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More than a year and a half after the Pulse massacre, first responders still struggle with the trauma



Editor's note: A clarification was appended on Jan. 25, 2018 regarding Cpl. Delgado's employment.

Every night for the past 19 months, Omar Delgado has had the same exact nightmare.

He's back inside Pulse. He's dragging someone who's still alive through blood and glass, away from the slaughtered bodies strewn across the dance floor under the blinking disco light.

Then he hears it – the "TRA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA" puncturing sound of bullets in the air. Another officer screams, "Get down, get down!" Through the dark, it's hard to tell if the gunman is shooting at them to stop officers from rescuing people or aiming at other victims. Delgado falls down as shots continue to ring, waiting for them to stop.

"Have you ever seen that movie with Bill Murray, Groundhog Day?" Delgado asks while sitting at his dining room table. "It's the same thing, every single night since June 12. It's a flashback. I wake up in the middle of the night yelling and screaming. I mean – my kids have heard me. How do you stop that? It's something I can't control."

"That's my nightmare and that's my hell."

Delgado, a former corporal with the Eatonville Police Department, is now beginning to adjust to civilian life after being let go from his job in December, months after he was proclaimed a hero for responding to the mass shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in 2016. A deranged gunman stormed into the club on "Latin Night" and took the lives of 49 people, injuring at least 68.

In the 19 months since that day, Delgado and other Pulse first responders have struggled with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as their departments and state lawmakers grapple with how to deal with the issue. At least three first responders who responded to the massacre and reported PTSD have left their jobs under varying circumstances, while others are still seeking treatment through the system.

Under Florida law, a "mental or nervous injury due to stress, fright, or excitement" that is not the result of a physical injury is not considered a workplace injury that would qualify for workers compensation, like lost wages or medical bills. Currently, a bill proposed by state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, would change this law by requiring workers compensation insurance plans to cover mental health treatment for law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics who were diagnosed with PTSD after witnessing a "murder, suicide, fatal injury or child death, or arrived on a scene where mass casualties were suffered." Early last year, a similar bill was proposed by state Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, but the measure died in committee.

During a hearing last year for Book's proposal, supporters said the measure could prevent suicides among first responders. A report found 132 first responders ended their lives nationwide in 2016, according to the nonprofit Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. In 2015, a survey of 4,000 first responders in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services found close to 7 percent had attempted suicide, more than 10 times the rate of the general public. An attorney for the Florida League of Cities argued the bill would be costly to Florida taxpayers because it makes eligible first responders who only arrive to a mass casualty scene.

Torres, a former New York police officer, says cities should support responders who are dealing with PTSD instead of terminating them.

"From a cop's point of view, when you do heroic acts, you get a pat on the back, an 'attaboy' because it's a good image for the department," he says. "But when it comes to ailments or illnesses, they tell you to suck it up and go back out there. ... They should be taking care of you, not letting you go."

Delgado can't understand why some legislators squabble over dollars when it comes to covering mental health for first responders.

"When they need help, they pick up the phone and dial 911," he says. "But now when we need help, who do we call?"

People tell Delgado time heals all wounds – that soon, his mental scars will fade.

That's not how it works, Delgado says. He was inside Pulse so long that every detail of the mass murder inside the club has been tattooed into his brain.