“314 for an unknown injury accident at South 4th Street and Main Avenue South.”
“314 copy, en route. 314 I’m arriving, go ahead and start medics I can see airbag deployment.”
“Copy, starting medics”.
“314 have medics expedite; nine-year-old female, unconscious, not breathing, bleeding heavily from the face and head. Starting CPR”.
“Copy, having medics expedite”.
1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5
Fuck. Stay with me princess.
6 and 7 and 8 and 9
Where are the fucking medics?
10 and 11 and 12
“Ma’am the Medics are coming!”
13 and 14 and 15
Come on hang in there.
16 and 17 and 18
Why the fuck was she not in a seat belt?!
19 and 20 and 21
She isn’t going to make it.
Four hours later, I walk in my front door. My little girl, probably the same age as she was, rushes to meet me.
“Daddy, how was work? I missed you!”
“Missed you too, pretty girl. Work was slow and boring.”
I say it, wishing it was true, hoping to shield her from the devastation I just witnessed, hoping that she doesn’t see behind the facade of my smile. I’m elated to see her but all I can think about is frantically pumping on a little girl’s chest just hours before, desperately trying to keep someone else’s pretty girl alive.
Being a law enforcement officer is one of the most rewarding careers out there. As law enforcement officers, we have the ability to positively impact so many lives on a daily basis.
Whether finding a lost child, providing resources for someone to get back on their feet, or simply being a shoulder to cry on, law enforcement officers offer so much more to the public than simply upholding our laws. Often we leave our charges with smiles on the faces. Often, we are the heroes.
The sad reality, however, is that not every life can be saved and not every problem can be solved. And just like anyone else, cops have people at home relying on them to be dad, mom, brother, sister, husband or wife.
Thirteen years ago, when I was getting ready to transition out of the Ranger Regiment, I watched an episode of Cops and thought, “Man that looks like a lot of fun. Driving fast, catching bad guys, doing good work.”
It was a job that had adventure, excitement and honor and in the end it was one that would allow me to help people.
Little did I realize the emotional and psychological impact the badge would place on me and my family. Unfortunately, calls like above are not unusual occurrences in law enforcement and as police officers we see people at their worst, day in and day out, witnessing on a daily basis a side of life that the general public isn’t privy to and oftentimes could not even fathom.
Regardless of the call, whether it’s investigating a murder, speaking with a victim of sexual assault, trying to revive a dead child, comforting an elderly abuse victim, or reassuring victims in a horrific vehicle accident, we are expected to suppress any emotion we may feel, handle the call, and move on to the next one. Call after call, day after day, and year after year we are expected to be the unwavering rock in the moments that shake people to their core.
Nobody calls 911 when they are having a good day and want to share it with someone. The reason for 911 calls often vary, and include everything from people experiencing a life or death emergency to people calling for no reason other than being upset and hoping a law enforcement response will provide them with leverage in a civil matter (i.e., my neighbor’s fence is on my property, my neighbor cut a tree down on my property).
Sometimes, people call 911 to report a crime and then turn against the police when we try to enforce the law. Imagine responding to a domestic violence call and arresting the abuser, only to have the victim become angry or even violent towards you and refuse to cooperate. The bottom line is as law enforcement officers, we commonly see people on their worst days, which usually breeds far more negatives than it does positives.
At end of the shift, when the badge comes off, we’re expected to resume our duties as dad, mom, husband, wife, son or daughter as if it was just “another day at the office.” Which means sometimes we have to look our own daughters straight in the eyes mere hours after being unable to revive someone else’s. As if the strains, stresses, pitfalls and exhaustion that comes with raising a family weren’t enough.
Throughout my career I’ve made it my goal to never place the burden of the job on my family or friends, to keep the job on the job and the family as the family. And like everyone in the law enforcement community who has his or her own coping mechanism, I worked through my own emotions as best I could, leaving them bottled it all up inside of me, occasionally attempting to wipe them from my memory bank.
For a while, this method worked...
