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Living with bullet holes

Tactically sound officers, with the best officer survival skills and training, seem to suffer the most in the aftermath of getting shot. Read on to understand why

Harris County Deputy Joseph Anderson.png

Harris County Deputy Joseph Anderson remains hospitalized after being shot during a traffic stop. His shooting inspired this article.

Photo/Harris County Sheriff’s Office

On August 16, 2023, Harris County (Texas) Sheriff Deputy Joseph Anderson was shot while conducting a traffic stop. At this writing, Deputy Anderson remains in the hospital recovering from abdominal wounds.

Another Harris County deputy and two U.S. Marshals were wounded by gunfire the next day attempting to apprehend the shooter. All three were treated and released. Thank goodness for a body armor save otherwise we’d be burying that deputy. SWAT took the shooter into custody after a five-hour standoff.

All four officers have lived through a traumatic event.

I want to share with them, and all law enforcement officers who are living with bullet holes, what I have learned about surviving the aftermath of getting shot.

I interviewed a dozen officers who have taken bullets in the line of duty. I thank these brave officers and their spouses for sharing their emotional stories with me for a novel I am trying to get published about a patrol officer’s struggle to heal after being shot on duty. My extensive research included reading over 100 books on trauma and speaking with leading police psychologists. I obtained certification as a first responder peer supporter and continue to be an avid proponent of peer support teams.

An interesting fact came to light from my research. Tactically sound officers, with the best officer survival skills and training, seem to suffer the most in the aftermath of getting shot. Read on to understand why.

What can you expect to feel and experience as you heal?

The answer lies in understanding the neurophysiology of experiencing a traumatic event.

When you were shot, your brain stopped making memories. Your brain went into survival mode to keep you alive. The brain is programmed to do that. Your memories of the event were put in a holding file. When you are no longer in harm’s way, your brain attempts to refile those memories into the correct areas of the brain.

To protect you and avoid overwhelming you, your brain gives out spurts of memory in the form of nightmares and flashbacks. Processing those spurts allows you to weave together a narrative memory of the shooting.

Nightmares and vivid flashbacks that seem like you are re-experiencing the trauma and associated emotions and body sensations in the present moment are NORMAL. They are not symptoms of a disorder.

Nightmares and flashbacks are how the body heals from trauma. In fact, you may feel the same fear and adrenaline rush that you did during the shooting. You may shake and shiver as your nervous system − your vagus nerve − processes the traumatic event and tries to purge cortisol and other stress-born chemicals from your body. Your body is trying to re-establish homeostasis. Don’t stop this normal healing process. Let it happen. This process can take weeks or months.

Nightmares that occur in REM sleep help with memory processing. The back-and-forth motion of the eyes refiles memories into the correct areas of your brain. The trauma therapy EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is based on this process.

Don’t suppress or repress the memories, flashbacks, or nightmares when they visit you. What you resist persists. If you try not to think about something, you will think about it more. Our brain is tricky that way.

To heal, you have to honor the trauma-healing process

You being a cop complicates this process.

In the wake of a life-threatening injury, cops go through three emotions: anger, grief and blame.

Anger that this happened to you. Anger that you have been injured. Anger that your life and the lives of your loved ones were impacted and altered by this event and by a turd. Anger that you didn’t see it coming and couldn’t stop it from happening.

Healing begins with accepting what happened to you. Acceptance allows you to grieve. And you must embark on a grief journey.

That day, when you were shot, the beliefs you had about yourself, the universe and being a cop were shattered. You have to grieve for the lost illusions and beliefs. You have to grieve the loss of the assumption that this wont happen to you, that your training and tactical skills are impeccable and you won’t get shot. Mourn that your body was injured and changed and that you will have to live with that forever. Grieve that your life was changed for you, against your will, violently.

Grieve that at the hands of evil you were vulnerable and injured. This is the hardest part for cops to accept.

Cops tend to play the shame/blame game. You are trained to do everything in your power to not get shot. You are trained to be in control of every situation. You are trained to be tactically sound. But it still happened to you. Blame gives an officer a false sense of control.

Getting shot doesn’t tarnish you as a cop. There is no shame in getting shot. You are not to blame. The evil shooter is to blame.

You can shoulda/coulda/woulda until you make yourself sick. Don’t do that.

Share your feelings

Your loved ones may ask you to share what you are feeling with them. Cops tend to want to protect their loved ones from traumatic events. You may not want to share the horror of what you experienced or put those images into your loved one’s head.

You don’t have to share the horror. What your friends and loved ones want to know is how you feel about what you experienced. Spare them the graphic details. You may find it difficult at first to put words to your memories. That is NORMAL. When your brain goes into survival mode, it shuts down the part of the brain used for language. That’s where the phrase “scared speechless” comes from.

Tell your loved ones that you will explain how you feel when you have had time to process the memories and emotions and affix language to those memories.

One action that you can take to help this process is what is called expressive writing. This is where you write down what you can’t say. Writing longhand is better than typing. Don’t stress about grammar, and write from the heart. You can destroy what you wrote, let a trusted person read it, or file it away for a day when you can face what is on that page.

Or, send it to me to read.

Explain to your loved ones and supportive friends what you need from them, whether you need to be left alone, to be hugged, to talk, or to have someone just silently hold your hand.

Don’t let anyone tell you to get over it. You were injured and need time to heal emotionally and physically.

Honor your emotions, pain and trauma. You must feel to heal.

If you feel overwhelmed, reach out to a peer support team member or contact me. I will put you in touch with an officer who has been through this healing journey.

Don’t feel alone. Don’t feel like no one can understand what you are going through because they haven’t been shot in the line of duty.

There are officers living with bullet holes who are ready and willing to help you.

Recommended reading

Organizations supporting injured officers

Copyright©2023 Barbara A. Schwartz All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in any manner without the expressed written consent of the author.

Barbara A. Schwartz has dedicated her life to supporting the brave officers of law enforcement.

Schwartz is certified as a first responder peer supporter by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) and the Law Enforcement Alliance for Peer Support (LEAPS). She maintains specializations in grief, injured officer support, suicide prevention, and traumatic stress injuries.

As a Police Explorer scout and reserve officer, Schwartz served in patrol and investigations. Her articles and book reviews have appeared in American Police Beat, The Thin Blue Line, Command, The Tactical Edge, Crisis Negotiator Journal, Badge & Gun, The Harris County Star, The Blues, The Shield, The Police News, and Calibre Press Newsline.

Schwartz was instrumental in securing the passage of the Blue Alert legislation in all 50 states. She is proud to be a founding member of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Foundation.

She maintains memberships in the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA).