Iraq vet ascends new ladder; First Haitian-American woman joins fire ranks

By 
David Benoit
Aug. 1, 2007

The Boston Fire Department likes to think of themselves as one large family, and even if their family outings might not be a trip to Castle Island, they live and work together with an intense closeness.

Last week they welcomed into their ranks 46 new brothers and one new history-making sister. Dorchester native Nathalie Delsoin became the sixteenth woman in the Boston Fire Department, and the very first Haitian-American woman on the force.

Delsoin is a single mother of two girls, a veteran of the Iraq war and eight-and-a-half years of military service. She is also now a barrier-breaker for young Haitian-American girls and women across the city. She has always had a little adventure in herself, as she remembers it.

"Ever since I was about eleven years old I have been a doing a lot of tom-boy stuff," she recalls. "I remember once a cat got stuck up on a gutter of a three-family house, and so what I did was climb a tree to the side of the house, and the cat saw me and ran away."

From that early start in the middle of the action, Delsoin made a large leap into the middle of a war zone. A sergeant in the Army, she saw a lot of things happen in the middle of Baghdad, where she was stationed eleven months. Her daughter Jahné was just eight-months-old when she shipped off, and Delsoin had to prepare herself for the possibility they would never see each other again. Thankfully, she returned home free of physical injury and determined to continue to serve others.

"My main thing is to help others," she says from her living room on Glenway Street, fresh off her first shift. "And second … I did all eight-and-a-half years of military. I went to Iraq. If I am alive and I did that, then I can fight fires, no problem."

She says that being in the middle of a war has prepared her for the difficulties of being a firefighter in the city, but that the lessons she learned come more from the atmosphere of the military.

"Discipline, first and foremost," she says of the qualities she got in the army and now will use in the BFD. "And it's all about teamwork, about getting your priorities straight."

For Delsoin, those priorities start with being a role model to both her young daughters and young women of her descent.

"I feel like the door has been opened to other Haitian women that they can go and do whatever they think they can do," she says, referencing Haitian state Representatives Marie St. Fleur and Linda Dorcena Forry as two of her role models. "I am raising a little girl and I want her to know that nothing is impossible. I want her to know that no matter how hard it is, she can do it. My thing is to be an example so that they know they can go further."

And as one of only 16 women in the force, out of almost 1,500 firefighters in the city, she says every one has treated her exactly the same. She has been stationed at Engine 50 in Charlestown, an area she says she is in the process of learning. She had her first shift on Monday afternoon at 3 p.m. until Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. There weren't any fires called, though there was a medical emergency they went out to, and her fellow firefighters showed her the basics of her new home away from home - how to inspect the engine, where to put her gear.

Delsoin has been around Boston fire houses since she was a little girl, as her godfather Robert Powell was a lieutenant in the BFD on Blue Hill Avenue. Powell pinned her badge on her at the graduation ceremony, and she says he had a lot to do with her joining the fire department, as she tells the story.

"When I was young we would walk around the fire station and it was always exciting to see him and that big read fire engine. And when I was [stationed with the Army] in Germany, he called and asked what I wanted to do when I got out. He sent me the applications for the Boston Police and Fire Departments. I chose the fire department because I had been around enough weapons in the military."

And now that she is officially a Boston Fire Fighter, Delsoin says she still has a lot to accomplish, and that she wants to be - as the Army says - the best that she can be.

"I want to be the best, I want to know everything there is to know about this job, like the guys at the Academy" she says, referencing her teacher, Instructor Bobby Quinn, as the perfect example of someone who knows how to fight fires. "I want to know how to do everything, not just for myself and my safety, but for my team's safety. I want to learn a lot and really know this job."