“I didn’t want to eat my gun.”
Staring down at his firearm, Officer Jared Nesary weighed his options. The first was one that had crossed his mind countless times.
In the blink of an eye he could make the pain go away. He could escape from the haunting thoughts that had come to define his life. He could finally free himself from the traumas he carried — traumas that accumulated over the years. With one squeeze of the trigger he could stop hurting.
Or he could surrender.
In Nesary’s line of work, however, the word “surrender” was synonymous with the end. To surrender was to accept death. “I’m not weak,” he said to himself. “Broken? No. I’m an officer. I’m a SWAT cop. I’m a Marine.”
For years he had silently repeated those words. When things got dark, he thought about the people who depended on him. How could someone tasked with saving the lives of others admit that he couldn’t even save his own life? Time and time again he tucked his pain away, refusing to be vulnerable.
How could someone tasked with saving the lives of others admit that he couldn’t even save his own life?
As he built his walls, he watched three marriages crumble at his feet. He could barely close his eyes without seeing the evil he had witnessed — stab wounds, dead bodies, abused children. Images of some of life’s most vivid traumas wrapped heavily around his mind like a Kevlar vest. For over four years he couldn’t sleep without a sedative. As if following protocol, Nesary hid his internal struggles, cloaking himself in a silent armor that shielded him from the outside world. By numbing the bad, however, he also numbed the good.
The color drained from his life. He couldn’t seem to find joy in anything. As the years dragged on his once-ubiquitous smile disappeared. A lifelong extrovert, he became a recluse. He went through the motions, clocking in and clocking out of work only to return home and lock himself away. He had stopped living. He was only existing.
After year’s of surprising his trauma, Nesary found himself staring at his gun, contemplating suicide. As the possibility of an end became clear, so too did a memory.
Years earlier, Nesary had attended the funeral of one of his closest friends — a fellow officer who had committed suicide. Since that day he’d been haunted by the image of his friend’s son. He watched as the young boy looked down upon his father’s casket, and, in that moment, he wondered: “When you pulled the trigger, did you realize the impact?”
“When you’re in that dark place — when you’re tired and broken — suicide becomes a viable option,” Nesary explained. “Without help, it can become the only option.”
With that thought, Nesary raised his arm and pressed not a gun, but a phone to his ear. On the other line, a voice from Deer Hollow, a recovery and wellness center in Utah, welcomed him. When they asked why he was seeking treatment, he muttered seven simple words that would forever change his life.
“I just want to be Jared again.”
At the time of this reporting, there have been 215 verified police officer suicides this year alone. The constant stresses associated with a career in law enforcement have been linked to a plethora of health consequences, including sleep disorders, heart disease, diabetes, PTSD, and even brain cancer. MRIs of the brains of police officers have uncovered connections between experienced trauma and a reduction in areas that play key roles in emotional and cognitive decision-making, memory, fear and stress regulation. All told, it’s hard to say how many officers have died as a consequence of answering the call to service.
Officer Nesary, like many of his fellow officers, decided to pursue a career in law enforcement based on the nobility of the profession. His father was a cop, as was his uncle, and his grandfather before them. Being a cop was a calling, and answering the call to service became his life’s purpose. A career in law enforcement brought with it an opportunity to be there for others in their greatest times of need; a chance to literally save lives. After 20 years on the force, however, it was Nesary’s life that needed saving.
On the verge of suicide, he checked into Deer Hollow. He credits the decision with saving his life. Today, Officer Nesary spends much of his time outside of work fighting the stigmas associated with mental health that persist in the law enforcement community.
In the spring of 2019, Nesary, along with Captain Shawn Boyle of the YPD, connected with Vickie Sizemore, a second-year medical student training to become an osteopathic physician at Pacific Northwest University (PNWU), a non-profit health sciences university just a few miles from the Yakima Police headquarters, to explore how, together, they could inspire local first responders to embrace the importance of taking care of not only their bodies, but their minds.
On Friday, September 6, PNWU hosted “Supporting the Health and Wellness of First Responders.” The collaborative event aimed to improve the well-being of Yakima police officers through education and preventative and lifestyle medicine.
The event — which was a part of the YPD’s mandatory training — offered a rare opportunity for healthcare experts to connect with local first responders on a personal level, openly discussing a variety of health-related topics, including nutrition, sleep hygiene, exercise, stress management and more. In the end, many attending officers said it was the best in-class training they’d attended in their time on the force.
On Friday, December 13, PNWU hosted the second iteration of the collaboration. Going forward, Sizemore, Nesary and Boyle hope to see the event become an annual tradition.
In June of 1999, as 10-year Yakima PD veteran Doug Robinson approached a car for a routine traffic stop, a series of gunshots rang out. Robinson’s protective vest stopped two bullets from entering his chest, effectively saving his life. The psychological damage of the incident, however, reverberated long after Robinson’s physical wounds had healed.
“At the time, we — as an organization — were not equipped to handle it,” explained Yakima police Capt. Shawn Boyle. “We were just like: ‘Hey, you need to come back to work.’ He did, very quickly in fact, and immediately he struggled. He couldn’t even make a traffic stop, and he was essentially told to either figure it out or find a different job.”
Today, Capt. Boyle is committed to ending those counterproductive practices by tackling the long-standing stigma related to mental health issues in law enforcement.
“Our officers are going to struggle with the realities of our profession,” he explained. “When they come to us, or when we recognize that they need help, we need to have the resources to provide that help.” By connecting with healthcare experts at PNWU, Capt. Boyle hopes to identify some of the underlying issues related to the stresses of the profession and connect his officers with experts capable of helping them better understand the proper steps required to take care of their bodies and minds.
“We have this resource, with all of these experts, right here in our community,” said Capt. Boyle. “I don’t see how it’s a losing proposition to use the resources we have here.”
After completing September’s “Supporting Health and Wellness in First Responders” event, Capt. Boyle returned to the station with pages of hand-written notes offering practical advice for not only caring for his officers, but caring for himself.
“First responders are a crucial part of our society,” said Sizemore. “They provide life-saving care every day and, in turn, expose themselves to long shifts and stressful work environments that conspire against their own health and well-being. As a health sciences university, I believe it is our duty to share our wealth of information on whole-body health with our community — especially with those who are inevitably going to be working alongside us on the front lines of care.”