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'The number of first responders who die by suicide is alarming and heart-breaking,' Team Guardian members say

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AZTEC – As part of the leadership team at the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Mark Pfetzer and Lt. Jarrod Slindee both know it’s vital to provide help and support to first responders who face tremendous stress due to the nature of their jobs. 

They’ve decided to put their lives on the line, and their bodies in a small boat on the capricious waters of the Atlantic Ocean, to make a difference – with the full support of their boss, Sheriff Shane Ferrari.

The pair behind the Team Guardian websitewww.GuardianInitiatives.org is planning to bring attention to lives lost by first responders due to suicide by buying a specialized boat through community fundraising efforts and rowing 3,000 miles across the ocean during the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.

“First responders see things most people never experience,” Pfetzer said. ”When we repeatedly see death, crimes against children, child abuse, at some point, it affects us.” 

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“First responders suffer from issues we don’t know about,” Slindee added. “As supervisors at the Sheriff’s Office, we try to discuss mental wellness, but there’s a stigma about it and most people are scared to talk about it.”

Mental wellness isn’t always covered by a first responder’s insurance, either, Pfetzer and Slindee said. 

“PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) isn’t an ‘on the job’ injury,” Pfetzer said. “We’re limited as to what we can do. First responders are a different breed and saying or doing the wrong thing (to help them) can do more harm than good.”

“Volunteer firefighters are exposed to all of the things other first responders are exposed to,” Slindee added. “And most of them aren’t covered by insurance or financial support.”

On the Team Guardians website, Pfetzer and Slindee state, "The psychological traumas experienced by our nation’s police, fire, EMS, and 911 dispatchers can lead some down a destructive and all too often deadly path. The consequence of seeing tragedy on a regular basis can contribute to depression, substance abuse, and other effects of post-traumatic stress. Tragically, for some, a false sense of hopelessness results in suicidal behavior. 

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“The number of first responders who die by suicide is alarming and heart-breaking. More powerful than the problem is the reality that the effects can be prevented, and the damage treated. Through awareness, training, and treatment by culturally competent clinicians, first responders affected can move on to live full and satisfying lives. It is the hope of Team Guardian, through this initiative, to make as big of an impact in this as possible.”

Sheriff supports the effort

San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari supports and appreciates the efforts of Pfetzer and Slindee.

“I’m very supportive of Mark and Jarrod’s new venture,” Ferrari said. “I also think they’re crazy. The movie ‘Cast Away’ with Tom Hanks comes to mind when I think of them rowing across the ocean.”

“For far too long, there has been a stigma associated with PTSD among first responders. The traumatic incidents they witness on a daily basis and constant high stress is considered part of the job,” Ferrari said. “In fear of being looked down upon by their peers or losing their career, it’s common for first responders to bottle their emotions. Some turn to substance abuse during their time off to cope; others just deal with it. This has an impact on their relationships at home, creating a never-ending cycle of depression.”

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“Feeling hopeless, too many take their own life to escape their demons. Lately, first responders have made self-mental care more acceptable,” the sheriff added. “Using critical incident debriefing, access to confidential mental health services and acknowledging emotions tied to their work are a few ways this is being accomplished. However, these resources aren’t available to everyone due to budget constraints, agency size or it may not be the right fit for the individual.”

“Guardian Initiatives (the non-profit title) is attempting to bridge that gap,” Ferrari continued. “Not only by raising awareness but funding for alternative treatment remedies that would not be available through the first responder’s employer or within their personal finances. I’m very proud of Mark and Jarrod. They’re not only amazing representatives of the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, but great leaders looking out for their people.”

It's a tough job

In many ways, first responders are like most of us. They have careers, families, financial challenges and relationship issues. They are coaches, Sunday school teachers, and volunteers for countless organizations who need them.

But first responders, a term which includes law enforcement officers, firefighters, Emergency Medical Technicians, emergency dispatchers and paramedics,  have issues and concerns that most of us are fortunate not to have. 

