“God, Please Give Me A Scar.”
I’m never too certain how to approach my story. After ending my 24-year career as a highway patrolman in a suicidal episode and spending two stays in psychiatric hospitals for my PTSD, I’ve now had 18 years to reflect on where I was and where I am, today. Much has changed, of course. For so many years, it was natural to be out in a dark field with no radio, to face a suspect with only a stupid pine stick that was most effective when thrown, and an ash tray that was full of either cigarettes or dimes so you could pull into a gas station and call the Dispatcher. We wore full dress uniforms out on the streets and in the rain—no one thought otherwise. My sixth year on the job (1974), 132 American police officers were gunned down. There were 48 in 2009. These things I think about, still. Even so, I saw changes come, and more have come since I retired. I’m left now with memories, and those are my story which I’m trying to tell. The problem, however, is that the PTSD leaves the memory jumbled, particularly when it hit you early in your career and more begins to pile up on top of it. It becomes very hard to remember “the good old days,” the “war stories” that get better and better at every retiree’s get-together. I have to struggle for those. They have to stand in line until after The Nightmares. I had a golden career, really. I hid things wonderfully—feelings especially. The academy and senior officers taught me how important that was. Early on, I was officer of the year and a training officer. Nothing escaped my eye out on the road. Of course, things changed very quickly when I found out I was neither physically nor emotionally “invincible.” You’re never supposed to have someone get the jump on you in a fight. Nothing is supposed to come as a surprise—you’re supposed to be alert to everything during your entire shift, every day and month of the year and, for me, every one of my 24 years. Nothing is supposed to pierce the armor—“you’re hired to handle trauma,” right? My scorecard didn’t come out so well. No, I was never in a shootout—it remains a fact that 95 percent of officers never fire their weapons. But my scars are within, nonetheless. I’ve often cried to myself, “God, please give me a scar that I might rip open my shirt and say, ‘Look, this is where they hurt me, these are my wounds!’” I can’t. My wounds are the brushes with death, many of which only I know. They’re the screams, the faces and remains of the dead, the moments of terror that officers never admit to, the betrayals, and the “dirty little secrets” of the things cops see and never say and become nightmares. I listen with wry amusement to the young officer who is enamored with the self-portrayals of “warrior, paladin, sheepdog,” even “hero,” a word that has lost its meaning from overuse. They have not met the real beast of law enforcement. Not yet. When they do, they will sleep with the beast—they won’t know what else to do. I now dedicate my life to reaching out to officers who are willing to listen and show them a better way—a way to keep on top of their emotional well-being before trouble hits, not waiting until after it does, when it’s often too late. It helps. I’ve often asked myself the question, would I do those 24 years again? No, not with the poor training I was given. Not even with the training that is given today, which is inadequate and ignores one of the most important aspects of an officer’s career—the ability to remain mentally and emotionally “sharp” out on the streets. I was a good and true cop. It’s among the most important services in society. And one of the most tragic. As one officer said, “The job eats itself.”
Andy O’Hara Sergeant (ret.), California Highway Patrol, 1969 – 1993 www.badgeoflife.com
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