Sheriff's Officers Uplift Others From Ground Zero

Sheriff's Officers Uplift Others From Ground Zero

Three Loudoun County sheriff's officers saw New York City police officers come in with arms crossed and leave with a thank-you, a smile or a handshake.

"They were so touched. Cops from all over the United States came up," said Deputy First Class Linda Cerniglia about her mid-June tour to Ground Zero in New York City "They were so grateful to that."

Cerniglia, Sgt. Bev Tate and Deputy First Class Kim Holway are members of the Loudoun County Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team, along with Peg Magee, mental health clinician for the county Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services. The four joined other CISM teams from across the nation to help debrief and provide peer counseling for New York Police Department (NYPD) officers affected by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"We were doing our part as Americans and as cops," said Capt. David Dunin, CISM team coordinator for the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office and one of two assistant division commanders for the Field Operations Division.

SINCE SEPTEMBER, the non-profit New York-based Police Organization Providing Peer Assistance (POPPA) has brought CISM teams from all over the United States and Canada to New York City to peer counsel and debrief the NYPD officers, organizing five CISM teams each week. The Loudoun County CISM team's tour of duty was from June 17-21.

"The program is based on cops helping cops," said Holway, a field training officer in patrol, along with Cerniglia.

CISM provides counseling and education to help emergency workers manage the psychological trauma that can result from their line of work. The program aims to lessen the trauma's impact and accelerate the workers' recovery from high levels of stress following an abnormal event.

NYPD mandates its police officers meet with a CISM team at least once and gives them the option to continue meeting with the team or to seek help elsewhere. The mandate aims to remove the stigma for officers seeking help, since the officer persona requires them to be tough and able to retain their composure.

"There's a human element there that often gets overlooked," said Sheriff Stephen Simpson of the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office, adding that discussing what they saw and what bothers them may not be easy for the officers. "It's not a weakness. It's part of being human. We do have feelings."

MEMBERS of the CISM teams meet with eight to 20 officers each day at the POPPA command center. So far the teams, which have four members each, have worked with 4,000 of New York City's 42,000 police officers.

The CISM members explain traumatic stress syndrome, a physical or psychological reaction to high levels of stress, and provide support as needed for the officers' reactions to the event. In a two-hour session, the members ask questions of the officers on the work they do for the police department and their roles in the Sept. 11 emergency response.

"We're trying to let them know they're reacting normally to an abnormal situation," Cerniglia said. "They were open and were grateful for the opportunity to talk. September 11 didn't end at midnight. ... It continued to continue."

Cerniglia said the CISM members allowed the officers "to express some thoughts they weren't able to express before."

The officers talked about what they smelled and heard, referring to some specifics, Holway said. "They heard the officers call for help, and they couldn't do anything about it," she said.

The quiet was another thing the officers mentioned, talking about hearing the whistles when a body was found or the warnings for a building coming down.

"A lot of them talked about the dust in the air," said Tate, field patrol sergeant. "All this time, it bothered them they were drinking [and breathing] this dust."

WITHIN FIVE MINUTES, the officers in the room were brothers and sisters, Tate said. "No matter where you go, cops are cops. It's all a big brotherhood or sisterhood," she said.

One officer commented, "It's nice to know you care," Holway said. "It was an honor to be up there."

"I was scared to death to go," Tate said, adding that she did not know what a Virginia cop could do for officers in New York City who experienced Sept. 11 first-hand. "I was expected to be there and listen. ... It will never be over for them."

Two Virginia CISM teams toured Ground Zero, including the Loudoun and Stafford county teams. The Stafford County team's tour of duty was in November 2001.

The Loudoun County CISM team first formed in the early 1980s, bringing together county fire and rescue, sheriff's office and police agencies. The sheriff's office became more involved in the program about five years ago. The sheriff's office operates a separate CISM team for the office and is part of the larger county CISM team. The sheriff's office CISM team has six members and the larger team has 20 members.

"We take care of our own," Dunin said.

"We need to be there to support our fellow law enforcement officers as I'm sure they would do for us," Simpson said.