DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It has been a year since the Pulse Nightclub shootings in Orlando, Fla., killed 49 people. The scene inside that place was horrific. Some of the survivors are still trying to cope with what happened. And that's true of the first responders as well. Abe Aboraya of member station WMFE looks at the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder for those first on the scene.
ABE ABORAYA, BYLINE: Gerry Realin wishes he had never become a police officer. Realin was part of the hazardous materials team the night of the shooting. He spent four hours inside the club taking care of the dead. Now triggers like a black marker or a white sheet yank him out of the moment and back to Pulse. The slightest thing enrages him or makes him sad.
GERRY REALIN: But then there's the moments that you can't control, the images or flashbacks or the nightmares that you don't even know about. And your wife tells you the next day you were screaming or twitching all night.
ABORAYA: Realin was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and hasn't worked since right after the shooting. And it's not just Realin who's dealing with it. His family is too.
REALIN: 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.
ABORAYA: It's not easy for first responders to talk about these things. Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan says she continues to be worried about the after effects. At least two first responders have come forward with an official PTSD diagnosis since the shooting. But Sheehan has heard there are many more officers with issues who won't speak up. They don't want to be seen as weak or unfit for duty.
PATTY SHEEHAN: If someone is to the point where they have had an emotional stress to where they cannot perform their job, of course I don't want to put a gun in their hand (laughter). That's just common sense to me.
ABORAYA: Researchers say there isn't enough data on PTSD rates from first responders, but the best estimates are anywhere from 7 to 19 percent of police officers have it. Officers who responded to the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook mass shootings also have struggled. After Sandy Hook, the city of Newtown, Conn., was ordered to pay one officer nearly $400,000 in long-term disability. This year, the Florida Legislature was unable to pass a bill that would have expanded workers' comp benefits to first responders with PTSD.
RON CLARK: I don't think officers are disposable.
ABORAYA: That's Ron Clark, a retired officer who works with Badge of Life, a police suicide prevention group. He says when he started, people were told to tough it out. Officers used alcohol or drugs to deal with it. And if you spoke up, you were likely to get fired.
CLARK: And it really comes down to police officers are human beings. They're affected by what they see out there - families wiped out in car accidents, suicides. Just name all the horrors that you can think of.
ABORAYA: So how do you cope with those horrors once you've seen them? For Orlando officer Gerry Realin, one escape is being all alone on his paddleboard on the water, listening.
REALIN: And hearing the sounds of nothing else, the breeze maybe, wondering where the fish may be, wondering which way the tide is turning, which way the wind is blowing. For some reason, nothing dark follows me there, and I can reset.
ABORAYA: Reset, he says, and find serenity. For NPR News, I'm Abe Aboraya in Orlando.
(SOUNDBITE OF KOMEIT'S "OPAL CITY")
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