LITTLE VALLEY, N.Y. - For the past two and a half years, Cattaraugus County Sheriff Tim Whitcomb has tried to answer a question that has no real answer: how do you make sense of something that was so senseless?
Former Cattaraugus County Sheriff Dennis John was Tim Whitcomb's mentor, and a lot more.
Sheriff Tim Whitcomb: "Dennis was one of my best friends. He was a role model for me as a young officer, he was my first or second line supervisor from 1996 until his death. In my opinion he was a great dad, he was a youth coach, he was an officer who saw things in black and white. If something was wrong it was wrong and it needed to be set right. He was a great man. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of him."
But Dennis John was a man with demons inside of him. He committed suicide three summers ago.
Tim Whitcomb believes it was caused by a case of untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Tim Whitcomb: "In hindsight, in the months or years leading up to his suicide I can honestly say there's not one indicator I can look back and see or that led up to it that would have given me the opportunity to believe that this was at hand. I was astonished, I was astonished."
Sheriff John texted Whitcomb, then his Undersheriff, shortly before he committed suicide and told Whitcomb where he could find his body.
Once he did, Whitcomb called his fiancee.
Michelle Federowicz: "August 18, 2009 I was sitting at work and I received a phone call from Tim, I barely recognized that it was him on the other end of the phone- he was obviously very distraught. He was calling me from the scene of where they found Sheriff John. Unfortunately they were not able to save Sheriff John. But I knew from that point forward our lives were going to be different. I didn't know how, but I knew that it was going to be a long, painful journey ahead of us."
Michelle, a nurse, was exactly right - the exact same thing that Tim Whitcomb believes caused his friend's suicide was now attacking him.
Scott Brown: "After Sheriff John's suicide, did Tim come to you and say 'hey I'm having problems dealing with this?'"
Michelle Federowicz: "No it wasn't like that. One of the effects of PTSD is emotional disconnect. I saw him becoming disconnected from himself, from his family, his friends. Everything he loved and cared about he was pulling away from."
Scott Brown: "After the Sheriff's death, were you going through Post Traumatic Stress?"
Sheriff Tim Whitcomb: "In hindsight? Yeah there's no question about it, there's no question about it."
On her own, Michelle secretly e-mailed the two other members of the department who were with Tim the day he found Sheriff John's body.
Michelle Federowicz: "What I underestimated was the bond that's in that profession, because within five minutes they were in Tim's office telling him and sharing with him that e-mail, but it did open up that door to communication and I do think it started that healing process. It was necessary and I have no regrets in doing that."
Sheriff Tim Whitcomb: "It began us together talking about it a little bit. The three of us started doing that that day- we wouldn't make an appointment, there might be a moment where we were all outside by our cars where we spent ten minutes talking about how we were processing the event. Our own interpretations of the event- I would listen to theirs, they would listen to mine and I think we got together spontaneously two or three times a week for a couple of weeks. And then over the course of a couple of months it became two or three times a month.
"It gave me the refreshing feeling that what I was going through and how I was going through it was normal- it was a normal reaction to an abnormal event and I had a couple of colleagues who were processing it the exact same way as myself. There was no more second guessing."
Scott Brown: "If the three of you had not spoken about this, where do you think you'd be today?"
Sheriff Tim Whitcomb: "That's a good question. I would suspect that I would privately probably be dealing with demons."
And it was then that Tim Whitcomb made a startling discovery about how law enforcement agencies try to protect their own from the dangers they face everyday.
Sheriff Tim Whitcomb: "We give them pepper spray, we give them tasers, we teach them emergency driving skills. We try to prepare them for everything we're going to expose them to and I started to ask myself 'what are we doing to prepare them to deal with the traumas once they've dealt with it?
"We can do better at understanding what Post Traumatic Stress is, how it affects people and what are some of the symbols or symptoms to look for if they're exposed to it. That knowledge would be power and we could insulate them from some of the consequences that they could sustain with Post Traumatic Stress."
And so in honor of his friend and mentor, Tim and his fiancee have begun speaking to cops and first responders about the insidious nature of Post Traumatic Stress.
And just as he was in life, Sheriff John is right there over Tim's shoulder during his presentations.
Sheriff Tim Whitcomb: "When I take a look at losing a very good friend of mine, it has given me a personal mission to identify this training deficit and do something about it.
"Some of the by products of untreated, undiagnosed PTSD are alcoholism, divorce, sleep disorders, high blood pressure, heart disease, prescription drug abuse, domestic violence, shorter life expectancy and suicide.
"We set you up for failure as administrators in law enforcement because we continually throw you out in the unknown where in any given moment in time you're going to be sharing someone else's darkest hour, whether you're processing a previous trauma or not, it's waiting for you."
Michelle Federowicz: "Unfortunately our culture is squeamish about emotional pain. We need to educate people and let them know it's not a sign of weakness. You can heal from it, even though many would prefer that you cover it up, that's not okay, we need to get past that."
Sheriff Tim Whitcomb: "There have been three or four times since Dennis John killed himself where I have asked employees if they have had harmful thoughts, if they've contemplated suicide, those are questions I've never asked before. And unfortunately I've had some positive answers to those questions, but I'm thankful that I'm asking them."
If the reaction from the cops that Tim and Michelle are talking to is any indication, they are doing something very important in Dennis John's memory.
State Police Officer Dan Brown: "I think a lot of time as cops we just hold everything in - this really shows that there are actually people out there looking to help and it'll be easier to come out and say hey I need to talk to somebody about something, so I think this program is really going to help that."
Sheriff Tim Whitcomb: "The feedback from law enforcement colleagues when we're through with this presentation, that in and of itself is enough for me, or I could speak for both of us, for Michelle and I to continue to do this for as long as people will listen to us."
Scott Brown: "Given how this has moved you to action, can you say that Sheriff John is going to save lives?"
Sheriff Tim Whitcomb: "I hope so, I hope so."
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