The Wounded Hero

PTSD in law enforcement.

Posted Oct 10, 2018

Myths die hard, none harder than that of the so-called American hero—the righteous warrior, tough, fearless, and self-contained. In the days of the Old West, the archetype of American heroism was the strong and silent cowboy, the master gunslinger, the “pale rider” who metes out justice based on an unshakeable code of right and wrong. For later generations, it was military heroes like Sergeant York and Audie Murphy who tested their mettle on the field of battle and seemed impossibly brave. As times changed further and people became disillusioned with war, a different kind of mythic hero emerged: the men (and occasionally women) who battled crime. Books, movies, and TV shows helped perpetuate the myth of the detective as the moral compass of the universe, omniscient and infallible.

No one stage-managed the image of the heroic crime fighter more than J. Edgar Hoover, who founded the FBI and led the organization for half a century. Hoover envisioned a highly trained and disciplined national police force with the expertise and ability to utilize the latest science and other cutting-edge tools in the battle against crime, and he used brilliant public relations strategies to promote the FBI as the most elite cadre in law enforcement—so infallible, its motto was, “The FBI always gets its man.” He cooperated with a string of propagandistic books and movies in the 1930s, sometimes even appearing on screen in movie theaters, like the voice of God intoning that crime doesn’t pay. He set up “Junior G-Men” clubs to promote the FBI agent as role model and career model, and hand-picked the actor who would play the upright, incorruptible Inspector Lewis Erskine on the TV series The FBI, a hit show that ran from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s. At a time of chaotic cultural change in the country, the Erskine character seemed so genuine and admirably heroic that many people sent fans letters to the actual FBI headquarters addressed to Erskine as its Director, believing the fictional character really ran the FBI.

I was one of the kids, inspired by Inspector Erskine, who dreamed of becoming an FBI agent. But like many actual agents, I had no impermeable membrane—no tough-guy suit of armor that was part of the “invincible” stereotype of the Inspector Erskine school of crime fighter—to keep the horrors I saw and felt and smelled and touched at bay. I spent 28 years as an FBI agent, mostly working cases of missing and murdered children, and I could not go home at the end of the day without taking the pain and frustrations of what I had experienced with me. I learned from personal experience that vicarious trauma and PTSD are real phenomena that can affect not just those in combat, but also those waging the war at home—from first responders of all types to therapists, social workers, emergency room personnel, and many people in law enforcement.

I felt a unique closeness to the victims whose cases I investigated and their families. The memories of unspeakable horrors perpetrated on such vulnerable and defenseless victims ravaged my sleep and flooded my waking hours, intruding without warning into my consciousness. I mourned for the children who were harmed so selfishly and senselessly and whose loved ones would forever live with a hole in their souls. I agonized over what I might have done differently and worried about what I might have overlooked—something, anything that could have led to a child being found alive or a predator being caught before more kids were molested or murdered or exploited. Yet for any perpetrator with an ounce of redemption in his soul, I also felt empathy. Most of those who abuse children were abused themselves. Nearly every case I worked involved not just a single violent act, but layers and sometimes generations of harm that built up and compounded until it eventually exploded into a tragedy. I was known as someone within the FBI who was particularly good at obtaining confessions, including that of serial killer Cary Stayner to the murders of four women and children in Yosemite Park, but it was hard to feel good about a confession when you knew it meant the offender’s family would be destroyed as well. Only for the true psychopath, those rare individuals incapable of feeling any human emotion, was I unable to feel or extend empathy.

Retirement did not ease the pain of all this accumulated grief. Neither did medication or therapy or the brotherhood and sisterhood of FBI agents and other law enforcement officers with whom I shared such grim duty. The choking weight of tragedy compounded upon tragedy, a sense of futility in the face of so much darkness, led me to a point where I attempted to take my own life—believing that I belonged with the victims. The hardest thing for me to live with is the pain I so directly caused my wife and sons, whose lives had already been impacted by the fallout of the suffering I was exposed to day in and day out on the job.

I can honestly say that without the love and support of my wife, Lori, and my two sons I would not be here today. They called upon friends and doctors when necessary and even physically prevented me from hurting myself. They also confronted me with how much they had been affected, and seeing the pain in their eyes and hearing their words shook me to my core and made me want to get better for them. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I was also discovered to have greatly diminished levels of hormones that affect my ability to deal with stress. Recovery was not easy. The FBI sent me to a therapist who wanted to try EMDR to help reprogram my brain’s ability and end the constant replaying of traumatic memories, but in the time afforded by work I was not able to get past the debriefing stage. I would start talking about one case and that would lead to another then another—a child forced to drink a fatal cocktail of bleach by drug-addled parents who thought she was possessed by demons; a missing girl found buried by her mother in kitty litter in an effort to absorb the smells of decomposition; the boy tortured to death by a serial sexual predator who was the same age as one of our sons and whose name I called out in nightmares and when falling under anesthesia prior to surgery.

I couldn’t bear to be away from Lori, and she joined me for all the therapy sessions I attended, including marriage counseling. Eventually, medication and hormone therapy helped me regain the ability to cope with stress. Intrusive thoughts and sensations, nightmares, and even “daymares” are still there to some extent, but I am better able to live with them. I continue to try to help families—now as a private investigator—find missing children, gain answers, and fight for justice. And Lori and I still see some of the children whose cases I worked on—the lucky ones who survived their torments—who really are like family to us, and whose birthdays, graduations, and weddings we have been proud to attend, as they, too, fight to get beyond the traumas inflicted upon them and find the happiness they deserve.

It was Lori who urged me to write In the Name of the Children about my work as an FBI agent, to honor the victims and to honor my own children by being open and honest about how the cases affected me. Our hope is that it helps other families, as well, both in and out of law enforcement. We want families suffering from exposure to trauma to know that they are not alone; they are not abnormal, but simply human—and love, care, insight, and understanding can help them heal.