always remember why we do this job. All in all, this group of professionals really does a good job of banding together when things get tough.”

What many people might not know, most members of the department are on shift 48 hours at a time, and take intervals on and off during the week, essentially creating conditions where members are living together and are able to form a close bond through shared experiences.

“We focus on mealtimes throughout the day. Most days we have a department breakfast and/or a department dinner because meals are what really make the occupation a family,” McArdle said. “In addition, we do game nights, watch movies, and now, football and hockey season are upon us. We work out together, celebrate birthdays together, sit around the squad table and talk and tell stories too.”

Every member of the department faces the serious reality of the job every time they walk in for the next shift, but these are things they do to turn the daily stress into fun, de-stressors. For Capt. Brehm, her de-stressor is oil painting.

“Marie, since the day I was introduced to her as a new CES firefighter, presented herself as a very confident, positive individual,” McArdle said. “She demonstrated her artistic ability almost immediately, designing shirts, the MSG patch, and has also painted countless pieces for folks around the wing.”

For Brehm, it all started when she was still in high school.

“I got into art in high school. I never thought I would be good at it, but I took a class and was still iffy, knowing that it was a lot of work and would be very time consuming,” Brehm said. “My teacher, he was the funniest and was such a good mentor. He actually sat down and taught me how to convert what I see to paper, and then I just did it more and more. I was hooked.”

Brehm has done numerous pieces over the years and most notably came back to painting during the Coronavirus pandemic after taking a break to focus on her career. This was around the time that she joined the fire team as a civilian.

“I learned that life gets busy, and I feel like I have had points where I am into art, but then life gets me away from it sometimes,” Brehm said. “Being an artist has taught me patience, and it’s something I try to apply to everything I do. I pulled all of my art stuff out, started watching some Bob Ross and I just started painting like crazy. I totally got back into it.”

Some of her pieces are influenced by nature such as her paintings of flowers, trees, mountains and a cabin in the woods. Others were influenced by her personal life including “My Gear,” an oil painting of her uniform on the floor that was created in fine detail, and “The department,” an ultra-realistic depiction of the front side of the NFARS fire department, a place that each member of the department calls home.

“Painting is a de-stressor for me because I can zone out and do my own thing,” Brehm stated. “It makes me happy, and others will come along and watch as I do it sometimes, it makes them happy too, I think.”

When asked about her character and her work, Chief McArdle had this to say.

“Art is a form of expression. Marie projects realism, attention to detail, spirit, diversity, contrast, persistence and pride pretty much all the time. She serves as an example of her art and in turn, her art is an example of her. She is positive, likes to share, and the fire flight/civilian fire department would not be as successful or effective without her.”

By the end of her shift, Brehm goes back to her easels and continues to paint on canvas with oil and acrylic paints of vibrant colors. As she works, her coworkers look on, and she continues to paint a new story onto each canvas.

“I see all of them as my brothers, it’s awesome.” Brehm said. “When I walk in, I know I am walking into a room with family and I think for me, that’s everything.”