They call you "the troops" and when you're late for work they suspend you. They might ask questions later. If you're seen in a bar in uniform, you'll be seen next in front of a discipline committee, and on your hands and knees after that, scrubbing behind toilets. If you can't raise at least $2,000 each year you're liable to be kicked off the force. You're not paid, you're not drafted, but you love what you do and you're proud as they come.
So when Wheaton Rescue Squad treasurer William E. Walker told the 75 men and women who volunteer to put up with these rigors that he believed one of their own may have reallocated about $60,000 in squad funds to a mysterious bank account, stunned silence was the response.
"I've been to a lot of meetings," said Ed Worton, "but I've never seen one that quiet."
Walker said he found the shortage about a week ago while reorganizing the Wheaton Rescue Squad books. He turned them over to the Montgomery County police check and fraud squad, which is now investigating, and told his fellow members what he'd found.
"At first, there was a certain amount of denial," Walker said. "You don't want to believe it."
But it's not really the money that matters most to the Wheaton squad. It didn't even know the money was missing, said Walker. The mortgage on the station and the chief's car are its only unpaid bills. And the red and green thermometer drawn on the station wall shows that more than $135,000 of this year's $200,000 fundraising goal is already met.
What's injured is the pride of a squad that thinks it's the best in the country and can't believe that any of them could have thought money was more important than duty.
"It hurts," Capt. Paul (Freddy) Friedlander said. "It hurts real bad."
The Wheaton Rescue Squad, on Grandview Avenue in Wheaton, answered 7,586 calls last year, drove 102,710 miles and burned up $14,316 in fuel. They wore out 12 read coats and won Best Appearing Squad trophies in parades at Falls Church, Charlestown, W. Va., Owens Mill, Ocean City and Damascus, Md.
Each member works an all-night shift once a week and every third weekend, at least 10 members average more than 18 duty hours a week and three officers nearly doubled that -- even though almost all of them hold full-time jobs.
The chief, Paul Sterling, is a county policeman. Friedlander is a D.C. police officer. John Horvat comes around to the station every day, although he works at Robert Peary High Shcool as well as a second job at the Rockville Drive-In Theatre. He topped the squad with 587 rescue runs last year.
Perfection is what Wheaton Rescue Squad members are after. And $60,000 missing from their bank account simply does not qualify.
"It had never crossed my mind that something like this could happen to us," squad member Marty Ball said. "We are all trying to make ends meet. I would never have done anything like this, especially at the magnitude that's alleged to have been taken."
"At first I was shocked," said Mark Dempsey, who became a full member just a few months ago after two years as a cadet. "But I guess everywhere there is money there is greed." But Dempsey says the missing funds have pulled the members together even more.
"What I am worried most about is bad publicity," he said.
Chief Sterling said the whole mess was caused by "one bad apple" -- a bad apple he declines to name pending the completion of the Montgomery County police investigation.
"A fair amount of anger has been expressed," said squad member Robert Molyneaux. "People mutter about how they've worked so hard, but everyone's learning from the experience."
Said Ball in a typically upbeat comment: "We can handle crises by the nature of the work we do."