They deal with life threatening injuries and circumstances. They see children die and they watch people pray their last prayer and beg for help to save their lives. They are doing a job that brings great satisfaction when things go well and frustration, disappointment, sadness and anxiety when things don’t go as planned and hoped.

They see the best in people, and they see the worst in people – people they have chosen to protect and serve. They put in long hours, varying shifts and, often, have an inability to process the ugliness and sadness that comes with the careers they have chosen.

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The resources needed to help first responders talk about and deal with the things they see and are part of is limited, and for several reasons. First, first responders are often reluctant to talk about their feelings, for fear of being thought as weak, and because they often hear that they “signed up” for it when they choose that career.

3,000 miles of rowing, for a cause

Pfetzer and Slindee chose Team Guardian as the name of their efforts to increase awareness of the mental and emotional issues that face first responders by participating in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. The challenge is a 3,000-mile race across the Atlantic Ocean from Gomera to Antiqua on an ocean rowing boat. It will be held in 2022.

Team Guardian members posted the reason they're participating in the race on the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge website.

“The psychological traumas experienced by our nation’s police, fire, EMS, and 911 dispatchers can lead some down a destructive and all too often deadly path. The consequence of seeing tragedy on a regular basis can contribute to depression, substance abuse, and other effects of post-traumatic stress. Tragically, for some, a false sense of hopelessness results in suicidal behavior. The number of first responders who die by suicide is alarming and heart-breaking. More powerful than the problem is the reality that the effects can be prevented, and the damage treated. Through awareness, training, and treatment by culturally competent clinicians, first responders affected can move on to live full and satisfying lives. It is the hope of Team Guardian, through this initiative, to make as big of an impact in this as possible.”

The boat the duo will compete in is between 26 and 28 feet long and 5 to 6 feet wide. There are two cabins on the boat, one at each end, Pfetzer explained. One cabin is for sleeping and the other is for supplies.  

While the challenges are many, the weather could be a big issue for them, with wind and potential storms. While the world record is 29 days,  “It will take us about 24 days (to finish the race),” Slindee said with a grin. “Honestly and realistically, it will probably take us 30 to 40 days.”

A lot of training is involved

Training for the race has already begun. While Pfetzer is an avid mountain climber – he was on Mount Everest in 1996, when a storm killed eight fellow climbers – he and Slindee have already begun training for the race. They are focusing their training on building core strength, endurance and flexibility, they said.

“We need to be mentally and physically ready,” Pfetzer said. “This (race) isn’t like an Olympic race, it’s an endurance race.” Pfetzer also said the duo will be training at Navajo Lake soon.

The race is an unsupported race, which means they can’t take on assistance from anyone. If they do, Slindee said, they will be disqualified. 

The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge website states, “The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge brings together teams from all walks of life united by the same objective: to take on the unique challenge of crossing an ocean in a rowing boat. The atmosphere is electric as people help each other prepare for the challenge of the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Teams battle with sleep deprivation, salt sores, and physical extremes inflicted by the race. Rowers are left with their own thoughts, an expanse of the ocean and the job of getting the boat safely to the other side.”

Fundraising for a special boat

While the training, the preparation and the anticipation will continue until 2022, Pfetzer and Slindee are already looking for sponsors for their efforts and for their cause. The duo has paid the $5,000 registration fee with their own money, but is seeking funds for the boat, which costs $60,000.

The boat the team needs to purchase is from Rannoch Adventures, a company that specializes in rowing boats. It is designed to be fast and safe, Pfetzer and Slindee explained. 

“We’d like to find a title sponsor that will fund the cost of the boat,” Slindee said. “We’re hoping local companies and residents will join us to raise awareness for our cause.”

Any and all additional funding will provide funding for mental health awareness for first responders.

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While the $60,000 for boat is a priority, Pfetzer said any donation will be appreciated. “If we can get 3,000 people in San Juan County to donate $100, we’d be there (for funding). And if 300 businesses gave one thousand dollars, we’d be there.”

