Don't call me lucky: A survivor's story of guilt, perseverance, and recovery

Part one of a two-part series

Pat Monaghan is a survivor. As a young officer, he escaped a fiery death and retired from the Milwaukee Police Department after a good and rewarding career. But don’t call him lucky.

I know to not call Pat “lucky” because I’ve gotten to understand him a little bit in the weeks since I posted a tip about providing assistance to the surviving colleagues of a fallen officer. 

Providing coworker support is Pat’s bailiwick. In fact, it’s my sense that in a way, it’s become his life’s mission. This, my brothers and sisters, is Pat’s story...

I asked Pat if he had a picture of himself with Mike.
I asked Pat if he had a picture of himself with Mike. "This is a picture of both of us at the Memorial Wall," Pat wrote. "Me, making a rubbing of his name." (PoliceOne Image)

A Man on Fire
On November 18, 1974, Pat Monaghan and his partner, Mike Draeger, were en route to an officer-needs-assistance call when their patrol wagon collided with another responding squad. Their vehicle was resting on its passenger side in the intersection of North 8th and West Center Street when the gas tank ruptured and exploded.

Both men were “okay” inside their vehicle, but it was imperative they get out — now! 

The front windshield was gone, so Pat tried to escape that way. While he was freeing himself from his entanglements, Pat saw Mike exit the burning Suburban via the skyward-facing driver’s side window. 

Pat vaulted through the open windscreen, thinking he was the last one out and they were both safe. He didn’t realize at first that when Mike jumped off the vehicle he had landed in the gasoline-fed flames that enveloped their squad. 

Then, a man on fire emerged from the flames.

Pat and other officers present quickly shed their winter coats to smother the flames, but gasoline had soaked Mike’s clothing. As they moved to extinguish one part of his body, another part would re-ignite.

“I put my coat over Mike’s head to prevent it from burning,” Pat told me. 

The burning squad was a police ambulance — this was back in the day before EMTs and Paramedics — equipped with oxygen tanks. 

“The oxygen tanks exploded, causing us to move back. I remember leaving Mike for only a second. We quickly returned and pulled him out of harm’s way. John Wayne would not have backed away... He would have lain on top of his partner. But I left him. I failed to protect him...”

A Living Nightmare
En route to the hospital, Mike gazed on his partner and asked, “How bad is it?”

“It’s bad,” Pat replied. 

At the hospital, doctors and nurses treated Mike for his wounds — Mike had second and third degree burns covering 68 percent of his body — and gave Pat a sedative for the shock. 

Pat was on a gurney next to his partner and close friend when he heard Mike asking the staff to remove his wedding ring because of the swelling and pain.

It had to be cut off.

“Then,” Pat recalled, “he asked for a priest.”

Pat left the hospital knowing that Mike had a 50/50 chance of survival. He tried to sleep, but was awakened by a terrible nightmare. The next morning, he rushed to the hospital because Mike thought Pat had died in the crash.

“It was important for him to see I had survived,” Pat explained.

Pat returned to the hospital many times as the weeks passed. He slept at the hospital on his off days, and would “stop by whenever there was down time” on his shift.

Mike Draeger succumbed to his injuries on December 28, 1974, leaving behind a wife and two small children. He was buried on New Year’s Eve.

Pat wondered: “How could this have happened? Mike was the senior officer. He was older and stronger. He was married with two kids. He had more reason to live than me!” 

A Road to Recovery
Pat struggled to help his partner’s widow and young children, while his own grief and trauma went untreated. There were no support services in 1974, and the effects of post-trauma stress were just being learned from returning Vietnam veterans.

He was haunted by the image of his partner’s injuries and the smell of his burns. Pat would have flashbacks of his incident, and for a long time his grief was unresolved.

“I was alone with my thoughts and emotional wounds,” he told me. 

Then, in 1982, another officer and close friend was shot and killed. Pat served as the liaison officer for the family and the department, “making sure more would be done for the family and the coworker.”

In 1985, he and other officers created the Milwaukee Police Department Police Officer Support Team (POST). The group provided peer support to officers and police families who were dealing not only with grief and loss, but the stress of “everyday police work.”  

“We accessed the assistance of mental health professionals to enhance our skills, to provide consultation, and to become a confidential referral resource if more than peer support was needed,” Pat told me. 

This is how Pat came to know about Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S.). Nowadays, practically everyone in law enforcement knows that C.O.P.S. is a 501 (c)(3) organization that provides resources to assist in the rebuilding of the lives of surviving families and affected co-workers of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. 

But when Pat attended his first C.O.P.S. seminar in 1987, the organization was barely three years old, and had nowhere near the name recognition it does today. 

“I found myself embraced by an organization that saw me as a police survivor,” Pat said.

He brought information back to the survivors he was working to help, and within a year Pat became a Peer Support Counselor for C.O.P.S. 

For a quarter century hence, Pat has helped countless individuals during times of grief and loss. In a presentation entitled “Don’t Call Me Lucky” he gives his firsthand perspective of an officer whose partner was killed. He does that presentation session during National Police Week for the two day Survivors' Conference in the Spring. During the C.O.P.S Co-Workers Retreat in Potosi (Mo.) during the final weekend of September (27th-30th) 2013, he will be attending as a peer.

But that’s a story for another day...

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