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‘An elite unit in every sense’

Jesse Steed

The valor of America’s military heroes isn’t limited to the battlefield or their time in uniform.

Three of the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew who lost their lives fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona on June 30, 2013 — Billy Warneke, 25; Travis Turbyfill, 27; and Jesse Steed, 36 — had served with the Marine Corps.

The Hotshots were overrun by flames while battling a blaze that burned thousands of acres and hundreds of homes, resulting in the greatest loss of American firefighters’ since the 9/11 attacks.

A year later, families of the fallen are rebuilding their lives but keen to preserve the legacy of men who lived in a spirit of adventure and selfless service.

Travis’ mother, Colleen Turbyfill, said her son was a third-generation firefighter who, at age 4, drew pictures of wildland firefighters and a fire tree.

Before he joined the Hotshots, Turbyfill dreamed of becoming a Marine sniper. He joined the Corps in 2007 but suffered a brain injury when another Marine dropped a machine gun on his head. He was medically discharged in 2009.

Her son “loved life and lived every minute of it full throttle,” she said. “He loved being a Marine. He was so proud of that and he brought a lot of the Marine ethos into the fire department.”

Turbyfill’s wife and two young daughters were the apple of his eye. Jesse Steed also left behind a widow and two children.

He married Desiree in 2000, a few months after he left the Corps, She recalled his stories about serving in Thailand, Hong Kong, Kuwait and Qatar.

“He chose the Marines because he wanted to challenge himself,” she said. “He said the Marine Corps was the hardest and toughest of all the branches of the military. He figured, if he could do that, he could do anything.”

Steed became a wildland firefighter because it was the closest thing he could find to the Marines in the civilian world, she said. “He loved the brotherhood and the camaraderie and hard work.”

He had faced danger before as a firefighter. When he was surrounded by half a dozen bears while searching for spot fires in Yellowstone National Park he survived by chasing them away with a chainsaw, she said.

Billy Warneke’s father, Harry, said his son was a member of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at high school and joined the Marines at 17.

A trained sniper, Billy served two tours in Iraq but he didn’t talk about his experiences there, said his father, also a former wildland firefighter.

Billy — whose wife, Roxanne, was expecting their first child at the time of the accident — preferred hunting and fishing for trout to reminiscing about the war.

“He would always find out what made the fish bite,” his father said.

News reports from a memorial for the fallen firefighters last year quote Vice President Joe Biden’s description of the Hotshots as “an elite unit in every sense of that phrase.”

Speaking in Prescott, Ariz., Biden said the unit’s motto — “Duty, Integrity, Respect” — “sums them better than anything I can think of.”

“They saw their job not as a job but as a duty — a duty — to their fellow citizens,” Biden said.

Robson.seth@stripes.com

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