Rick's Story

Rick’s story is similar to hundreds of other stories. When Rick began his career as a police officer he was a young, suburban, middle class, idealistic kid. He wanted to change the world by making it a better and safer place for others to live. He couldn’t get enough of law enforcement, and would even work voluntarily after spending a whole day in police academy. But twenty plus years later he was a different person. Years of exposure to criminals, stress, trauma, and some physical injuries from the job wore down his resilience to the point that one day, the day his best friend and police partner for 21 years committed suicide, Rick fell into the abyss of PTSD. Here’s Rick’s story of that day...

"I’m standing on the stage in a high school auditorium and it’s a happy occasion. I love working with the 5 year olds at Safety City and tonight is their graduation. This is the good part of policing.

Suddenly I see my wife, Becky, coming down the aisle and I know right away that something is not right. She is as white as a ghost and comes up to the stage and tells me, “You have to go with me NOW!” She said my friend, Doug, called his wife and intends to commit suicide. I’ve kept the secret that for the last year or so he hasn’t been doing well, and there was a failed suicide attempt with an overdose of pills that was swept under the rug. He’s been distant and avoiding me the last few weeks.

I grab my cruiser and head to his house. My thoughts are racing and I can’t catch my breath. This is my brother… We’ve worked together for 21 years; fatal crashes, murders, suicides, and our own personal struggles with family and life.

It’s so hot out my vest is sticking to me. Several cruisers are already at the house when I pull up. Doug’s wife rushes to me and tells me, “You have to talk to him, Rick. He’ll listen to you.” Everything slows way down and the officers and family friends at the scene fade into the background. Memories of Doug and the bond we share flood my mind. “This can’t be real,” I keep saying over and over to myself.

Police auto-pilot kicks in. We have to locate him. Let’s call the phone company and find out what cell towers his phone is using. Let’s check his credit cards and see where they are being used. I call him over and over. It’s as if some detached stranger is on the other end of the phone. He says, “My life is over. I can’t be a cop.” I’m thinking, “This one is on you, Rick. You have to fix this!” My mind is racing through plan A, plan B, plan C…

His credit card has been used at a motel so we call the police department in that area. They are en route. We call the desk clerk and ask him to keep an eye on his room until the police arrive. The clerk tips him off. I’m furious! I want to crawl through the phone and beat this guy. I call Doug again and he says, “Nice try, Neeley. You almost had me.” Doug knows I will do ANYTHING to get him home safely.

The back and forth, back and forth goes on for hours. I’m mentally exhausted. I’m so hot my under armor shirt is soaked and my body armor is stuck to me. I want to cry, but not now – not in front of all these people. This is my job.

The police move in. Doug calls me and tells me to get them to back off or he’ll shoot himself in the head. I’m telling him to calm down, give me some time. My pulse is racing. The department psychologist thinks he won’t shoot himself if he keeps talking to me. His life is in my hands. I’m overwhelmed. Doug’s voice is foreign to me, and he yells, “They’ve deployed the stop sticks! This is it!” Boom…………………………………

My heart sinks. I know our H&K USP 40’s sound all too well. “Shots fired! Shots fired!” comes from the Highway Partrol. People begin stepping out of the fog that surrounds me – the guys that have been keeping vigil. A death watch. I want to puke.

Doug’s wife, who is also a police officer, is ranting and flipping out. Who can blame her? I calm her. It’s my job. We have to wait to hear from the officers on the scene. This sucks big time. I see my wife and can’t look at her or I will lose it. The fog closes in again.

“Rick, this is Captain… Doug is gone from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.” Doug’s wife screams, “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!” It pierces the sky. I feel heavy, like I’ve been punched. I can’t form words. Doug’s wife grabs me and is punching me in the chest. I try to comfort her. How do you do that?

