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Ex-police detective reveals the key fact many are missing amid ongoing terror attacks and violence

Posted July 26

An ex-police detective reveals the key fact many are missing amid ongoing terror attacks and violence. (Deseret Photo)

From the Orlando, Florida, terror attack to the deadly assault on police officers in Dallas, the nation continues to be rocked by an ongoing series of deadly violence.

And in the aftermath of each of these domestic terror attacks, victims and their families are appropriately given prayer and support, but there’s another group that tends to be overlooked amid the chaos: the first responders.

The men and women who serve as police, firefighters, EMTs and as corrections officers routinely risk their lives to stop criminals, attempt to save lives amid grisly circumstances and deal with the immediate aftermath of crises when they unfold.

But in the process, many of these professionals face emotional and spiritual effects from those events — a fact that has one former detective taking action.

Rob Michaels, a chaplain, former police detective and the founder of Serve and Protect — a nonprofit organization that serves policemen, firemen, EMTs and others — recently told "The Church Boys" podcast that he believes the vast majority of public safety professionals “have some symptoms of post-traumatic stress.”

“From the very first fatality, from the very first gunshot victim or traumatic incident that they see, they're never going to be the same,” Michaels said. “You can't go through that same experience twice. You've already been, if you will, tainted by trauma and it's the beginning of a process.”

Listen to Michaels discuss the project here.

He went on to say that some projections claim a cop commits suicide every 17 hours, with extremely high rates of divorce among both policemen and firefighters.

It’s these dynamics that led Michaels to launch Serve and Protect to bridge the divide and help public safety professionals deal with the emotional impact of their work. He’s had an eclectic career, quipping that he was once told that his resume would “drive a career planner crazy.”

“I went from being a police officer … to Bible college, to grad school,” he said. “Got in the music business for 30 years and ended up sitting on the front row of church one Sunday morning, knowing that there was something more, that I wasn't there yet, and just asked God to give me wisdom.”

It was that prayer during which Michaels said, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” that led him to head home and put together a business plan that initially set the roots for Serve and Protect.

At first, his plan was to serve chaplains, not first responders or public servants. And within 30 days, he was up and running, forming a network of chaplains from across America and partnering with a crisis hotline.

“Very quickly I learned that 99 percent of our calls coming in were not for chaplains, rather to get help with post-traumatic stress and the various symptoms that are associated with that," he said.

What followed was a five-year journey that eventually led Michaels to serve cops, firefighters, EMTs and others. When these public servants call the hotline, he seeks out appropriate therapists and connects them in an effort to guide callers through their emotional and spiritual struggles.

“I find one that is in their area, that takes their insurance, understands their job, and is really focused on trauma therapy,” he said.

And law enforcement is a tricky and difficult business to be in. While most of the public gets information about various events on the news, first responders are the individuals who are on the ground after an event like the Orlando shooting, observing first-hand what unfolded inside.

The blood and carnage aren’t distant concepts they can avoid by changing the channel. They form a real-life, in-their-face reality that forces them to be in the midst of some of the most unimaginable scenes.

It’s a dynamic that Michaels knows well.

“When I was a rookie, one of the first major fatalities I saw was a quintuple-fatality,” he said. “When we got into the car you could tell that marijuana had been consumed because you could smell it. They were driving so fast and hit an aluminum pole.”

Michaels continued, “It just absolutely snapped every neck in the car except for one, the girl that lived, but it crushed her legs.”

He then related the impact that the event had on him back to what workers have seen in more recent attacks, like the Orlando shooting.

“Imagine all of the people involved in Orlando. It wouldn't just be the police,” he said. “You would have the paramedics who responded, the people in law enforcement and then you've got the evidence recovery team.”

He said that this latter team would be tasked with photographing bodies, filming the crime scene and making sure that all associated evidence is “collected, tagged and documented” — tasks that would require some deep visual and physical involvement in what unfolded.

“It is a full on experience of trauma, not to mention the fact that when they first breached and got in and the news broke,” he said. “There would have been phones ringing in the pockets of the dead people, knowing that that's parents trying to get a hold of their child. There would have been the sights and the sounds and the smell of all of that death.”

He continued, “When they walk away from there it's not something that they just go, ‘OK, let's go home.’”

In addition to cops, firefighters and paramedics, Michaels said Serve and Protect also helps veterans, who have increasingly been calling with requests for assistance.

“They hear about us and they call for help and, by golly, we're going to help them,” he said.

Michaels also discussed whether police departments, fire halls and other places where public servants serve across America are properly preparing their staffs for possible traumatic on-the-ground experiences, saying that it is tough to prepare for what might not yet be known.

“When I was on the police department we had no issue with terrorism,” he said. “Now, you've got ISIS calling for the murder of police officers and their families, military and their families.”

Despite help that cops, among others, can receive from groups like Serve and Protect, Michaels said there is still an uphill battle because some officers are afraid to report post-traumatic stress disorder for fear that they will lose their badges.

Michaels said it is essential for people to see the issue as an injury, emphasizing the importance of taking action to help remedy the situation for those who experience it.

“We're talking about an emotional wound. If you pull up on the scene of an accident, you break a window and you reach in and you slice our arm open, that's a physical wound,” he said. “What happens if you don't take care of it? Well, it can get infected. If you still don't take care of it, you can die.”

Likewise, he believes that not taking care of the wounds one receives as a result of witnessing traumatic events can lead to suicide, addictions and other issues.

That’s why Serve and Protect is offering seminars to help educate public servants about PTSD in addition to helping find local counselors and therapists for individuals who need them.

Helping those impacted, he said, is a biblical commandment.

“We’re told in scripture that the authorities over us are called and ordained by God so that right there should be enough that we should at least be praying for them,” Michaels said. “I think that whether it's politics or public safety, education, God wants his people in every aspect of life, entertainment, to honor him.”

So far, Serve and Protect has helped 2,500 public servants and counting, and Michaels said he has found the experience profoundly rewarding.

“It’s an honor for me to help those folks,” he said.

Serve and Protect offers a 24-hour crisis hotline, a chaplain’s alliance and an alliance of mental health professionals, forming key partnerships to help support those in law enforcement, fire rescue, corrections and other related fields.

Email: bhallowell@deseretnews.com Twitter: billyhallowell Facebook: facebook.com/billyhallowell

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