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TJ removes his wet firefighting gear and prepares to enter the fire station and eat dinner on Oct. 10, 2013. TJ is a 3-year-old who has Langerhan cell histiocytosis.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Cuong Le

Firefighters find hero in 3-year-old boy

21 Oct 2013 | Lance Cpl. Cuong Le Marine Corps Base Quantico

Tommy is the symbol of what it means to be a firefighter.

“We all see ourselves in him and that brings back the reason why we became firefighters,” said Doug Pierson, firefighter, Quantico Fire and Emergency Services.

When some hear the word hero they may think of a firefighter, but what would a firefighter think?

For the firefighters of Quantico Station 533 a boy by the name of Tommy might come to mind.

“He looks at us as a hero, but really it is we who look at him as a hero,” said Steven Denton, firefighter, Quantico Fire and Emergency Services who added that Tommy is just one of the guys.

Tommy, who goes by TJ is a happy and energetic 3-year-old who generally wants to make people happy.

“You could be having the worst day, but once you hear that TJ is coming everyone just gets happy,” said Austin Oakley, Firefighter, Quantico Fire and Emergency Services.

However, he is not like most boys, because he suffers from a disease that only 1 in 200,000 people get. TJ has Langerhan Cell Histiocytosis which according to the National Institute of Health is a form of cancer that causes the granulomas in the bones to swell up. He will have to live the rest of his life on pain medication.

“He has gone through a lot more than most people will go through in a lifetime,” said Vanessa Zimmerlee, TJ’s mother.

His interest with firefighters started while he was in the hospital where everyday a fire truck drove by as his window.

Zimmerlee uses [his interest in firefighters] as an opportunity to reward him for being such a hero.

TJ’s visit in late July to Station 533 was unlike anything the firefighters had ever experienced. 

When he came into the station, it turned what seem to be a normal visit into a visit that had an immediate and lasting impact in all the firefighters, who hoped that he would come back, said Oakley. 

This was the first time these firefighters had ever done anything of this nature.  When John Sickel a firefighter from the station discovered it was TJ’s birthday on Oct. 6, he bought TJ his out firefighting gear. In more than a week the gear was paid for and on its way to TJ’s party.

“We decided to get him his own bunker gear, because anyone could get him a t-shirt, but to have your own gear with your name on it is every kid’s dream,” said Oakley.

According to, Christina Demsey, a firefighter/medic from Quantico Fire and Emergency Services, after their first interaction, the men and women of the station became attached to him and he became attached to them.

“He is just another one of the guys,” said Oakley.

TJ’s may have gotten better, but the firefighters of Station 533 will never be the same.

The best word to describe TJ is firefighter, said Oakley.

Combat Correspondent:
Marine Corps Base Quantico