Photo of Omar Delgado by Daymon Gardner for Dear World

Photo of Omar Delgado by Daymon Gardner for Dear World

More than a year and a half after the Pulse massacre, first responders still struggle with the trauma 

Editor's note: A clarification was appended on Jan. 25, 2018 regarding Cpl. Delgado's employment.

Every night for the past 19 months, Omar Delgado has had the same exact nightmare.

He's back inside Pulse. He's dragging someone who's still alive through blood and glass, away from the slaughtered bodies strewn across the dance floor under the blinking disco light.

Then he hears it – the "TRA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA" puncturing sound of bullets in the air. Another officer screams, "Get down, get down!" Through the dark, it's hard to tell if the gunman is shooting at them to stop officers from rescuing people or aiming at other victims. Delgado falls down as shots continue to ring, waiting for them to stop.

"Have you ever seen that movie with Bill Murray, Groundhog Day?" Delgado asks while sitting at his dining room table. "It's the same thing, every single night since June 12. It's a flashback. I wake up in the middle of the night yelling and screaming. I mean – my kids have heard me. How do you stop that? It's something I can't control."

"That's my nightmare and that's my hell."

Delgado, a former corporal with the Eatonville Police Department, is now beginning to adjust to civilian life after being let go from his job in December, months after he was proclaimed a hero for responding to the mass shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in 2016. A deranged gunman stormed into the club on "Latin Night" and took the lives of 49 people, injuring at least 68.

In the 19 months since that day, Delgado and other Pulse first responders have struggled with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as their departments and state lawmakers grapple with how to deal with the issue. At least three first responders who responded to the massacre and reported PTSD have left their jobs under varying circumstances, while others are still seeking treatment through the system.

Under Florida law, a "mental or nervous injury due to stress, fright, or excitement" that is not the result of a physical injury is not considered a workplace injury that would qualify for workers compensation, like lost wages or medical bills. Currently, a bill proposed by state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, would change this law by requiring workers compensation insurance plans to cover mental health treatment for law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics who were diagnosed with PTSD after witnessing a "murder, suicide, fatal injury or child death, or arrived on a scene where mass casualties were suffered." Early last year, a similar bill was proposed by state Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, but the measure died in committee.

During a hearing last year for Book's proposal, supporters said the measure could prevent suicides among first responders. A report found 132 first responders ended their lives nationwide in 2016, according to the nonprofit Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. In 2015, a survey of 4,000 first responders in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services found close to 7 percent had attempted suicide, more than 10 times the rate of the general public. An attorney for the Florida League of Cities argued the bill would be costly to Florida taxpayers because it makes eligible first responders who only arrive to a mass casualty scene.

Torres, a former New York police officer, says cities should support responders who are dealing with PTSD instead of terminating them.

"From a cop's point of view, when you do heroic acts, you get a pat on the back, an 'attaboy' because it's a good image for the department," he says. "But when it comes to ailments or illnesses, they tell you to suck it up and go back out there. ... They should be taking care of you, not letting you go."

Delgado can't understand why some legislators squabble over dollars when it comes to covering mental health for first responders.

"When they need help, they pick up the phone and dial 911," he says. "But now when we need help, who do we call?"

People tell Delgado time heals all wounds – that soon, his mental scars will fade.

That's not how it works, Delgado says. He was inside Pulse so long that every detail of the mass murder inside the club has been tattooed into his brain.

Delgado started off the night of June 11 working his regular patrol as an officer with the Eatonville Police Department, a small agency for a town of 2,000. Around 2 a.m. on June 12, Delgado got an alert from Orange County dispatchers that Orlando police officers needed help at a nightclub called Pulse. Usually, when Eatonville officers respond to these dispatches, they're turned back immediately because officers closer by have responded. But this time, nobody told Delgado to turn back as he flew down an empty Interstate 4 at more than 100 miles per hour, lights and sirens blazing.

When Delgado got off on Anderson Street, he heard through the radio, "Active shooter inside club Pulse. Multiple casualties down," and raced toward Kaley Street and Orange Avenue. When he got to Pulse, two law enforcement officers told him the shooter was still inside – then came the shots, one after another, followed by an avalanche of people trying to escape in a screaming chaos as Delgado and other officers tried to break their way in.

Inside the club's darkness, he saw people on the ground and yelled at them, "Get up! Get up! The police are here!" But nobody moved.

Then there was just silence, for a long time. Because he was so far out of range from his Apopka dispatcher, Delgado had no communication other than the information he was getting from fellow officers – also unlike them, he only had a handgun to defend himself and no protective vest.

From the dance floor, they started hearing cellphones – a perpetual ring, ring, ring of desperate calls and text messages that would never be answered. A vibrating iPhone near Delgado's feet floated away on a big pool of blood.

