Guardian Initiatives crew pulls together to raise awareness of first responder challenges

Dorothy Nobis
Special to The Daily Times

AZTEC — It’s been a busy year for Mark Pfetzer and Jarrod Slindee. The full-time San Juan County Sheriff's Office employees, during a pandemic no less, have raised (and paid out of pocket) a lot of cash to work toward the goal of rowing across the Atlantic Ocean.

Their purpose: To raise awareness of the toll that working as a first responder can take on the mental health of those who serve and protect, and to make sure that help is available.

Their task: Participate in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, a 3,000-mile race across the Atlantic Ocean that will take them from the west coast of Africa to the Caribbean.

Since launching Team Guardian the pair have recruited a third intrepid soul, former sheriff's office employee Mike Hogue, who said his life experiences and Christian faith led him to join the team and train for the grueling expedition.

"We started talks of the row and cause in late 2018," Pfetzer said via email. "Our nonprofit was formed in February 2019. We have been hard at work since!"

The Team Guardian crewmembers hold training sessions on the boat on Navajo Lake.  Seen here are Mike Hogue (closer to camera) and Mark Pfetzer (back).

As tough as the race will be, the preparations by the Guardian Initiatives crew also hasn't been easy for the pair that launched this plan. As part of the sheriff's office, their work schedule can vary, and the hours can be long. As husbands and fathers, they enjoy spending time with their families.

As advocates for getting the mental, physical, and emotional help first responders need, they also spend much of their spare time working with health care professionals to ensure the services first responders need are available to them. 

First responders watch people die, comfort children who have been sexually and physically abused, and have seen injuries that are so severe they make a lasting impression in the minds and hearts of the law enforcement officers, the firefighters, the paramedics, and the dispatchers who see, hear, treat, and console those they have promised to help. 

While the adrenaline carries them through their shift, it is when they are alone, that they relive the images they just saw and the work they performed to help save a life, calm an abused child, and face an emergency scene that was difficult to process. 

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They put their professional responsibilities aside and put on the happy face their families and their friends like to see and hope the images won’t manifest as nightmares when they sleep.

The lack of awareness of the need for help for the "helpers" – the first responders – has become a priority for Pfetzer and Slindee. As first responders themselves – both are part of the leadership team for the sheriff’s office – Pfetzer and Slindee say they know how difficult it is to put those emotions, those images, those heartbreaking stories away. 

When Pfetzer saw statistics that showed the suicide rate of first responders increases every year, he knew he had to do something to raise awareness for the law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and emergency dispatchers who are affected by the work they do. 

Mark Pfetzer, Mike Hogue and Jarrod Slindee are seen standing in front of the boat they will row across the Atlantic next year in Amelia Island, Florida, right after it was shipped to the U.S.

Pfetzer found an event that helps raise funds for health care benefits of first responders. The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge brings attention to the ever-increasing number of first responders who commit suicide, and it became a passion and a commitment for Pfetzer.

With Slindee joining him, the two created Team Guardian and began the training and the fundraising needed to participate in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, which is a 3,000-mile race across the Atlantic Ocean from La Gomera, which is off the west coast of Africa, and row to Antiqua, which is in the Caribbean. 

In December 2022, Pfetzer, Sindlee and Hogue will use a specifically-designed rowing boat, which must keep moving 24 hours a day to complete the race. They will take turns rowing and resting every two hours for between 30 and 45 days. The team will take their own food and filter sea water for drinking. 

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Slindee and Pfetzer will be joined on the boat for the race by Hogue, who worked with Pfetzer and Slindee at the Sheriff's Office. Hogue said he initially declined Pfetzer’s invitation to row with Team Guardian. He was busy pastoring a church in Bernalillo, and didn’t think he had the time to spend preparing for the challenge.

However, when two people close to Hogue’s committed suicide, he changed his mind.

"This brought me to the realization that God was pointing me toward joining Mark and Jarrod in this grand adventure," Hogue said. "I went with them to Florida to pick up the boat when it arrived from the UK and, after taking it out on the ocean a few times, I was hooked and officially joined the team."

"Since agreeing to be on the team, I have attended training meetings on Zoom, watched YouTube videos of other crossings, gone back to the gym and gotten back into riding my bicycle for endurance," Hogue said of his training.

Locals support this unusual project

"We started this journey in late 2018, and the support we have received has been amazing," Slindee said.

Rowing 3,000 miles across the ocean means training – extensive training, Pfetzer said.

"Training will continue until the very end," he said. "This is more of a mental game but will require physical conditioning to prevent injuries and make the journey as enjoyable as possible."

The duo started working with staff at The Rock Physical Therapy Resilience and Training Center in Farmington, who put them on a training schedule that will intensify as the race becomes closer. Pfetzer and Slindee tested that training when they took the boat out on the ocean in Florida.

Since then, they have taken the boat to Navajo Lake to continue training, and they will make additional trips to train on the ocean to complete the training runs they are required to have, Pfetzer said.

