How the #Walkthebridge movement is shining a light on police suicide

A 40-minute walk has successfully saved the lives of four individuals who had given up hope

By John Salerno

Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) has been a silent killer among the law enforcement community for many years. PTSI affects many current and retired officers who quietly battle the daily traumas they have witnessed during their careers. Many hide this injury well, with fake smiles and dark humor, but the fact remains they are hurting inside.

Stigma associated with PTSI has led officers to be reluctant to seek help within their departments or trust external programs. Officers fear they will be exposed through medical reviews, insurance claims, or their use of prescription drugs. In many cases, officers look to alternative or hidden treatment and begin to self-medicate, turning to pills or alcohol in order to deal with PTSI and ease some of their pain. This only leads to more addictive issues, causing the officer to slip further into depression.

The #Walkthebridge movement provides officers the opportunity to discuss with peers, friends and others some of the issues they have battled.
The #Walkthebridge movement provides officers the opportunity to discuss with peers, friends and others some of the issues they have battled. (Photo/John Salerno)

I have read many articles in regard to police-related suicides and in most, the article will say the suicide was caused by domestic, financial, or alcohol-related issues. The truth is that many of these officers may have been able to sustain the mental stress of all these issues if PTSI was not a major factor impacting their way of thinking.

Many officers end up with mental stress overload, causing the officer to give up the fight and end the battle. The pain becomes too much leading him or her to think that suicide is the only way to heal.

Families need support

When an officer completes suicide, their family is left behind to carry the stigma of a “mental health suicide,” which rarely is recognized by their department. In many cases, policy and procedure restrict the department from giving a funeral with full honors and families are ineligible for insurances and much-needed department benefits. The departments view these heroes how they died, and not the way they lived.

PTSI is like any other injury sustained on the job and should be treated the same. If an officer is shot and lives for 20 years, but later dies due to complications of that gunshot wound, it is considered a line of duty death and all benefits associated with their death is afforded to the family. We need to see those same benefits afforded to officers who die by suicide.

Raising awareness

In October 2018, the Third Watch Law Enforcement Motorcycle Club located in Rowlett, Texas, began a movement called #Walkthebridge to help raise awareness and bring nationwide attention to issues associated with law enforcement suicide. We wanted to let the families of officers lost to suicide know that we will not forget the sacrifice their loved one has made, and they are not alone.

We began to walk the Highway 66 bridge, which connects the cities of Rockwall and Rowlett in Texas. On the 22nd of each month, we walk a mile out and a mile back. The movement has grown in support around the country as officers who have walked the bridge feel a sense of safety, giving them the ability to discuss with peers, friends and others some of the issues they have battled. This verbal outlet during the approximately 40-minute walk has successfully saved the lives of four individuals who had given up all hope.

As the movement continued each month, more first responders and veterans began to walk with us. Our voices were being heard around the state of Texas, as local politicians got involved and wanted to learn more about PTSI and how they can help save lives.

We realized that Highway 66 is not just a bridge anymore. It has become a symbol where heroes can come together to help each other heal. It became a place where families can remember, reflect and join other families and know they are not alone.

The #walkthebridge movement had gained so much support from both the Rockwall and Rowlett communities, the Veterans Resource and Outreach Center (VROC) and Blue Help Organization, that we decided to rename the Highway 66 Bridge to “HEROES BRIDGE” in honor of those lost to suicide from PTSI.

In July 2020, Senator Bob Hall and Congresswomen Rhetta Bowers helped push a written resolution to officially rename the bridge. It passed unanimously by both counties and will be presented to Congress in January.

On September 26th, 2020, we will come together at 9 am at Highway 66 to join hands in unity and remembrance and unveil the new “HEROES BRIDGE.”

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About the author

John Salerno is a retired NYPD detective who has been in the emergency services field for over 30 years. He began his career in 1985 as a volunteer firefighter and rose to the rank of chief of department and become an EMT with the NYC EMS system in Brooklyn, NY. In 1990, he joined the NYPD and received the NYC Medal of Valor in 1993. Throughout his career, he has worked many different patrol and investigative assignments including robbery, homicide, narcotics and organized crime.  

As a firefighter, he responded to multiple emergencies, including the search and rescue efforts at 9/11. While battling the effects of PTSD, John began to do standup comedy to help make others laugh while providing shows for a non-profit organization. He began a radio program in 2017 called MAD Radio (Making a Difference) in Texas, which won the Show of the Year award in 2018. Through the show, John has helped many nonprofit, veterans and first responder communities raise awareness and funds to help support their mission and causes. John continues to do comedy and charity fundraisers and hosts two radio shows that raise awareness for our first responders,  veteran communities and nonprofit communities.

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