Officers knew the gunman had threatened to blow up hostages trapped in the bathrooms after pledging allegiance to ISIS during calls with dispatchers. But they refused to leave if they could save more people. Delgado and other officers inside Pulse cleared people from the bathrooms and extracted people from the dance floor who looked alive. Then, for what felt like an eternity, Delgado and other officers stayed on the main floor, guns out, watching for the shooter.

"I memorized where the bodies were lying," he says. "I know how many beer bottles were on the bar, the casings on the floor. I just keep looking at the bodies and the walls, bodies and the walls. The disco light was still spinning. I remember all that because I was in there for so damn long."

First responders breached the bathroom's outside wall with an armored car around 5 a.m. and engaged in a fatal shootout with the gunman. Delgado's family slept through the shooting, but by the time he got home, national media had descended on Orlando. He did some television interviews, and his kids thought he was a rock star. Het got thank you cards from around the world – even one from Australia. Everyone called him a "hero."

But mostly, he felt numb. It wasn't until he tried to go back to work during the Fourth of July weekend that he realized he had a problem. The fireworks took him back to the explosions of that night.

"I couldn't say, 'I'm not ready to be at work yet,'" Delgado says. "I'm a police officer, and we have the whole military mentality of 'suck it up and do your job no matter what.' And I tell you – I tried. I really tried. I tried with everything I had, and this was just overpowering me."

Delgado didn't like going out anymore – people bickering in restaurants or a lot of noise bothered him, so he confined himself at home. The nightmares didn't let him sleep. He was hypervigilant, "like in police mode times 100," he says. He knew suicide statistics among veterans with PTSD and feared his condition getting any worse. He told his supervisors he needed help. They told him to call the employee assistance program number on the back of his insurance card. (EAPs offer free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling and referrals to employees dealing with emotional stress, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management.) Delgado says he was offered three visits to speak to somebody – but he knew at that point that he needed a professional who specialized in trauma.

The Eatonville Police Department then offered him the chance to go for 10 weeks to UCF Restores, a clinical research center at the University of Central Florida dedicated to the study of anxiety, trauma and PTSD. Clinic director Deborah Beidel says the free program was created for military veterans but has since expanded to include first responders, Pulse survivors and victims of sexual assault. One of the protocols offered is exposure therapy, a type of treatment that's supposed to reduce anxiety by subjecting people to their traumatic situation for a long period of time. Veterans who attend this therapy use virtual reality headsets and even scent machines to re-create experiences they had in the military. The same thing doesn't exist for first responders yet, but Beidel says her team is working on developing a similar program that's relevant to this group – the clinic has already treated or assessed about 40 Pulse first responders.

Beidel says most people who experience a traumatic event will have a short-term reaction to it, like trouble sleeping or eating and feeling anxious. But for a small percentage of people, those reactions don't go away – they intensify and develop into PTSD. The most common patterns include inability to sleep, nightmares, anxiety, depression, social isolation and hyperarousal.

"I think it is sometimes difficult for people to understand post-traumatic stress disorder if they haven't been through it," she says. "Not everyone will have the same reaction at the same time."

Delgado says his exposure therapy involved recounting his entire experience at Pulse for hours until his anxiety was at a minimal level. Once, the clinicians tried to take him near Pulse as part of his therapy, but he broke down on the ground.

"Their main goal is to get you desensitized," he says. "I understand where they wanted to get me to, but that journey was hell for me. ... With PTSD, there's no magical pill. There's not something you can take, and you're going to be OK."

Delgado was put on light desk duty until last month, when he says Eatonville Police Deputy Joseph Jenkins told him he was being let go as an officer because of his "emotional disturbed state and PTSD." They didn't have a civilian position they could offer him. Delgado couldn't believe he was being fired after everything that happened at Pulse and thinks he would still be employed if he hadn't told the department about his condition. His last day was Dec. 31.

"That's the last thing I would have ever thought would have happened to me, getting terminated because I did my job," he says. "What aggravates me is they didn't even give me a chance to try to get better."

The Eatonville Town Council voted unanimously in December to pay Delgado half of his accrued sick time – 65 hours – after he had worked with the department for nine and a half years. Initially, Eatonville officials wouldn't talk about why Delgado was let go, citing privacy laws. Delgado maintained he was terminated because his doctor determined his PTSD, depression and anxiety made him unfit for patrol duty. He was about six months short of his 10-year employment anniversary, when his pension would have been vested.

In a later appearance, city officials announced Delgado would receive 42 percent of his $38,500 salary with benefits for life. But Delgado says that decision is actually up to the pension board, which still hasn't decided whether he'll receive 42 percent of his salary on a disability pension or just 22 percent of his salary on a retirement pension (which he can start collecting at 55).

Jenkins later told media outlets Delgado was let go after an October internal investigation found Delgado told a woman he pulled over that he was "emotionally disturbed" and displayed an "arrogant lack of respect." The woman said Delgado had pulled her hair, according to Jenkins but he added that the state attorney's office determined that was incidental to her arrest because she was actively resisting. After publication, Delgado clarified that he had not pulled the woman's hair, but that his partner had. Delgado also provided a letter from the Orange County Sheriff's Office Professional Standards Section corroborating his statement. The Orange County Sheriff's Office found no criminal acts in their probe, but Jenkins said an Eatonville administrative review found he had violated policy, though he wasn't punished.

