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Maryland officer dedicates bicycle ride to late Groton City officer, raising awareness to police suicide

For more than 10 years Rockville, Md., Police Corporal John Pfaehler was struggling, feeling uneasy, unable to sleep, but he wasn’t sure what was wrong with him.

His wife had pleaded with him to seek help, but he didn’t. Last March, she asked for a divorce. It was at that point that Pfaehler decided to seek help. After seeing a therapist, he was diagnosed on May 28 with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

“As a police officer, people reach out to us for help and yet it is difficult for police officers to reach out for help for themselves,” said Pfaehler. “When you are faced with your own crisis and don’t know how to fix it, you run into a conundrum. When I was diagnosed, it was my ‘A-ha’ moment. I finally knew what was wrong. I couldn’t save my marriage, but maybe I could help myself and others.”

Pfaehler, 45, wants to raise awareness about the struggles that police officers face. He is participating in May in the Police Unity Tour, a three-day, 250-mile bicycle ride that ends at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., which honors officers who died in the line of duty.

Pfaehler is riding in honor of three officers, including Groton City police Lt. Thomas Forbes, who committed suicide in 2011 after 31 years on the force.

Pfaehler learned about Forbes' death after reading an article in The Day.

“His name will never get on that memorial because he killed himself,” said Pfaehler. “He was a dedicated police officer, beloved husband and father. I almost went down that road myself, and we need to bring awareness to it.”

Pfaehler said he recently made contact with Forbes’ daughter, Lauren, and told her what he is doing. He said Lauren; her mother, Leslie; sister, Gina; and her son, Chester, will meet him at the memorial at the end of the ride.

He is funding their travel and other expenses through his personal finances, fundraising and a GoFundMe page that he set up.   

Lauren Forbes said she is honored by Pfaehler’s gesture.

“It’s going to be hard to go down there and know that his name won’t be on the memorial,” said Forbes. “...that’s why I’m touched that his memory is still being honored. I’m hoping that other officers will see me and my family and learn what a wonderful man my father was.”

Forbes, 52, had reported for work on Monday, June 6, 2011. About 8:30 a.m. he shot himself.

Last year, Lauren started to openly talk about her father’s death in the hope that it will help prevent future police suicides. She spoke about police suicides at a seminar for officers about in-the-line-of-duty deaths, held at the Connecticut Police Academy in Meriden.

She also spoke to The Day and gave some insight on what her father was struggling with.

She said her father was stressed out. He told her the climate at the Groton City police department was "very political," recalling there was constant conflict between management and the officers. She said her father told her he had to leave the department for the sake of his health.

Forbes said that two months prior to her father's death, he responded to a call for a deceased man. Something about that incident, Forbes said, affected him.

He started having trouble sleeping. Another officer who was dealing with post-traumatic stress confided in her father that he was seeing a therapist. Lt. Forbes got the number and made some effort to make an appointment, but for some reason, it never happened.

Lauren Forbes said that after going public she has been contacted by families and officers from all over the country.

"Talking about my father’s death is hard, but if it can bring about change, then it’s worth it,” she said.

Pfaehler says more discussion is needed to remove the stigma that keeps officers from seeking help. He said he continues to see a therapist.

He said it was series of events throughout his 21-year career, 10 at the Rockville Police Department, that contributed to his diagnosis. Some events stand out.

The first happened in August 2000, when he was a police officer in southern California. He was involved in a shootout with a gang member who had a rifle. The bullets were flying everywhere, and he was certain he was going to die. He wasn’t shot, but the incident traumatized him.

A year later, in August 2001, he was a K-9 handler, a position he always had wanted, when he and a fellow officer responded to a serious car crash. The driver had fallen asleep at the wheel and crashed into a tree. Three of the four people in the car were flown to an area hospital.

A couple of days later he went to a debriefing meeting on the accident and couldn’t bring his K-9 into the building. His vehicle had climate control so he thought the dog would be safe.

As he left the meeting, he noticed his car wasn’t running. The cooling system had failed and the dog had died.

“I could smell death,” he said. “I could smell the saliva. I talked to an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) worker for an hour and was probably back on the road a week later. I didn’t realize then that all these events were a trigger that made me fall into a depression.”

Pfaehler said with the support of his police chief, Terrance Treschuk, he is working on an initiative to bring awareness of mental health issues, providing internal resources for help, recommending an annual mental health check-in and family training for those who are dealing with these officers at his department.

A study conducted by Badge of Life in 2012, a group of active and retired police officers, medical professionals and surviving families of police suicides from the United States and Canada, found that 126 officers in the United States had committed suicide that year.

That same year the National Law Enforcement Officers Fund found that the number one cause of officer fatalities was traffic-related incidents, which claimed 50 lives, followed by 49 officers being killed by gunfire. Twenty-eight officers died from other causes.

“This issue needs to be addressed… more officers killed themselves (in 2012) than getting killed by someone else on duty,” Pfaehler said. “PSDT doesn’t mean you are beaten down, no longer an effective officer. It’s an injury to the brain and you can get help.”

l.larraneta@theday.com

 

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