Unseen scars: Injured officers often endure years of recoveryPosted: Updated:
When a police officer or deputy is shot or injured on the job, there is often a huge swell of public support. Rarely do we get to see what his or her life looks like in the months and years, even decades, to come -- the struggle to recover after a career-ending injury.
Sadly, the service and sacrifice of the men and women behind the badge can leave them broken as they struggle to find a new normal for the rest of their lives.
Some survivors and families say it's easy to forget their unseen scars.
Former Maricopa County Deputy Ruben Garcia and his wife not only know this, they live it. Every day. It has been more than three years since Garcia was shot and he is still fighting for a normal life.
"PTSD," Georgina Garcia said. "He can’t sleep. I mean, it's a laundry list of things."
While you cannot see most of the things on that "laundry list," the Garcias can't ignore any of them.
Garcia, a 29-year law enforcement veteran when he was shot and nearly died, not only lost half his vision in his left eye but he also suffered nerve damage that left him with debilitating dizziness.
"I feel like a prisoner! I feel like a prisoner," Garcia said. The irony was not lost on this mountain of a man who spent the first four years of his career as a detention officer guarding jail inmates.
He was shot twice by a suicidal suspect he pulled over in Peoria on Jan. 7, 2013.
'IT'S UNLIKE ANYTHING': Brother of shot MCSO deputy talks; deputy's condition improving (Jan. 9, 2013)
"I remember parking my patrol car, going behind the vehicle and running the license plate, and that’s about it," Garcia said.
'I DON'T FEEL REGULAR': Wounded MCSO deputy discusses shooting for first time (April 12, 2013)
The man who shot him, Donald Miller Sr., died in a shootout in the desert with police.
Garcia was rushed to John C. Lincoln Medical Center, where Dr. Pablo Prichard is the medical director and chief of plastic surgery.
"When he came in, his jaw was fractured into bits and pieces," Prichard recalled. "We had to reconstruct his TMJ joint, his eyeball socket. If you can imagine a .45-caliber bullet right to the face, it does a lot of damage."
One bullet passed between two ribs and nicked Garcia’s lung. The other is still lodged in his neck, right next to his spinal cord.
A deputy for 25 years, Garcia held onto promises that he could come back to a desk job.
"So when they told him he couldn't go back to work, I mean, that was just beyond devastating," Georgina said.
He was forced to take a medical retirement. While that means almost 70 percent of his pay, he was pretty much cut off from everything else.
"You're just kind of left out there," Georgina said. "It’s a sea of red tape; a sea of paperwork."
The Garcias were left to deal with the medical approvals and runarounds themselves.
"Workman's comp's been giving us a hassle," Garcia said.
Sometimes delays in approvals have him going without his pain meds for weeks at a time.
We were there for his latest surgery. It was No. 49 in three years. And it won't be his last.
The recovery process is very lengthy, and the psychological effects probably last forever.
"A lifelong thing"
"The trauma of literally being shot in the head, the normal person can't understand that," Prichard said.
He has worked on more than 100 injured officers.
"Police officers are heroes!" he said emphatically. "They’re constantly putting themselves in these situations to protect us, and most people, your regular Joe like me, doesn’t understand that."
Recovery doesn't just involve looking better.
"This is a lifelong thing," Prichard said. "The recovery process is very lengthy, and the psychological effects probably last forever."
Garcia needed a second reconstructive surgery after a sinus infection destroyed his last implant.
"I just wanna be normal," Garcia said. "And if I can't be it, maybe I can at least look it."
"This has been a hard road for us, but I know there've been others who've had it so much worse," his wife said
The long goodbye
Lisa Wargo's husband David, a SWAT and K9 deputy, was left in a vegetative state after he was dragged by a man in a truck in 2003.
"As a wife of an officer, I was proud of him," he said. "I was afraid for him, but I never, in my wildest dreams, thought that he would get injured. But he did."
To say it was devastating to Wargo and her family would be an understatement.
"He couldn’t stand. He couldn’t eat. He would try to communicate by blinking his eyes," she said.
She brought him home and cared for him full-time while raising their three little boys, all younger than 3.
"I would well up with just pangs in my stomach every time I'd get a letter from Social Security," Wargo said.
For years, she was forced to keep proving her husband's injuries. At one point, she was told she owed the government $25,000 because she'd been overpaid.
"I finally just got fed up and said, 'You know what, I’m bringing him in,'" Wargo recalled.
And that’s just what she did.
She said it took seeing the state in which her husband lived -- in person -- for all the repeated paperwork and medical records requests to finally stop.
"It was very hard," Wargo said. "We kinda felt like we were forgotten, you know? They are forgotten, unfortunately. They're forgotten about, sometimes by people who loved and cared for them."
She figured seeing her husband was too much for the other brothers behind the badge, too raw a reminder of the risks and dangers of their jobs.
While she doesn’t harbor any hard feelings, Wargo agrees with the Garcias that there needs to be an advocate to help guide the families of injured officers through the many questions of clearances and red tape in the months and years after being injured on the job.
"I think people are afraid to ask questions, to check in and ask, 'How are you doing?'" Wargo said. "People just don’t know how to respond; they don’t know what to do for you."
She took care of her husband for nine years on her own before he finally succumbed to his injuries.
"They are forgotten, unfortunately."
"We don't forget," Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio insisted.
He named each of the conference rooms at his new headquarters after fallen deputies. He also set up a special unit to care for the families of fallen officers.
"That's our top priority, to take care of our people," he said.
DONATE: MCSO Memorial Fund
But there is nothing in place for those like Garcia, the ones who just barely survive.
An advocate for survivors?
Arpaio said it might be time for departments, or event the state, to look at appointing a family advocate specifically for injured officers.
"I don’t think they should tell me what to do. I mean, I may not like their solutions, but it's good to have an advocate," Arpaio said.
MCSO also has a fund that pays out $10,000 to $25,000 to injured and fallen officers from any department in Arizona.
"We try to do the best we can," he said. "But in bureaucracies, there are sometimes so much limitations with all the rules and regulations."
The 100 club of Arizona, which exists solely to support Arizona's law enforcement, public safety and firefighting agencies, does not have a special advocate just for injured officers.
The organization that's "dedicated to standing behind the men and women who stand behind the badge " gives each family a $1,500 payout for every line-of-duty injury. Representatives then reach out to those families every month, offering them financial aid up to $18,000.
It's not always enough.
You're just kind of left out there. It’s a sea of red tape; a sea of paperwork.
"We're kind of stuck," Georgina said. "He is still suffering, and it's hard to watch. You feel helpless."
She has missed a lot of work to be by her husband’s side, and they’re struggling to afford their daughter’s college tuition. They recently set up a GoFundMe account to help cover those expenses.
The Garcias would love to have an advocate fighting for them.
So they try and stay hopeful.
They hope sharing their story will improve the outcome and future for those who continue to protect and serve.
They hope others will have a better understanding of the unseen scars that come from that sacrifice.
Garcia should look normal in a few months, but the one thing that could help him feel normal, an MRI to get to the bottom of his lingering dizziness, isn't possible because of the bullet still stuck in his neck.
He’s had two neurologists say there’s nothing more they can do for him.
He and his family are again calling on hope.
They hope that perhaps a third or fourth opinion will improve their odds for a more normal future as they continue the battle to overcome these unseen scars.
Copyright 2016 KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.