After 23 years of seeing traumatic incident after traumatic incident, Aaron Fry decided not to return to his job as a firefighter after taking time off.

SYLVANIA, Ohio. The average person may see two to three traumatic incidents in their lifetime, while first responders may see more than 180 FIRST AIDa national organization dedicated to reducing mental health stigma among first responders.

“When it’s something you can personally relate to, it’s a lot harder to overcome,” said Jessica Vargas, a dispatcher with the Wood County Sheriff’s Office.

Sarah Shaw, an officer with the Oregon Police Department, said her husband and fellow Northwest Ohio resident, Mike, was called to the raid when a toy — the same one that belonged to their daughter — went off during the raid.

He committed suicide in October 2020.

Now, WTOL 11 is sharing the story of former Sylvania firefighter Aaron Frye, who left the job after 23 years.

“You see a lot of things that no one will ever have to see in their life,” Fry said. “I worked on the rescue team, the medical units, the engines, the ladder truck, the backhoe truck. I was a security officer, so I responded to every fire, every major accident, every release.”

Each call brought its own battle, with some tougher than others. But the lingering effects of each traumatic call he responded to were mounting.

With “repeated exposure to certain things, you become numb,” Fry said. “And for the most part, I didn’t care. ‘Oh, look, there’s something else … glad it’s not me.’

He often buried these traumatic incidents in his mind and moved on.

A few years ago, Frye took time off to care for his wife, Laura Frye, after she underwent surgery. He thought this vacation would be just that, a vacation.

“As it got closer to coming back, I said (to Laura), ‘I can’t. I will not return. I can’t do that,” Fry said.

He contacted International Association of Fire Fighters Center of Excellencenear Washington, D.C., in Maryland, is looking for help.

Fry was there for 35 days.

“The one thing I learned is that there is no such thing as ‘atypical’ PTSD,” Fry said. “You never discount anyone’s story because everyone is different. I talked to guys who were there the first day and they could barely put a sentence together. I had problems forming sentences.’

When he returned home, Laura said she and her husband had trouble finding the help they needed. Most of the resources they found focused on service members and veterans with PTSD.

“I think with the military, they’re immersed in their situation,” Laura said. “They’re overseas and it’s their life 24 hours a day, seven days a week, however long they’re there.”

But for quick responders like her husband, it’s a repeated back and forth between home and trauma.

“These guys come in, they feel it, and then they go home and they’re in their safe place. And then it’s back to trauma, then they’re home again, and then they’re back in trauma, and then they’re home again,” Laura said.

However, departments such as Toledo Fire-Rescue and Toledo Police have employee assistance program coordinators who direct first responders to specialists and counselors.

There are also multi-day seminars held by organizations such as Ohio HELP.

“We have fire, we have EMS, corrections, we can have law enforcement, communications, all of these organizations can come to this workshop because we understand that this trauma is universal,” Molly Harris, Highway Lt. of the Ohio State Patrol and a spokesman for the program, said.

Here are more resources in Ohio:

“Critical accidents or traumatic incidents are different for everyone, so what may be critical for me may not be critical for you,” Harris said.

Each call can have a different effect on the first responder.

“It could be one big incident that’s a bear that a soldier or officer might have to deal with, or it could be over a career that keeps building up,” Dan Wickey, OSHP District Chaplain Two, he said.

For Fry, it was the latter. The traumatic events piled up over time until he realized he could not return to the fire service.

For first responders who have children of their own, responding to incidents involving children can be particularly traumatic.

“We dealt with a juvenile fatality, which was very difficult for me because I have a child about the same age,” Vargas said.

Harris said that while she was the OSHP post commander at the Marysville post, a two-year-old child was struck by a vehicle. At that time, she had a two-year-old child of her own.

Vicky said there’s a saying for those who respond quickly to emotional trauma: “We use the phrase ‘backpack… We put things in the backpack and eventually it gets full, too heavy to carry, so we need a little release things from this backpack.”

Often the hardest part can be admitting that the backpack is full. There is a fear among first responders that they may be seen as “weak” if they seek help.

Harris said stigma is one of the biggest obstacles first responders face.

She said a common fear among law enforcement officers is that if someone finds out they have a mental health problem, their gun and badge will be taken away.

Harris recalls being told when she first entered the police academy that stress on the job could shorten her life. But now that it is recognized, steps are being taken to do something about it.

For Aaron Fry, there is an important message that high responders struggle with PTSD.

“We’re here to save lives, and if we can’t take care of ourselves, how are we going to take care of anybody else,” said Aaron Fry.

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