But once the twelve-hour graveyard shift, rotating schedule, and the 24/7 potential for SWAT call-outs were factored in, I had the perfect storm. I finally reached a point where I was forced to face the emotions I had been required to suppress at work to be able to do my job and those I’d bottled up after work to protect my family. The problem was, rather than my controlling them, the emotions now controlled me. The result was anger, stress, insomnia and isolation.
My life revolved around work, I kept hobbies that didn’t require human interaction like hunting and working out, and I surrounded myself with like-minded cops who were just as jaded as me. It was as though I was living in a vacuum, a feedback chamber where the only people I surrounded myself with had the exact same thoughts, feelings and emotions as me.
Being surrounded by people who had the same life experiences as I did, the same anxieties, fears and demons, made everything seem that much more normal. We all had some semblance of social anxiety and a lot of of us dealt with a general sense of apathy in much the same way.
Thus, for me to start sitting where I could see the entrance and exit, counting exit points, looking for hard cover, and backing into parking spaces to facilitate a quick exit seemed perfectly normal. It was how most of my cop buddies also behaved.
Before I knew it, I was off duty watching people’s hands while I talked to them, rotating routes home, and heat checking cars that have been behind me for too long. To most cops this sounds like tactically sound behavior. To most others this sounds like full-fledged paranoia.
In addition to the growing paranoia and anxiety, there was the apathy. An inevitable side effect to working as an emotional dumpster, the sense of apathy a cop experiences only multiplies when he or she only spends around other cops.
Because guess what cops talk about after work? Cop stuff.
After seeing people at their worst day after day, it’s easy to become numb to how traumatic some events are and see apathy as a useful quality to mitigate stress at work.
Of all of the potentially terrible qualities a cop can bring home, this is probably the worst, as emotional distance and the numbness that comes with seeing life’s dark underside day after day can ravage any relationship.
Without even realizing it, I had grown emotionally distant from those people that were the most important in my life. I had a hard time showing any sort of empathy for anyone and found myself comparing my experiences with theirs, constantly thinking are you fucking kidding me? How is this bothering you? I trivialized everything that wasn’t as bad as what I saw on a daily basis and measured everything against the horrors that come with being a cop.
I never noticed the change in myself until it slapped me in the face one night while having a conversation with a close friend. I had expressed to him, as I had done many, many times before, that I wanted to make this the year that I learn to skydive.
He laughed at me and replied, “Dude you have been saying that for twelve years. You just need to embrace the ‘Die Living’ philosophy and do it.”
After that conversation I reflected on my past twelve years and thought about what he had said and just how right he was. My job had shifted my emotional compass completely off course and I had to find a way to get back on azimuth.
Without hesitation, I signed up for the Accelerated Free-Fall (AFF) class at a local drop zone and after my first jump I felt an immediate change in my mood. It was so refreshing to learn a new skill that wasn’t law-enforcement related and meet new people that didn’t have my same jaded view of society. I was surrounded by people that were genuinely happy, supportive, and full of life. I was hooked.
As I explained my new outlook on life with the same friend, he replied, “Yup, each and every jump you get sixty seconds to yourself. Nothing else in life matters at that moment. You are laser focused on the task at hand and enjoying the ride.”
That feeling would carry over for many days and weeks after the jump, and I found myself less stressed and generally much happier. I was engaged both on the job and at home, less anxious and more relaxed. Apparently, all I needed was to hurl myself out of a plane two-and-a-half miles above the Earth.
Perhaps it was the adrenaline or the solitude that my friend had mentioned. Maybe it was the rush of the wind or the speed at which the ground approached. Likely it was some combination of all of those things that helped reset my emotional compass and for that I have the “Die Living” motto to thank; a motto that has become a mantra.
I’ll leave you with this. No matter what your job is or how hard you think you are, there are hidden stressors and things that over time will eventually beat you down. It’s hard to recognize those things in ourselves because it is a slow process. You need to find the thing that makes you feel alive and get after it. After all we only get one shot at this thing called life, why not make the most of it. It’s time to get out there and Die Living.
Eric Gordon is a former Army Ranger from 2nd Battalion / 75th Ranger Regiment and currently works as a full time police officer in the Pacific Northwest, where he a SWAT Team Leader for a large multi-jurisdictional team.