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    Thursday, June 20, 2024

    Groton natives seek to help first responders facing mental injuries

    Lauren Hoffman posed for a picture in 2014 — then as Lauren Forbes — in front of a photo of Lt. Thomas Forbes, her late father, and holding his police uniform hat. Lt. Forbes was a 31-year police officer who died by suicide at the City of Groton Police Department in 2011. The portrait of Lt. Forbes is from the FBI National Academy and is Hoffman's favorite photo of her father. Hoffman is now supporting Shields & Stripes, a nonprofit co-founded by a fellow Groton native that helps first responders dealing with mental injuries. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    There is no memorial and no wall, and when Lauren Hoffman talks about her father's service as a police officer and his death, she feels like there is an asterisk.

    A few days after his death, she was trying to find the right words to honor him in her eulogy. She had no idea at the time that 11 years later, she still would be trying to find those words, but this time "with a different mission: to share his story so that no daughter, son, wife, husband, mother, father or friend has to go through what my family did."

    Her father, Lt. Thomas Forbesdied by suicide at the City of Groton Police Department on June 6, 2011. He was 53. Forbes was a graduate of the 241st FBI National Academy class, an emergency rescue diver and a certified hostage negotiator.

    Hoffman was living in North Carolina when she got the call, and she kept repeating, "Who murdered him?" She couldn't believe he would do this. He gave his two daughters "a picture-perfect upbringing and would do anything to see us smile."

    She shared her story Friday night at a fundraising gala in North Carolina for Shields & Stripes, a nonprofit founded by veteran and therapist Jennifer Byrne — like Hoffman, a Groton native — and veteran Steven Nisbet of North Carolina.

    Shields & Stripes is scaling up a program to eventually consist of four weeks of in-person therapies — such as physical, occupational and massage, as well as psychological and nutritional services — and 12 weeks of telehealth, for veterans, police officers and firefighters. The nonprofit is working with the elite athletic performance center Exos to use their facilities.

    Hoffman now lives in Texas, and she did something she said she'd never do: married a police officer, and a fifth-generation cop no less. She feels that her perspective as a daughter and then wife has allowed her to see the importance of the role family plays for an officer.

    Within a few weeks of her father's death, Hoffman and her sister found her father's journal. What they saw was a "light shone on the everyday trauma he was seeing," Hoffman said, and its impacts: paranoia, overreacting to simple situations.

    Hoffman said about six or eight weeks before his death, a police call hit her father particularly hard. He stopped sleeping. He couldn't get certain smells out of his nose. He was showering constantly.

    "Those are the classic things where red flags should've been going up, but we never knew," Hoffman said. "We just thought it was the stress of the job."

    In 2014, still Lauren Forbes, she shared her story with The Day, and the reaction to the article was immediate: Officers from around the world contacted her on social media, and a Maryland officer cycled in honor of Lt. Forbes in the three-day Police Unity Tour, which raises awareness of law enforcement deaths in the line of duty.

    Hoffman said at the gala Friday that people often ask if she thinks her father's death was preventable, but she doesn't know.

    "But I do know that if there was a resource available to him that allowed him to receive care from someone that knew police culture, helped him to focus on his whole well-being — such as nutrition and physical fitness, and included family in that — he would have had a much better fighting chance," she said. She saw that her father was happiest when he was focused on nutritional health and working out.

    That's what appealed to her about the mission of Shields & Stripes, which she heard about in social media posts from Jennifer Byrne. Hoffman grew up dancing with Byrne — then Jennifer Aspinwall — at Eastern Connecticut Ballet, and still followed her on social media.

    Being a part of the military medical system

    Byrne, a Fitch High School graduate who now lives in Alaska, described herself as a troublemaker as a teenager but someone who thrived with structure. Byrne also said she "felt pretty early on that my calling in life was to help people." So, at the University of New Hampshire, she studied occupational therapy and joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, or ROTC.

    Byrne then spent seven years as an occupational therapist in the U.S. Air Force, which she said involved treating everything from blast injuries to traumatic brain injuries to post-traumatic stress.