Donations for the boat, which is between 326 and 28 feet long and 5 to 6 feet wide and had a cost of $60,000, came from local donors. There are two cabins on the boat – one at each end – with one for sleeping and the other for supplies. 

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The boat was built by Rannoch Adventures in the United Kingdom and is a used boat, which made it cost less and included much of the needed race equipment.

"Getting the boat mid-July (of this year) was a long time coming," Slindee said. "This boat has already crossed the Atlantic Ocean three times, and as Mark would say, 'We hope it knows the way!'"

"When it was removed from the shipping container, I remember thinking it was larger than I envisioned," Slindee added. "Now, having spent time on the boat, I couldn't have been more wrong. It’s actually quite small, especially with four or five people on it."

The boat is docked at San Juan Marina, in a slip donated by Jarrett Johnson. The Farmington Funeral Home donated space in a warehouse to house the boat when it isn’t being used for training.

Pfetzer and Slindee put up the $5,000 registration fee. In addition to the boat and the registration fee, food, training, and equipment are needed prior to the actual race. 

"We have been truly blessed by the donations we have received," Slindee said. "We have not only been able to raise money for the boat and the race, but also for our cause. We’ve been able to do a training for about 150 clinicians in San Juan County and throughout the state, we did training for local first responders, we held a community event promoting our cause, and we have provided resources to our local first responder agencies."

Jarrod Slindee (left) and Mark Pfetzer (right) are seen talking about their mission and cause on the "Over a Cup of Coffee with Jamie and Addie" podcast (https://bit.ly/3HnJUdq).

Giving was ‘an easy decision’

Patrick Manchester, owner of Farmers Manchester Agency in Farmington, said donating to Team Guardian was an easy decision for him. He and his wife, Rita, are long time friends of Pfetzer and Sindlee.

"They explained what they were trying to do to help improve the care that is available to help first responders with their PTSD and other problems," Manchester said. "Being a former first responder, I really see the need for this."

The Manchester Agency, Chick-fil-A, Basin Printing, the Basin Health Companies, Academy Hour, FHE Health, Ram Signs, and B-Square Ranch are all boat level sponsors.

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San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari said he is proud of Pfetzer and Sindlee for their dedication and determination to help first responders.

"Mark and Jarrod have brought a lot of awareness of the need to talk about PTSD," Ferrari said. "They've put on virtual trainings, and they talk about mental health issues in law enforcement. Mark and Jarrod are helping us have better access to agencies and encouraging us to talk about it (to professionals) and take advantage of the resources available."

"I’m excited for all Mark and Jarrod are doing," Ferrari said. "They got an idea and had a dream and are making it a reality."

Pfetzer and Slindee have worked hard to make their dream come true, the sheriff said.

That boat isn't exactly a cruise ship, Ferrari added with a laugh. "They're going to row all that way on a boat that isn't built for comfort, and it is definitely not a yacht."

The boat Team Guardian will row across the Atlantic next year is seen at a fundraising event in Farmington.

The days will continue to be hectic for Team Guardian in the months to come. 

"Our biggest challenges between now and then will be to continue the fundraising we need to do and get in our required training," Pfetzer said. "It's doable but will not leave time for anything else."

"The biggest challenge I believe we will be facing will be boredom compounded by fatigue," Hogue said. "Our goal though, besides finishing the challenge, is to be closer friends than we are now."

Hitting the road for training sessions

Trips to Florida and to the United Kingdom to train are on their schedule, as well as continuing their physical preparedness. Maintaining progress with the wellness cause, providing training to local first responders, and continuing to broaden the available resources for responders and agencies will continue to be a priority.

Pfetzer and Slindee recently visited a treatment facility that specializes in helping first responders with mental wellness issues and addiction in its Shatterproof program. They took three other people from the Four Corners area who were first responders or involved in benefits coordination.

"We were exposed to the high levels of care available for first responders and learning how we can access those benefits for our local people," Pfetzer said. "In addition, we learned what needs to be done to continue bringing in training for clinicians for local treatment as well. This is all made possible through our work at Guardian and is exactly why we are in existence!"

"The more we work with the cause, the more we see the need," Pfetzer said. "One of the things I’ve learned is how the whole concept of wellness is not just mental wellness alone. It takes a holistic approach – looking after mental, physical, spiritual, relational, and financial wellness alike. We have also learned about the number of resources that are available – resources that we hope to help connect with the first responder community."

"While I have always known that some first responders struggle, I hadn’t realized to what degree and what kind of help and resources are available," Slindee added. "There are a ton of resources at our fingertips for first responders, their families and agencies that we need to tap into and bring to our first responders. We are on the right track, but we still have a long way to go."

"This will be, by far, the most difficult challenge that will come across my life," Slindee said. "I imagine I will go through some personal changes and growth, but I’m not sure what those will be. I do know one thing – I won’t give up on this cause."

Visit guardianinitiatives.org for more information or to donate.

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