This story has been updated.
Scott Ruszczyk, a Newtown police officer, walked into roll call the morning after the shooting.
Several other officers were there who had witnessed the horrors inside the classrooms of Sandy Hook Elementary School the day before, when 20 children and six educators were shot to death. They were sobbing in their chairs.
“I remember going up to the chief that day and saying, ‘Chief, you can’t put these guys back on the road. They’re at roll call crying,’” Ruszczyk said in a recent interview. “And his answer to me was, ‘You have a better plan?’”
Ruszczyk recalled telling the chief he did not, but as the union president, he decided right then to come up with one.
“I knew pretending like nothing had happened and to try putting guys back on the road was an obvious failure on our part,” Ruszczyk said. “We had to come up with a better plan than to pretend nothing happened. It was foolish, and looking back now at this point, it was downright negligent.”
For the 28 Newtown officers still on the job 10 years after the Sandy Hook massacre, help came from one of the few sources that could understand the horrors they had witnessed: former New York City first responders from 9/11.
The group called Heart 9/11 came to Newtown in early 2013, shortly after the shooting, to talk about dealing with post-traumatic stress. It was so helpful that the group’s founder, William Keegan, and Ruszczyk decided to team up to create a police-specific program for PTSD that they now teach across the country.
For the hundreds of other first responders to Sandy Hook that day, help came from a variety of programs, from newly formed non-profit organizations to South Carolina law enforcement officials who designed their own PTSD program, to private clinicians offering special techniques from eye movement therapy to acupuncture.
Millions of dollars have been spent on mental health through non-profits that sprung up after the massacre, most of it in the Newtown area. Among them the Resiliency Center, the Newtown-Sandy Hook Foundation (the former United Way fund that initially battled with the victims’ families) and a fund set up by the state legislature to assist first responders and teachers.
Officials acknowledge there have been hits and misses, particularly when dealing with first responders who are not used to seeking help or to discussing their feelings with clinicians.
10 years later, it’s still unforgettable
After the shooting on Dec. 14, 2012, one police officer warned a paramedic, who was about to enter the school, that it was “the worst thing you will ever see.”
Many of the first responders that day have since retired, several are divorced, and many are still getting treatment to this day. None, as far as Ruszczyk knows, has become so distraught that they committed suicide.
“We’d had traumatic events before Sandy Hook, from fatal motor vehicle accidents to drowning babies, but none that were department-wide,” Ruszczyk said. “The standard answer was to put your big-boy pants on and go back to work, and while that will work for some officers, we’ve seen many more needed help — and still do.”
Trooper Carlo Guerra was transporting a prisoner to Danbury Superior Court when the first 9-1-1 calls, shortly after 9:36 a.m., came from inside the school reporting there was an active shooter. He and his partner were on Interstate 84, just about to cross the Newtown town line, and quickly exited to get to the school.
Within minutes, Guerra went from behind the wheel of a transport van to inside the school searching for the shooter and eventually into first-grade Classroom Eight, taking six photographs of 15 dead children inside the bathroom, where they had tried to hide from the shooter, according to his police statement.
For months afterwards, Guerra had vivid memories of that horrific scene, particularly when someone asked him about the shooting. His marriage soon ended in divorce.
Like many of the more than 100 troopers who responded to Newtown that day, he tried to go back to work immediately.
“A lot of the guys were told to come to work and just go somewhere and sit to deal with it while you’re at work,” Guerra said. “I felt like I was in hiding for a long period, because people just wanted to talk about it, and I didn’t. I had marital issues. My life was a real shit show. Finally I realized I couldn’t do it any longer, and I needed to get out for a while.”
Guerra was lucky to have secondary insurance that covered part of his salary while he took two months off. He also applied for and received funding from the Sandy Hook Workers Assistance Program (SHWAP) that legislators had created. At that time, the fund was run by the state Office of Victim Services, using funds donated by private corporations.
“A lot of guys couldn’t tap into that fund. It only went into effect if you have a loss of salary, and guys couldn’t afford to miss work,” Guerra said.
Lucie A. Connell, the executive director of the Newtown-Sandy Hook Foundation, said the Foundation spends between $15,000-$30,000 a month on mental health services for Sandy Hook victims, survivors, teachers and others. She said that has remained constant, even now, 10 years later. The Foundation plans to sunset in 2025 after the last child who was in the school that day graduates from high school.
“We’ve had other communities reach out to us after they’ve had a mass shooting, and we tell them, ‘Make sure you save some of the funding, because … people are going to need help for a long time afterwards,'” Connell said.
For Guerra, the state fund was only one of many that he used to help heal, particularly in the first year.
“As far as counseling goes, I used all the services that were available to me,” Guerra said. “There was also a fund set up to the Lions Club that reimburses you for medication or for any type of expenses you had for wellness that insurance didn’t cover, but then the fund ran out of money.”
Guerra struggled until he attended a symposium about dealing with PTSD in South Carolina put on by the South Carolina Highway Patrol. It was there that Guerra tried a technique called Eye Movement Desensitization and Processing (EMDR) in which the person being treated recalls the traumatic event while doing some other bilateral stimulation such as eye movement, tapping their hands together or squeezing a stress ball.
“They’re trying to make your images not as vivid. The way it was described to me is the brain doesn’t know where to file these images, and it stays in the forefront, and it’s very vivid,” Guerra said. “This treatment helps you process the image and not make it as vivid and to file it away so that the effect is not as severe. And it worked for me.”
Guerra retired in 2019 and is now working at Environmental Services Inc. He tries to avoid talking about Sandy Hook, although he said other mass shootings, such as the Uvalde school shooting earlier this year, stir the old memories.
“If I have a little bit of a flashback, I call my counselor, and she gets me in. But so far I’ve been able to control it with the help of my girlfriend,” Guerra said. “I don’t want to think about it, because once I start dwelling on it, everything comes back.”
‘You can never unsee it’
The EMDR therapy that he received through The Resiliency Center in Newtown was life-changing for State Police Sgt. William Cario.
Cario was a sergeant in the Southbury State Police barracks on Dec. 14 and was at exit 15 on Interstate 84 when the call came in of a shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
He drove to the school and ran in through the shattered front window where the shooter had entered. By then, the shooting had stopped, although he didn’t know that at the time.
“It was obviously a chaotic scene, and we didn’t know if the shooter was dead, and even after we found him, we didn’t know if possibly there was a second shooter,” Cario said.
Cario has never spoken publicly about what he encountered when he entered that classroom. He did give a statement to police detectives in the course of the investigation that described what he did and some of what he saw.
Cario was among the first officers to arrive at Classroom Eight. He saw two adults on the ground near a door that was half closed. When he looked inside, Cario saw the children who tried to hide in the bathroom, according to his written statement to investigators.
He realized at least one of the children, a boy, was still alive. He ran out of the room, carrying the gravely injured boy out the front door and into the back of a Newtown police officer’s SUV to be transported to an ambulance, according to the document. The boy did not survive.
Cario returned to Classroom Eight, where it became clear that none of the other children had survived. He then helped shepherd other children out of the school until he realized his uniform was covered in blood, according to the document. He didn’t want parents to see that.
“You never can be prepared for something like that day,” Cario said.
Cario was one of more than a dozen first responders who sought help through The Resiliency Center of Newtown, a non-profit formed in the wake of the massacre.
Executive Director Stephanie Cinque said, “We opened with a singular purpose: to help the children that were impacted by 12/14.”
But they quickly realized that there were lots of first responders who needed help. Cinque said they started by organizing trips to sporting events just to get people together, and the organization eventually helped more than a dozen first responders to get individual therapy.
“First responders are culturally trained that it’s part of the job, and they don’t need to seek out help. And we had to break through that ice,” Cinque said. “It is only recently that we have become more aware of PTSD and its effects.”
Cario tried EMDR therapy within weeks of the shooting.
“You can never unsee what you saw that day, but it (EMDR) has lessened the impact, and the flashbacks aren’t as intense,” Cario said. “I’ve never heard anyone say that EMDR didn’t help them. It makes what we experienced a less significant event. I’m still heartbroken, but so is the whole country.”
Cario retired in 2018, although he has maintained contact with his “guys,” the troopers who were among the first into the school that morning. He is now a Roxbury police officer.
Cario no longer goes to therapy, but he keeps in contact with a therapist at the Resiliency Center to makes sure his guys are getting any help they need. He acknowledges it’s also a way for them to keep tabs on his mental health.
“You feel bad that you couldn’t change anything for the parents of those children,” Cario said.
Teaching other officers to heal
For many Newtown officers, the path to healing started when former New York City Police Lt. William Keegan came to the department in early 2013, offering to try some of the same methods cops there used following 9/11 to deal with PTSD.
Keegan was the night operations commander in the weeks following 9/11, and when he retired, he formed Heart 9/11.
“When Bill walked into the room, he commanded everyone’s attention, because they knew he could relate to what they had been through,” Ruszczyk said.
Ruszczyk said Keegan was so compelling that they decided to get together and create a program specific to first responders.
“We went looking around for a program because, obviously, we’re not clinicians, we’re not doctors. We know the impact, but we don’t know the solution,” Ruszczyk said. “So we went to Harvard, and they said they have a program, but to be quite honest with you, an audience of cops is not going to listen to physicians.”
Working with both the Harvard and Yale medical schools and the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, they created a 16-hour program called Stress Management And Resiliency Training, or SMART.
There are eight sessions that focus on stress awareness, relaxation responses and adaptive strategies. There are 19 different techniques, from yoga and meditation to physical training and proper sleeping awareness.
“The program we teach is all skills, and then we leave and it’s up to the person to either use them or not as they see fit. They don’t need to go to anybody or pay anything,” Ruszczyk said.
Ruszczyk and another Newtown officer, Lt. Richard Robinson, are both trained to teach the SMART program. They have trained officers from Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and, soon, Texas. Here in Connecticut, they have trained officers in Danbury and Bridgeport.
Just this week, the two traveled to Cumberland, R.I., to do a training class for 20 officers from that area.
Ruszczyk said police training has always been missing mental health training, but as the number of mass shootings has increased, the need for it for first responders has grown, and the stigma is disappearing.
“Clearly our training is missing something, and to me, that’s the gap between knowing you’re going to have stress and giving skills to deal with it,” Ruszczyk said. “The traditional answer was there’s really no problem, let’s just go out drinking after work, and that’ll solve everything.
“As it turns out, it doesn’t.”
Former State Police Sgt. William Cario’s descriptions of the scene inside Classroom Eight at Sandy Hook Elementary School were taken from a statement he made to investigators after the shooting.