They are first on the scene, willing to run into burning buildings and offer help to victims of fires and accidents.
But being strong on the job can take its toll.
Up to 37 percent of firefighters suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Its a condition that can paralyze. Lead to mental breakdowns, alcoholism, even suicide.
Shannon McDonald and Gary Flores have almost 40 years service as firefighters combined. They’ve been battling PTSD for almost 20 years combined.
“My mentor when i first got on the job, i was maybe 20,” says Gary Flores, A Fort Stewart Fire Captain. “He’s the guy who took me under his wing.”
“He died in a fire.. roughly 3, 3 and half years on the job, when that happened it devastated me. My first structure fire after that i had a panic attack. full on, couldn’t get my mask right, my hands were shaking and i thought this guy is big strong smart everything i aspire to be as a young firefighter, if it got him, I know its going to get me.”
Its the beginning of a long term problem for Flores, even as he continued battling blazes and covering accidents.\
“You see a dead child or a burnt body the smell, all that stuff over time you just want to push it out ignore it but you can’t,” explains Flores. “You ignore it it gets worse.”
“It kind of built up I had moments, calls here and there where it built up. It was a huge impact in that moment and you shake it off and keep going. Over time it turned into sleepless nights and nightmares.”
“I couldn’t stand to hear an ambulance, I couldn’t stand to hear a siren or any sort. I don’t know what it was,” said Shannon McDonald. “I was worried I couldn’t go to work, but the sound of that siren meant oh gosh something bad is going to happen, automatic doom.”
Shannon McDonald said her problems with PTSD started with a call involving the murder of children. Some of the images she couldn’t get out of her head.
“That call ended you’d like to say all good that happens in the world, its where you just let it out of the box,” said McDonald. “Just all of it. The smells, the smell of heavy blood to me I can relive one call. I can handle it now but initially, I couldn’t handle hearing kids cry.”
“After a week of drinking, shutting my family out, thinking the world is just horrible,” explains an emotional McDonald. “That’s when I said ok its time to get help, that’s when i went to see a counselor. That’s when the whole ball of yarn unraveled. So it wasn’t just the one incident it was years of them that i had kept pushed behind.”
“So when you get a call you are at your best?”
“I feel at home,” explains Flores. “Its the feelings and stuff where i’m lost.”
“Is home worse than work?”
“For me now yes.”
“Were you married?”
“Did this lead to that divorce?’
“It was a big factor, it wasn’t the only factor.. but i shut down.”
“How does it make you feel?”
“Makes me sad for my kids.”
“It gets to the point where you can only say i’m sorry so many times before it..doesn’t have the same meaning.”
“We (the fire station) are a family,” says Flores. “We rely on each other for our lives during a fire for some reason this little thing we never talk to each other about, we never reach out.”
“Whats that first time like when you have to admit something’s wrong?”
“Scary. If feels like you are saying you aren’t strong enough you don’t have what it takes you are basically like i cant do this i cant handle this. That’s not what it is., We are ordinary people who do an extraordinary job.”
“You get to save someone. That’s the greatest feeling i’ve ever felt,” smiles Flores. “I can live off that high for a while. But conversely on the other side its just as low when you lose someone. that’s what you are there for. Whatever the issue is a car accident a house fire a medical emergency we solve problems. You have a problem you call us, we have to solve it for you. When we cant do that its hard because that’s our purpose.”
“Once i sat down with talked to my buddies and said you know im not doing ok,” explains Flores. “And we all pulled together. Some of them said hey this is bothering me too.”
If you do need help, Flores says, its starts with your mental state and attitude.
“Find someone you trust and be honest about,” said Flores. “Because if you are not honest about it you can see as many therapists as you want, you can take all the meds you want if you aren’t honest with yourself or the person you are talking to its not going to work.”
“PTSD doesn’t just go away, you cant just fix it there’s no cure,” said McDonald. “You just have to learn to cope with it.”
“People who say oh you choose the job and you are just a wuss, come ride with me,” said a defiant McDonald. “Ride with me for, give me two months,. i bet you will walk away a different person. its not all heroes and saving people no not at all.”
“You are not weak, you are not stupid,” says McDonald. “You are not I don’t even know all the terms. You are not those things you are simply human. You have to let them out or else it will eat you up it will destroy you and god forbid it will kill you.”
“Did you think of suicide?”
“Yes,” says McDonald. “Now is it something you want to be proud of no.”
“Most people i know with PTSD have gotten to that point where they’ve thought about how they are going to do it, how they are going to end all of it.”
“One of my friends committed suicide four years ago. Hung himself in his basement,” said Flores.
“Because of this?”
“Too close to home?”
“Yeah because me and him are like the same person.”
As Flores deals with his own demons, he is stepping up to help others battle their own.
“I try to be there for them like people were for me,” said Flores. “They didn’t judge me, didn’t look down on me anything like that I was afraid they wouldn’t think of me as part of the team anymore.. but it wasn’t.”
“If me helping them could stop one person, one person from doing it,” says Flores. “It would mean the world to me because i wasn’t able to be there for my friend. I was 3000 miles away.”
Help is something firefighters need badly. Right now PTSD is not covered under all fire department medical plans.
“I can go off and take my personal time and sick leave. But its not like in the military when you get PTSD,” says McDonald. “They can medically retire off it.”
McDonald has started Heels and Halligans, a charity designed to give firefighters with PTSD a voice, and help raise money to pay for leave when they need to get “well”.
“People that are in need cant take off work because they cant afford to take a vacation or don’t have sick leave,” said McDonald. “How do you explain to your family you cant pay the bills because you have PTSD.”
If you’d like to donate to Heels and Halligans or buy one of their firefighter calendars, go to: https://www.facebook.com/heelsnhalligans/