John Walters and Mike Dugan, retired FDNY firefighters, spoke at the second annual Rosecrance Florian Symposium— a two-day training event held on Thursday, September 21 and Friday, September 22 in Rosemont, Illinois.
Walters and Dugan shared their personal tragedies and triumphs while fighting fire in New York City. They discussed their personal trials with PTSD along with seeking treatment and the impact it had on their lives. Walters and Dugan both commented on the effects that the 911 terrorist attacks had on them.
“Sometimes it seems like just yesterday, sometimes it seems like a year ago; sometimes it seems like another life,” said Walters, reminiscing.
The aftermath of 9/11 was absolute chaos, yet Walters and Dugan responded with action and compassion. Walters was assigned to squad 288, which lost 19 of its own members. They navigated through smoke and bits of building; screaming, crying and hysterics echoed through the streets. And, the smell was unlike anything else.
“You can take me back there in just two seconds by smell alone, the smell of burning flesh and decay,” said Dugan.
Walters explained how he applied Vicks Vapor Rub inside his nose to cover up the smell of death. To this day, the smell of Vicks Vapor Rub triggers him to breakdown.
“My wife asked me to apply it to my son who had a cold,” he said, “I just couldn’t do it.”
Walters and Dugan’s keynote speeches accounted for just two of the moving, heartbreaking stories at the symposium.
Nearly 200 people attended the symposium including fire personnel, police officers, veterans, family members, friends, doctors, therapists and clinicians.
Out of those 200 attendees, sixteen nationally known speakers from a variety of backgrounds- law enforcement officers, firefighters, a paramedic, a spouse, university professors, counselors, and the Education Director for the Fire Department Instructor’s Conference (FDIC)-presented on topics of addiction and substance use disorders, mental health, trauma, stigma, peer support and more.
Rosecrance’s own Unit Coordinator, Erica Gilmore, keynoted at the symposium; she spoke about Treatment for Uniformed Personnel from a clinician standpoint. Gilmore delved in to topics like trauma, PTSD, depression, anxiety and co-occurring disorders while simultaneously providing answers about treatment and recovery.
Bobby Halton, editor in chief at Fire Engineering, keynoted at the symposium too. Halton commented on the stigma surrounding behavioral health and first responders. He noted that “no one is immune to failure; defects are acceptable, can be corrected and often times can even lead to a stronger foundation,” said Dena Ali, Captain of Raleigh (NC) Fire Department. Through his vulnerability, Halton encouraged attendees to accept help when they need it.
The symposium allowed for attendees and presenters to connect and share knowledge while interacting at sessions, meals and a social gathering hosted by F.O.O.L.S international. John Preston, a musician and veteran of the Marine Corps, provided entertainment at the gathering. Through his music Preston relayed his personal struggles of addiction, recovery and PTSD.
The theme of the symposium –even strong people need help sometimes– was reiterated by several presenters, including Dan DeGryse, Director of the Florian Program.
Ali said of the event, “Piece-by-piece, attendees and presenters were able to begin to solve the complex puzzle surrounding first responder mental health.”