Creating the 501c3, creating marketing materials, training and mentally preparing for the race, and seeking donations for their cause have kept Pfetzer and Slindee busy. So busy, in fact, that making time for family and friends has become another challenge.

Pfetzer’s wife, Robyn, said she is his sounding board and his encourager. “This is a big endeavor and there is this business side of it that is stressful,” Robyn said. 

Slindee said his wife, Jill, is also supportive. The Slindees have two children, one who is 2 years old and the other 5 years old, and Jill has the challenge of caring for the kids while he is busy training, raising money, and preparing for the race. 

Sacrificing for a cause

Rowing, training, raising funds, marketing their cause and maintaining a life that includes family and jobs, is a challenge Pfetzer and Slindee will face until the race is over. But the sacrifices they, and their families, are making now, will help provide much needed help for first responders in the area. 

“Everyone in the Four Corners knows a first responder, whether it’s a friend or a family member,” Pfetzer said. “There are people we know, right here, who need our help.”

“And so many of them are suffering in silence,” Slindee added. 

San Juan Regional Medical Center understands the need for helping first responders.

“San Juan Regional Medical Center’s Pastoral Care office provides Critical Incident Stress Support (CISS). “Defusing” sessions are arranged,” said Steven Malarchick, San Juan Regional’s  Interim EMS Manager.  “This involves the parties on the call being invited to a private session that allow each person to describe their role in the event, what they saw, and what they experienced. Research shows that these types of sessions can help mitigate the accumulation of stress over the long term. Strategies for coping with the constant stress are shared with the group. This service can be life-saving both physically and mentally for our providers who are regularly seeing things that humans should not have to see.”

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Jamie Lujan is a paramedic and has been a first responder and emergency medical technician for 25 years in San Juan County. Lujan supports the efforts of Pfetzer and Slindee.

“I think the biggest issue we face is the stigma of being weak if you admit you are struggling,” Lujan said. “There is still the idea that we ‘signed up for this,’ and ‘it’s just part of the job.’”

“I had a friend tell me recently that I have to be just a little crazy to be able to compartmentalize my emotions after every call,” Lujan added. “The next person who needs us doesn’t care that we had to console the parent of a critically injured child just 30 minutes ago. They care that we are at our best for the emergency and the call after that and the call after that.”

“You eventually become numb because that’s all your allowed to be,” she said.

With the help from local businesses and residents, Mark Pfetzer and Jarrod Slindee hope that numbness will be eased, and resources provided to those who protect, serve and care for all in the Four Corners.

Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge facts

  • Each team will row in excess of 1.5 million oar strokes over a race.
  • Rowers will row for 2 hours, and sleep for 2 hours, constantly, 24 hours a day.
  • More people have climbed Everest than rowed an ocean.
  • Over $6 million has been raised for charities worldwide over the past 4 races.
  • At its deepest, the Atlantic Ocean is 5.28 miles deep.
  • The waves the rowers will experience can measure up to 20 ft. high.
  • There are two safety yachts supporting the teams as they cross the ocean. In the 2013 race, one yacht traveled a massive  9,000 nautical miles!
  • The 2013 winning Team Locura arrived in Antigua with a blue marlin beak pierced through the hull of the boat.
  • Each rower is expected to use 800 sheets of toilet paper during their crossing.
  • The teams are supported 24/7 by two land-based duty officers.
  • In the 2016 race, solo rower Daryl Farmer arrived in Antigua after 96 days, rowing without a rudder to steer with for nearly 1200 miles/40 days.
  • Each rower needs to aim to consume 10 litres of water per day.
  • Rowers burn in excess of 5,000 calories per day.
  • There is no toilet on board – rowers use a bucket!
  • Each rower loses on average 26.4 pounds crossing the Atlantic!

https://www.taliskerwhiskyatlanticchallenge.com/the-challenge/

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