JOHN WAYNE NEVER CRIED

JOHN WAYNE NEVER CRIED


Neither did Clint Eastwood, Jack Webb, nor my father, I was told, so neither would I. My heroes helped shape my mind so life’s unexplainable and unfair situations could be deflected from penetrating the mental steel armor I put on every day working for the CHP. In the beginning I wanted my new shiny armor to be as thick and hardened as the old road dogs that were my training officers, my new heroes. I was trained to always be hyper-vigilant and in control, to project a strong command presence that would bring order to the chaos. Weakness was not an option.

I thought the steel of my mental armor was impenetrable as it was tempered again and again by the fire of the tragedies that I witnessed, the unjust mayhem, injuries, and death. When I thought that my armor was starting to crack, I would seek the counsel of my comrades to weld up the weak spots. We would reinforce our armor with new layers of steel forged over coffee between calls, during after shift barbeques with beer, and other untold occasions where I was reminded that “This is the job we signed up for.” Over time I saw my peers temperaments change as they wore their armor, now dented, scarred and scorched from their own calls, without complaining, and that reinforced the concept that weakness was not an option.

In 1992 I was told as a new supervisor to look for cracks in the armor of my troops, and refer them to seek the assistance of professionals through the Employee Assistance Program. I thought that my own armor had become as hard as titanium as it was tested again and again by all of the horrendous crashes, the high speed pursuits, the shootings, the murders, and even the suicide of my classmate last year. My armor had to be invincible since weakness in a supervisor is not an option.

After 23 years on the road I felt like I was fireproof and that my armor could withstand even the fires of Hell itself . . . until September 16, 2006 at 10:25 P.M.. It wasn’t my call or even my shift since my long day was over, but since both C-watch units, two shift sergeants, and the Area commander had responded to this second fatal collision for the day, I stayed over with another officer to help cover other calls. When I realized that it was a multiple fatality accident and the responsible driver had fled the scene on foot, it was inevitable that I would take myself there to help, and again expose my armor to yet another scorching. I arrived on scene to another unjust tragedy that wiped out three generations of an entire family returning home from a baptism reception. I have seen parents and grandparents die before due to the selfish actions of drunk drivers, but my battle hardened armor was pierced, straight through my heart, when I could not accept the truth that I could not find a pulse on the six month old baby who appeared only to be sleeping in the security of his car seat, or his three year old brother who was only noticed because of his small arm protruding from the twisted metal. When Captain Scott Silsbee gave me permission to help and try to find the miscreant that caused these innocent people to die, I quickly welded a patch on my broken armor and did what I was trained to do. A team of officers with their own personal armor intact worked through the night and the next morning without rest until the still drunk driver was captured two blocks from his home by my newest hero, Officer Dan Yeager. The team watched the driver lie and deny his responsibility from an adjoining room while the MAIT investigators did their best; eventually getting a confession mixed with lies late in the afternoon from a person incapable of showing compassion for those not living his gang infested life style.

Although consumed before by other investigations, this one was different, as countless hours by the investigation team during the case preparation turned the days to weeks, and the weeks to months, because any weakness in the case was not an option. After the funerals were long over and the case was delivered to the District Attorney’s Office, I noticed I was constantly welding cracks in my armor that had gone undetected; the cracks were depression, confusion, nightmares, unexpected boiling of emotions, and other cracks too long to list. I used my seasoned and field tested coping skills to weld up the cracks, but more cracks were appearing and some old welds were failing. I began to believe that my armor was weak, and at times I thought I was going crazy; but I put on my ‘game face’ every day to not let anyone see my weakness because weakness was not an option.

I finally sought the counsel of only a few retired and active members who I knew I could trust with my damaged armor, and was directed to the same place, the Employee Assistance Program. The professional help I sought was good, but the new coping skills I was learning were not fixing all of the cracks in my armor. Through forces beyond my control, other people’s lives crossed my path, and I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to attend the twenty sixth session at the West Coast Post Trauma Retreat (WCPR) in May. The professionals at WCPR are all veteran police and fire personnel who have ‘been there ’, and they let me take off my damaged armor for the first time since 1983. The staff at WCPR gave me a new set of tools to manage the old memories, and the future memories that are inevitable in this line of work. I am feeling better now since finishing the most intense week of my life, and have a new group of heroes; the dedicated staff at WCPR, Assistant Chief Lauren Dummer, Captain Scott Silsbee, Captain Fred Stiesberg (Ret), Sergeant Jim Howarth, Officer Rick Mattos, Flight Officer Leslie Berndl, and last, but not least, my wonderful wife; all who gave of themselves from their hearts with true compassion and genuine understanding.

I feel lighter and stronger now with the old armor off, and want to share my experience to help other members of the CHP family with their own cracked armor; for no matter if you have been to one critical incident or dispatched us to a hundred, getting help is not a weakness; but a strength. I know now that it is O.K. to grieve and cry for the unjust tragedies that we experience on the road and in the communication centers. When I returned home from WCPR my five year old daughter Angelina exclaimed “My daddy’s home!”, and little did she understand that she was right in more ways than one, and if anyone ever told you that John Wayne or Clint Eastwood never cried, they lied.

Sincerely,

Scott Klocker, CAHP Sgt.