"We didn't fire him because he had PTSD," Jenkins says. "When you have a badge and a gun, and the ability to make life-changing decisions, we need an officer to be 100 percent."

Jenkins says Eatonville doesn't have anything in place to deal with PTSD except EAP and health insurance polices – like many other police departments. The department "did everything they could" to get Delgado counseling, he says.

"We went above and beyond to make sure he was OK," Jenkins says. "We embrace Officer Delgado from that day to this one."

Now, Delgado tries to recover by doing activities that take his mind off Pulse – like photography and working with his kids on their YouTube channel. As of last week, he has two more checks coming in but after that, he doesn't know what he'll do. He may have to find a job that lets him work from home or file for unemployment.

"How do we survive until then?" Delgado muses, stepping away from a refrigerator covered with photos of his wife and kids. "That's the million-dollar question."

The night of June 12, Orlando Fire District Chief Bryan Davis had to watch his firefighters and paramedics make one of the most difficult decisions of their life, over and over: red tag or black tag?

People shot inside Pulse were carried by police and other clubgoers to the triage center outside Einstein Bros. Bagels. Victims who got a red tag could be saved and were rushed to the closest hospital. Victims who got a black tag were already dead.

"We do training on this every year, and in a mass casualty event, you're told not to focus your efforts on those already deceased," says Davis, who was the commander on scene that night. "Psychologically, it has to be tough to put a black tag knowing you can't do a thing for that victim. You lose sleep at night thinking, 'Did I do the right thing? Did I make the right call?'"

Davis says he stayed focused on ensuring the 82 OFD personnel who responded to Pulse got the support they needed to move past the event. Davis estimates that almost 50 firefighters and paramedics from OFD have taken part in the UCF Restores program. It wasn't until a year later that Lt. Jeff Orrange, who leads the local peer-support team for firefighters, told Davis it was finally time to focus on his own mental health.

"He finally looked at me, and said, 'We've done a great job with your guys. Now it's your turn,'" Davis says. "In our careers, we've experienced other tragedies, so when Pulse happened, it caused that cup of emotion to start overflowing. It wasn't until I was able to connect the dots that it became evident that it was time for me to move forward and process what had happened, too."

Jessica and Gerry Realin were on vacation when he got the call that the hazardous materials team needed him at Pulse to help remove the bodies from the club. Hours later, when the former Orlando Police officer finally arrived home, his wife saw a different person.

"He had a very stark, dazed and confused look – and I noticed he was still wearing his goggles and a glove from the scene," she says. "I had him strip down to his boxers before he got in the house. He looked in both kids' rooms and went to shower. Then I heard the most gut-wrenching wailing. I had never heard that sound from my husband. He was grieving for those people."

The past 19 months have been a rollercoaster for the Realins. After spending at least five hours inside the club removing the dead, Gerry Realin was diagnosed with PTSD. OPD offered Realin a desk job at the city, but his doctors concluded the experience left him "permanently and totally disabled" after working 13 years with OPD. The city's police pension board later granted him a full retirement pension, which is 80 percent of his salary for the rest of his life.

Jessica Realin says her husband is doing better now that he has fully immersed himself in treatment. But she has had to get a job to afford the $2,300 monthly bill they get for the city's health insurance.

Gerry Realin is trying to recover $25,000 in lost wages from the city under Florida's workers compensation laws by arguing his PTSD has physically manifested as hypertension, but last Friday a judge denied his request. Realin filed a civil lawsuit against the City of Orlando and the Orlando Police Department last month, alleging other officers harassed him after his PTSD diagnosis and that the department violated Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards regarding blood-borne pathogens by not providing proper safety equipment to the hazmat team removing bodies from Pulse. In a statement, the city categorically denied Realin's allegations and said it is "committed to the health and well-being of our first responders."

"[OPD] offered unlimited resources in an effort to facilitate Mr. Realin's recovery and return to meaningful employment," city spokesperson Jessica Garcia said in a statement. "The [department] stayed in contact with Mr. Realin out of concern for his well-being, to determine his ability to return to work, and advise of benefits available should he not be able to return to work."

"My husband loved what he did," Jessica Realin says. "When you see any other officer get physically injured, Orlando goes above and beyond to be there for them. They do fundraisers, they bring casseroles to the house, they do yard work. My husband was injured, too, but instead they told him he needed to suck it up."

A frustrated Delgado says he knows many OPD officers and Orange County deputies that are suffering from PTSD but still refuse to talk about it.

"I mean, what better poster child than me, who asked for help and got terminated from his job," he says. "They won't come out, but that's going to affect them down the line. It's going to be like a pressure cooker just waiting to explode."

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