Gerry Realin says he wishes he had never become a police officer.
Realin, 37, was part of the hazmat team that responded to the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando on June 12, 2016. He spent four hours taking care of the dead inside the club. Now, triggers like a Sharpie marker or a white sheet yank him out of the moment and back to the nightclub, where they used Sharpies to list the victims that night and white sheets to cover them.
He says small things make him disproportionately upset. He gets lost in memories of the shooting, he says — his young son will call him over and over again. Then, he gets angry that he let himself get trapped in thought, and that spirals into depression.
"Then there's the moments you can't control," Realin says. "The images or flashbacks or nightmares you don't even know about, and your wife tells you the next day you were screaming or twitching all night."
Realin was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and hasn't worked since just after the shooting. He worries about his family, he says, "hiding from your kids so that they're not traumatized by your rage or depression," which "gives them a sense of insecurity, which isn't good."
At least one other police officer has publicly discussed being diagnosed with PTSD after the Pulse shooting, and it's possible there are more who suffer from it. Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan says there are people who go to war and don't see what officers saw inside Pulse.
"I've talked to some of the officers and they're pretty traumatized by what they saw," Sheehan says. "It was horrible, the sights and the smells, and the thing that really haunts them is the cell phones that were in [the victims'] pockets ringing."
Sheehan has heard from first responders and mental health workers that there are more officers, possibly with PTSD, who don't want to come forward because they don't want to be seen as weak or unfit for duty. She says she wishes they would, though.
"If someone is to the point where they have had an emotional stress to where they can't perform their job, of course I don't want to put a gun in their hand," Sheehan says. "That's just common sense to me."
Researchers estimate that 28 percent of mass shooting survivors will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers say there isn't a lot of data on PTSD rates in first responders, but the it could range from 7 to 19 percent in police officers. When clinicians interviewed more than 400 officers in the Buffalo, N.Y., police department, 15 to 18 percent had PTSD.
A 2012 study found police officers were twice as likely to die from suicide, which can be associated with PTSD, than from traffic accidents or felony assaults.
"I don't think officers are disposable," says Ron Clark, a retired officer who works with Badge of Life, a police suicide-prevention group. He says when he started with the Connecticut State Police decades ago, people were told to suck it up. Officers used alcohol, drugs or sex to cope with stress because, if they spoke up, they were likely to get fired.
But, he says, "Police officers are human beings. They're affected by what they see out there — decapitated children, families wiped out in car accidents, suicides — just name all the horrors you can think of."