Turning trauma into triumph
How Sergeant David Alercia turned his trauma into Saint Michael’s Warriors Nonprofit
By Danielle Sheehan
In life, we often go through challenges, but I believe that a person’s strength is measured by how they respond and recover. This is the real-life experience of how Sergeant David Alercia turned his trauma into Saint Michael’s Warriors Nonprofit.
What first responders experience
It is no secret that first responders see trauma in their work. That trauma adds up to throughout a 25-year career. One study shows that police officers are likely to encounter between 400 to 600 traumatic events over their career. The average citizen will likely only experience three to four traumatic events in their entire lifetime.
Another study says that first responders will experience 3 to 5 traumatic events a month. If you do the math, that is a staggering number. It equals 900 instances of trauma over 25 years.
It isn’t shocking then that first responders develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a mental health condition that is triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Some symptoms may include having flashbacks, nightmares and anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about traumatic events.
Most people who go through traumatic events may have temporary difficulty adjusting and coping but with good self-care, can improve. If improvement does not happen and day-to-day function is affected, it can mean a PTSD diagnosis.
A wounded officer
On August 1, 2020, a man wanted for attempted murder from an incident the evening before was seeking refuge in an apartment building located within the borough covered by the Slatington Police Department. Sergeant David Alercia went to work that Saturday morning, like he normally did, and was apprised of the ongoing situation.
In an attempt to stop this individual, Sergeant Alercia drove to the apartment building and was met with gunfire from an AK-47. He was shot and wounded in the right forearm, lost his ability to hear in his left ear, and sustained knee injuries. Aside from these physical wounds, Sergeant Alercia also sustained invisible wounds. Those wounds manifested into PTSD. It was immediately after the shooting that I realized something was wrong with him and I knew that because Sergeant Alercia is my husband.
In the weeks to come, his behavior changed. He was short-tempered, on edge and hyper-vigilant. His drinking became problematic. I would leave the house for errands and return to find him drinking a glass of wine or scotch in the afternoon. This was not typical of him.
I spoke to him about it and suggested he talk to someone. About three weeks after his shooting, I called a local chaplain with the fire department. The chaplain had worked with first responders for years. He agreed to meet with David and me. I told him my concerns and then he spent some time alone with my husband. Shortly after this meeting, David scheduled an appointment with a psychologist that we had found through my agency, the New York City Police Department. David set up appointments and attended talk therapy. At one point he saw two different therapists. One consisted of talk therapy and the other focused on using a treatment called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). This therapy involved moving his eyes in a specific way while he processed traumatic memories. Unfortunately for David, things got worse. He suffered from severe anxiety as well as memory loss. He would also often stare into space like he was not on this planet. He would have nightmares and relive the trauma of the shooting over and over.
On a mission
I began listening to podcasts on my way to and from work looking for answers to help my husband’s PTSD. I read books as well. I was a woman on a mission to fix my husband and I began to research traumatic brain injuries too. I was not sure if this was something he had, but I did learn it went hand and hand with trauma. I contacted an organization for veterans that promoted the use of psychedelics under the guidance of medical professionals. The organization stated that although David was a Marine Corps veteran, they would not help him because he served before 9/11. It became increasingly frustrating.
In the spring of 2021, things just got worse. Drinking had become more frequent. He became angrier and more reclusive as well. The once happy-go-lucky guy I married was gone. I often worried when I went to work at night if he would take his own life. We finally made an appointment with his neurosurgeon in hopes that he could point us in the right direction. I’ll never forget that day in his office when his assistant couldn’t get me out of the room quick enough. The neurosurgeon tapped his foot and nodded his head like he didn’t even listen to a word I had said. I caught him up to speed and he told me to wait a minute. He left the room and returned with a piece of paper. On the sheet was a pre-written list of phone numbers for veteran’s associations. I just began to cry. David’s doctor finally came in and I pleaded my case. I fought through the tears to make myself heard. I told him that my husband was a different person and we needed help. He finally heard me and set us up with a neuropsychologist who worked with PTSD patients.
Two weeks later we met the neuropsychologist and discussed the nine-month journey that led us to him. The doctor had David perform some memory exercises but concluded that David’s memory loss was a result of not being able to focus. In the meantime, things spiraled so badly with the drinking that I issued David an ultimatum. I told him he needed to go to inpatient treatment, or I was leaving. I consulted with his therapists before this decision and one agreed and the other did not. He went. It was the best decision he could have made for himself and our family. He returned 30 days later a completely different person. He had clarity that he had lacked before, and the change was remarkable to witness. David also had brain mapping done while in Florida and we learned that he did have evidence of a traumatic brain injury. This validated my claims that he was a different person.
Becoming his own advocate
While David was away in Florida, he pondered what was next in life. He knew there was a strong possibility his police career would end due to his hearing loss and knee injuries. He recalled all the resistance met while seeking help and how his small police department did not offer any mental health services or counseling. Most do not even have a health and welfare officer as the departments are so small the position simply does not exist. David was forced to become his own advocate for mental health. It was from this advocacy that Saint Michael’s Warriors Nonprofit was born. The idea developed over the next two years and officially became an organization in March 2023.
Saint Michael’s Warriors truly is an experience-based organization whose mission is to find services for those first responders, veterans and active military who are struggling. Our board consists of first responders and veterans who have been down the road to recovery as they have firsthand experience with PTSD, alcohol abuse and the treatment process. We have made it our mission to know and vet places that are first responder- or military-specific. First responders and military personnel feel comfortable among their peers. We can help fit each person to exactly what they need, understanding that recovery and the process may be lifelong. It is not a one-stop shop. It truly takes work and commitment to stay on the path of mental and physical wellness.
Law enforcement agencies are starting to make strides with mental health resources. It is easier with larger departments as they have the personnel to dedicate to these positions. Smaller departments can designate an individual within the department to keep up with current publications or seminars for first responders about health and wellness. It takes a strong leader to change the past and get away from the “shake it off” mentality, but it is attainable. If we can help first responders address their mental health early on in their careers and offer them the tools to cope with demanding situations, we would probably have fewer instances of suicide, alcoholism and drug abuse within the ranks.
About the author
Danielle Sheehan is a retired New York City Police Detective with 20 years of experience. She is now the Vice President of Saint Michael’s Warriors Nonprofit. The organization was formed when her husband, also a police officer, was involved in a shooting in the summer of 2020. She resides in Pennsylvania with her husband and sons.