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Living with bullet holes: Part three

Returning to duty after surviving a shooting is a journey that requires more than physical healing

Silent Struggle: A Glimpse into the World of a Depressed Soul Staring Beyond the Window of Hopelessness

Getting shot goes against everything an officer thinks about themselves. Officers are taught to train hard and fight harder. They want to prove that they weren’t beaten or defeated by the shooter.

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You survived bullet holes and healed from your injuries. Here’s tried and true advice to help prepare for your return to duty.

Don’t be too eager to return. Allow yourself time to heal

Bullet hole survivor, Keegan Merritt, serves as a full-time member of the Georgia Department of Public Safety peer support team. He advises, “I see officers all the time so eager to get back to show they’re not defeated. They go back before they have checked the mental health and physical health block. That makes the process worse.”

Getting shot goes against everything an officer thinks about themselves. Officers are taught to train hard and fight harder. They want to prove that they weren’t beaten or defeated by the shooter.

To return to work successfully, Merritt says officers cannot stuff away their emotions, but instead look at them with the help of a good therapist.

Part 1 and Part 2 of this series cover the topic of dealing with the emotions of living with bullet holes.

An officer who returned too soon inflamed scar tissue and had to go back on workers’ compensation. Don’t set yourself up for a physical setback or mandatory medical retirement.

Merritt advises officers to consider light duty as a prelude to returning to full duty. Light duty allows the officer to be surrounded by colleagues instead of being home alone. Merritt maintains the most dangerous place for a first responder can be their home — alone with their thoughts and demons. That can lead to substance abuse or worse — suicide.

Expose yourself to potential triggers before returning to work

When a reminder of how you got those bullet holes causes a reaction, such as anxiety, rapid heartbeat, nausea, or a panic attack, those reminders are called triggers. Triggers prove that trauma remains locked in the body. A trigger can throw you into the same physical and emotional sensations that you experienced during the initial traumatic incident. To desensitize, you have to expose yourself to possible triggers. Merritt advises you do that on your own terms while you are in a safe situation.

Don’t wait until you are on the street. You don’t want to be triggered on duty.

Put on your uniform before you go back to work. Merritt says the mere sight of the uniform has triggered officers. Put on all your gear, and make sure your heavy gun belt doesn’t cause you pain or a panic attack.

Sit in your police vehicle. Expose yourself to the equipment you will carry and use on duty. Visit the station or your office.

Spend time at the location where you acquired those bullet holes especially if the location is in your patrol jurisdiction. Don’t go alone. Take a trusted partner, friend, or family member with you in case you react. Many officers visit their shooting location with a therapist as part of exposure therapy.

Go to a firing range and sit and listen to gunfire. See how your mind and body react. If the sound of gunfire doesn’t trigger you, then shoot. Practice drawing, firing and reloading every firearm you carry on duty. Don’t wait until you are on duty and the bullets start flying. You don’t want to have an embarrassing reaction and put yourself, your colleagues and the public in mortal danger. It has happened.

Do the work ahead of time to gain confidence that you are healed and can handle whatever you encounter; and, if you are triggered, that you have the skills to deal with and overcome the sensations brought on by that trigger.

Merritt encourages officers to ride with a supportive partner when first returning to patrol. This eliminates apprehension about reacting to triggers or having a panic attack on duty. Knowing you are with someone you can trust, can eliminate apprehension and anxiety. For agencies that require an officer returning to duty to ride with another officer or field trainer, be sure that person is knowledgeable in trauma reactions and triggers and understands how to be supportive.

Most officers will welcome you back. Others will have doubts about you, even going as far as testing you. Be the officer you have always been and do the job to the best of your ability, and you will earn back their trust. Those officers who liked you and trusted you before you got those bullet holes, will still like and trust you. The others you shouldn’t give a flip about.

Merritt has seen too many officers fail to heed this advice. “It never fails, they have some kind of reaction on duty.”

Conquering the dreaded Fit For Duty Evaluation (FFDE)

Fit for Duty evaluations are not therapy sessions. You will be tested to see if you react to trauma triggers. Many agencies administer a written exam. Remember to emphasize not how you suffered, but how you healed.

Staff psychologists know that officers seldom tell the truth and nothing but the truth in FFDE sessions. They expect that from officers and know how to prod and probe you into truthful answers. Rehearse talking about your incident and feelings ahead of time. Hear the words coming out of your mouth before the FFDE. You will be less likely to react or be triggered during the FFDE.

Agencies may require a drug test to make certain you are no longer taking painkillers, opiates, or other meds that could impair your ability to perform on duty. Give your body time to purge those substances before you take the test.

Be prepared for questions

Be ready to talk about your shooting, and be prepared for officers and civilians to ask questions. Rehearse your answers ahead of time, and have one or two sentences at the ready that will take care of their curiosity. Officers will quiz you to see if talking about your shooting will make you react or panic. Be ready for that.

One officer was surprised that he was asked about his healing journey. He had to decide whether to share details with colleagues and how much to tell. There are a lot of hurting officers who reached out to him wanting to know how he healed and overcame what he had gone through.

Decide ahead of time what you are willing to share. That will prevent any awkward moments when you encounter questions.

Preparing your family for your return to duty

You will need to curb your family’s anxieties about your return to duty. Don’t promise that you will be okay. You went to work one day and came home with bullet holes. Your loved ones know you can get shot and that it could happen again. There is no magic wand you can wave to make that reality disappear.

The only magic that exists stems from communication. Listen to your friends’ and family’s concerns and understand their anxieties. Allow them to put words to their feelings about your return to work. Discuss ways to make them feel more comfortable.

Offer to call or text more often during your shift.

One spouse advised not to let the apprehension fester. Talk openly and honestly about your fears and feelings. She told her husband that she wasn’t asking him to fix her feelings but to acknowledge and understand them. She worried about her officer before the shooting and that hasn’t changed. If her husband had medically retired or taken a desk assignment, that would have made life easier, but that’s not who her husband is. “He’s a street cop. And to love him is to support him going back to what he loves doing,” she said.

She added that spouses and family have to support the officer because they are facing one of the biggest hurdles in their life — going back to work after surviving bullet holes.

Biggest challenge in returning to duty

An officer shared this: “After healing physically, working on the trauma aspect, being cleared to work, the biggest challenge was proving I could still do the job. Not to others, but to myself. And coming to terms with the fact that I’d always be the guy who got shot. That will never go away. Everything I do will be judged with that in mind.”

You will always be the officer living with bullet holes. Those bullet holes are a reminder of what can happen. The more prepared you are when you return to work, the more successful you will be living with those bullet holes.

Copyright©2024 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 for 52 years.

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 reserve officer and Police Explorer, 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 the passage of the Blue Alert legislation across the country, the enactment of the National First Responders Day, and the establishment of the Houston Police Officers’ Union peer support team. 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).

Email Barbara here.