THE BLOG
09/30/2013 11:01 am ET Updated Nov 30, 2013

United by a Uniform: First Responders on The Front Lines of Suicide Prevention

There are just a handful of professions in the world where you willingly put your life on the line to protect others. I serve as the chief of police in Woodway, Texas, where my officers and I face threats all the time. We defend the neighborhoods, parks, and schools of central Texas just 60 miles from Fort Hood, one of the world's largest military installations. And we feel a special kinship with those men and women in uniform who defend our nation.

First responders -- law enforcement officers, firefighters and paramedics -- and members of our military courageously confront risk. They draw on training and experience to make sound decisions in the chaos of a crime scene or the heat of battle; and, when duty requires, first responders from Aurora to Joplin to Sandy Hook to lower Manhattan experience horrors, trauma and loss difficult for many to imagine.

For many years, the prevailing culture among first responders, and members of the military and Veterans, has been stoicism. Whatever it was you'd gone through you'd better deal with quietly, deal with it alone and get back to work.

As a young officer in the line of duty, I shot a criminal. Although that incident was more than 30 years ago, it remains painfully vivid in my mind. Afterward, I was told to get back on that horse that had just bucked me off, to move on and get over it. But things didn't feel right. I was hurting and confused. Luckily, my father was there for me. At a time when police culture frowned on discussing trauma, my father, a staff psychiatrist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), helped me process the complicated emotions I faced after the shooting.

After decades on the force, I'm happy to say that the culture is beginning to change. The law enforcement community is learning that emotional as well as physical health is critical to readiness. The mindset has changed: It's OK to hurt. Seeking support is a sign of strength.

We're working to make it easier for officers to tell their commanders that they need support. When officers take care of themselves, we serve our community better.

Without support, first responders, Veterans and members of the military are left to battle their fears alone. Sometimes those internal struggles can turn into relationship trouble or recklessness, or lead people to hurt themselves. That's why, as a leader with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, I've pushed officer safety to the top of the organization's agenda. We lose roughly the same number of police officers a year to work-related incidents, including car crashes, shootings, and stabbings, as we do to suicide. So officer safety means mental health care as much as it does bulletproof vests.

Suicide is horrible, but it can be prevented. When you scratch beneath the surface, in some instances the problems were tough but temporary, situations that might have been resolved with the help of an alert friend, loved one, or first responder. Working in military-friendly central Texas, we interact with service members, Veterans, and their families often. Sometimes, we respond to situations involving Veterans in crisis. Our officers build relationships with staff at the local VA medical center and refer Veterans we encounter to their care.

Just as Veterans prepared for battle, our officers work alongside community members to ensure they are prepared to aid Veterans through their own struggles. Support can be many things, from connecting them to a psychologist to providing a free ride to the VA hospital. Doing the right thing the right way every time, treating others with compassion, dignity, and respect, going the extra mile is what every law enforcement officer should do for service members, fellow police officers -- everyone.

In central Texas, we care about each other. It takes an entire community -- from stay-at-home moms to police commanders -- to look out for our men and women in uniform, whether they wear badges, bars or stars. Sometimes, even heroes need help.

This post is part of a special Huffington Post series, "Invisible Casualties," in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. Every weekday in September, we'll feature a different blog post by someone who is either an expert in the field, who has been affected by a suicide, or who has contemplated suicide. To see all the posts in the series, as well as original reporting, audio and video, click here.

If you or someone you know would like to contribute to our series, send an email to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com.

And please, if you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans, 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255.

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