    The best opportunity she had was developing a sports medicine team for special operator trainees in Texas, consisting of athletic conditioners, physical therapists and nutritionists.

    "The military medical system, it's got its pros and its cons, but I always felt like I was on this leash, and the length of the leash really depended on who my boss was," Byrne said. She also sees how "critically undermanned" the mental health system is.

    After she had her daughter — now a "2-year-old ball of sass" — she decided to get out of the Air Force. She built her own business: 5by5 Performance Therapy, which provides telehealth services to military members, veterans and their families. She was doing this for a few months, and everything was going well.

    Then she got a LinkedIn message from Steven Nisbet.

    Facing trauma after trauma

    Nisbet joined the Air Force in 2005 as a pararescueman, or PJ. In his nearly 16 years in the service, he deployed 10 times, to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen.

    In 2019, after losing 15 friends in combat and surviving a lot of explosions, he began to experience significant memory loss. A cognitive test came back with a low score on attentiveness, and Nisbet was told this was indicative of post-traumatic stress disorder — something he adamantly denied at first.

    "I wasn't responding to those typical symptoms you see in TV shows and movies, and it took my wife sitting me down and telling me my two boys were scared of me," Nisbet said. His kids were 9 and 7 at the time.

    A psychologist described some PTSD symptoms to him as irritability, sadness, sleep disorders, disconnection from others and not enjoying one's job anymore, things Nisbet thought were just a part of life. He started doing therapy and began to like his job again. In October 2019, Nisbet set out on a climbing trip to Boise, Idaho, a training exercise with fellow members of the 24th Special Operations Wing.

    It was supposed to be for morale building, but the trip ended in tragedy: A pararescueman's anchor slipped, and he died from a fall off a cliff. An investigation report released months later didn't place any specific blame for the death and said there was no indication the rock climbing equipment malfunctioned, Air Force Times reported.

    The parents and wife of the pararescueman, Tech. Sgt. Peter Kraines, attended the gala Friday.

    After Kraines' death, Nisbet went back into therapy and credits that with saving his life. "I was in the darkest of places," he said, and the therapist "climbed in with me, and guided me out." But he ultimately decided to medically retire from the Air Force on a diagnosis of PTSD.

    "It was scary to think about: I'm about to get out of the military and have no plan," he said. "I was losing all these resources I was leaning so heavily on, and so I had to create them."

    Then he found Jennifer Byrne.

    Expanding beyond veterans

    When Nisbet first reached out to Byrne, he had a vision. Byrne didn't know at first if Nisbet wanted some coaching, but he was soon clear with her that he didn't just want her advice — he wanted her to be a partner.

    Nisbet's perspective was that the services Byrne was offering needed to be offered not only to veterans but also to police officers, firefighters and other first responders, and there should be an in-person portion.

    Last year, they had their first phone discussion in February, filed for nonprofit status in April and had their first golf fundraiser in August. In this time, Byrne also received her doctorate in occupational therapy, and she leads the team of therapists for Shields & Stripes.

    The nonprofit had its first cohort in September, in which four people received a week of in-person therapies in Florida and three weeks of telehealth. Nisbet said it was successful but proved what they already knew: that wasn't long enough.

    In January, the program expanded to two in-person weeks in Arizona and six weeks of telehealth, for six people. The plan is to have eight people at Exos Arizona this August and eight to 10 at Exos Florida in October.

    "We will return our heroes better prepared to navigate life and family challenges, to return them to feeling like themselves again," the Shields & Stripes website, shieldsandstripes.org, states.

    Friday's gala was to raise both awareness and funds, considering Shields & Stripes says it costs about $20,000 to put someone through the program, including airfare, lodging, food and therapies. People can donate at shields-and-stripes.square.site.

    Hoffman concluded her speech Friday by thanking Byrne and Nisbet for giving her the opportunity to share her story, which she called her way to honor her father.

    "If you want to honor his life and his career," she said, "check in on a friend, share his story with someone who may need to hear it, or encourage your department leadership to."


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