Fayetteville, Fort Bragg leaders consider PTSD alert system

Program being considered to ease tension between soldiers suffering from PTSD and police.
May 13, 2014 12:46:29 PM PDT
Gina Hill had seen it before. The episodes.

"We were in a parking garage and I was terrified," recalled Hill, who is married to retired Army Staff Sergeant, Allen Hill. "He was driving erratically and nothing he was saying was making any sense to me."

"He was talking to me as if I was one of his guys in his seat beside him, back in Iraq, instead of his wife, home in America."

Her husband's parking lot post-traumatic stress episode took place after he'd returned from a first tour of duty in Iraq. Six months later, in 2007, he re-deployed with her blessing. But this time, the call came during the Thanksgiving holiday.

"Little did I know the news we were about to receive would forever change our lives," Gina Hill said.

SSGT. Hill had been injured in an IED attack. Gina would leave their Mid-West home and stay by his side at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

The episodes became normal, but Gina feared what would happen if she called police.

"I had visions of calling 911 and having the police show up only to shoot my husband or that my husband would soon end up in the state psychiatric hospital, strapped to a bed and (they'd) look at me as the bad guy who put him there."

So Hill got help. She and her father met with police. Together they developed an approach plan should first responders ever need to answer an emergency call at the Hill home.

Silent Siren was born.

The emergency alert system allows dispatchers to flag a home where someone lives with PTSD or a traumatic brain injury. Family members, who have registered the home, also provide notes that can be passed along to police before they arrive to the house. It's a way for first responders to understand circumstances, and keep from agitating a subject.

"[They can] show up without lights blazing, without sirens blazing," said John Bigger, an administrator of mental health at the Southern Regional AHEC. "They can show up and handle things in a calm matter so it doesn't escalate and get out of control."

On Monday, Bigger's staff hosted Hill and the Karla Smith Foundation, an IL-based non-profit that supports families affected by mental illness and suicide. Its executive director Emily Smith is also the daughter of a Vietnam veteran who suffers from PTSD.

"I wonder everyday what my father might have been if he hadn't witnessed the horrors of war," Smith told the crowd.

Smith and Hill explained to Fayetteville and Fort Bragg leaders how Silent Siren can work in the community. The difference between the Cumberland County 911 system's current ability to flag a troubled home and the Silent Siren program is creating an alert prior to a home becoming a "danger zone." With Silent Siren, a family actually registers their home, and provides details first responders should know if they're not familiar with the home or situation. Silent Siren logos can also be registered to car owners so police are alerted when pulling over a driver with PTSD or TBI.

Smith and Hill helped a group of about 50 leaders organize committees to consider the costs, marketing and launch of the program.

With dispatcher training, registration sites, Silent Siren logo copyright, and a website linking the program to Fayetteville-specific resources, implementing Silent Siren could cost about $5,000 in the first year.

It's considered a good investment to first responders who have dealt with two PTSD-related shootings in recent years, including a double-murder suicide off Potters Court last fall. That's when a medically-retired Fort Bragg soldier; Allen Thomas opened fire in the neighborhood, killing a couple before turning the gun on himself. Thomas, 29, had been diagnosed with PTSD.

Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock and Lt. Randy Podobinski said Monday that a silent siren-type program would have helped them approach the situation differently. Had they known what Thomas was dealing with at the time, they may have turned off the sirens and lights.

"The scenario of the situation was horrendous, for my officers and the people who lived in the neighborhood," said Medlock of the chaotic evening.

Podobinski said he's hopeful Monday's meeting will lead city leaders to implement Silent Siren in order to "help us help our soldiers in need."

Hill said the key to a successful program is awareness, and communication between families and law enforcement.

"Things can't change if the right people don't really know what's going on and they don't know what's going on if we don't tell them."

More information about the program can be found at www.silentsiren.org. Contact information to get involved in organizing the effort locally can be found at http://www.southernregionalahec.org.


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