His family has to know – his parents, ex-wife and three boys. I know them all. I pull into his parents’ driveway. What do I say? His mother is sobbing. His dad looks stunned. The apple of their eye is gone. When I pull into his ex-wife’s driveway I want to cry. I can’t cry, not now. I can’t recall the words, but I can see the pain on his boys’ faces. I hug them like I’ve never hugged anyone to comfort them. This is my responsibility.

I don’t know how I got home. I’m drained. I can’t talk anymore. I’m overwhelmed with shock and despair. This isn’t real. I desperately want this to be a bad dream that I can wake up from, but I can’t. This IS real. Doug is gone. I’ve bled with him, almost died with him, and now he’s gone. I couldn’t save him. I will never see him again. Not here.

I want to escape and be with God. I listen to a CD, communing with God. I try to let go of the world and its troubles and imagine that I’m in a large tent filled with oversized pillows, hand woven carpets, wonderful scents and the creator of the universe in the midst of it. That got me through the first night.

The next morning I go to the station and see my old sergeant who left my department years ago. I can’t tell you how good it is to see him. He’s a connection with the beginning of this journey – back to a time when everything seemed so black and white. We were the good guys and we got the bad people off the street. He has no words, but the fact that he is there speaks volumes.

Breakfast with guys from the department before the media circus and funeral arrangements begin gives me a good look at the shock on their faces. We decide to put Doug’s patrol car on the front lawn of the station and drape it with a black runner and set up a makeshift memorial.

I’m detailed to go to the city where the suicide occurred and retrieve Doug’s personal effects and possibly the firearm used to commit the suicide. A newspaper reporter is there and asks question after question expecting me to respond. I collect Doug’s personal items that are still covered in blood. I can’t see reissuing Doug’s gun so I ask them to destroy it. I read Doug’s suicide note which is oddly disconnected and rambling. We watch patrol car camera footage of the incident. I watch as Doug put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. I see his head explode like a pumpkin. (It was only shown once but I will see it over and over, tens of thousands of times in my head for years.) I want to cry but have to wear the mask of the disconnected, non-affected police officer. I feel sick. The room is spinning. I can’t wait to get out of there.

I try to stay as busy as possible prior to the funeral to push all my emotions aside. I take care of every detail: honor guards, bagpipes, notifying other agencies, rider-less horse, a long procession to the cemetery, 21 gun salute, taps – all the trappings for a fallen officer. I want Doug to have the funeral I would want if I fell. Shame creeps into my thoughts when callous comments are made, like, “So what, the guy was crazy and shot himself.” And then these same callous guys fake concern in the newspaper! I put in 20 hours a day, can’t eat, and I look like a ghost with shock and terror imprinted on my face.

At the visitation, face after face comes up to me as if I am Doug and ask me WHY? Like somehow I am a part of Doug and I need to make them feel better about things – like there is no me, just the figure that connects them to Doug. I keep thinking Doug is around the corner and all of this is a nightmare. Exhaustion is welcome because it helps me feel numb.

The letter Doug wrote to me about his faith in God and his struggles is in the pocket of my leather uniform jacket and will remain there for years. Doug’s church considers suicide a mortal sin, but I tell everyone that I’m sure he is in heaven regardless of any man-made rules. I know that Doug’s battle was between good and evil and how evil thought it had triumphed, and I spoke against it. Afterwards, I wonder if I put a target on my back by saying that.

The day of the funeral is here. Thousands of people are packed into the high school auditorium to pay their respects. I am speaking to the audience and fear my knees are going to buckle at any minute. I share stories of the good times we had together, but inside something is changing. As they lower the coffin into the grave I know this is the end of my career as a police officer. I feel a wave of shame come over me as if I had failed and everybody knows it. I don’t fit into the cop culture anymore. I’m angry that Doug left me to sort out this mess. His pain is over but mine is just starting."

This was the beginning of my journey with PTSD.

To hear the rest of my story and learn about the hope and healing that I’ve experienced please join me, and many other caring people, at a Resurrected Honor retreat.

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