Jessica Realin was on vacation with her husband, Gerry, when he received a phone call. A nightclub in Orlando had been attacked. He was told he would need to head to the location immediately. There were bodies inside the club that needed to be removed. Enough to call in officers that were not on duty.
Officer Gerry Realin looked at his wife and told her he had to go.
Her mind fixated on the worst possible scenarios as she turned on the news and told her husband to text her when he got there. She just wanted to know that he was okay.
“They had all seen homicides,” said Jessica. “He had never seen something like that before, and to that magnitude.”
Gerry arrived at Pulse Nightclub on the morning of June 12, 2016, and discovered he – and the seven other members of his team – would be responsible for removing the bodies of those who had not made it out.
Gerry was at the scene for about 16 ½ hours. He was inside the nightclub for more than five hours.
Forty-nine lives were lost because of the shooting that night. Pulse became a name known around the world as Facebook users around Orlando marked themselves safe and many more changed their profile photos in support of the nightclub. For Jessica Realin, it was not just the largest mass shooting in modern U.S. history that took place less than 50 miles from where her children slept.
“It took everything from him and everything out of him,” said Jessica.
When he came home the next day, he was quiet. Gerry was a germophobe so Jessica was alarmed when she saw her husband standing on the porch in clothing still dirtied from the scene. His lack of concern with his apparel was an obvious sign of the shock he was in.
After checking on his children, Gerry got into the shower and began to process what he had been through.
Jessica described the sounds she heard as deep wails. He was not crying. He was looking for answers when there were none.
It had taken every member on his team to carry out the last person from the building. It was not because of the weight of the person, but because of the exhaustion that plagued Gerry and the rest of his team.
“He doesn’t talk about what happened,” said Jessica. “We don’t talk about it at all.”
Gerry was known as the “little brother” on his hazardous materials team because of the pranks he would pull on his coworkers. Now, Gerry suffers from night terrors.
Jessica motivated her husband to file for paid leave due to his mental injury received while on the job.
After a denial letter came in the mail, she quickly found out that the state of Florida does not recognize PTSD as a work-related injury.
Jessica said that if her husband had slipped in the building or cut himself inside, he would have been covered.
“It just didn’t make sense,” said Jessica. “The magnitude of what they were exposed to was so severe, I figured that they would be covered.”
Gerry tried to go back to work for two weeks, but ultimately had to leave.
On June 28, Gerry passed out while driving a patrol car because of his insomnia. His lieutenant ordered him to get help. Gerry was diagnosed with acute stress disorder but they warned him that if he didn’t get the proper treatment, it would turn into PTSD.
Gerry wanted to go back to work. Jessica didn’t agree. She reminded him that lives were on the line at his job and that people who needed help from first responders needed help from a police officer that would be able to give 100 percent.
During the two weeks he tried to return to work, Gerry used his sick time on and off until the decision was made that he could not go back at all.
Gerry burned through all his sick days and vacation time until he had to take out a loan just so his family could pay the bills. Currently, the department he worked for is paying his salary, but they are under no contract to do so. At any time, they can decide to stop paying him all together.
They had a difficult time finding Gerry a place to receive treatment. Their insurance would not cover therapy sessions and neither would workman’s comp.
Jessica described how Gerry would attend free sessions here and there, never being able to stay with one therapist for long. This constant change forced him to relive that day over and over, pushing him deeper into the grips of PTSD.
An attorney was finally able to help Gerry connect with a permanent therapist.
Jessica has been lobbying to change PTSD coverage for first responders. She created the “Blue and Red Movement” to gain support for first responders and bring attention to the mental injuries they face.
“My hope is that the state of Florida will acknowledge that PTSD is a real injury that does effect first responders and that they can get the help that they need,” said Jessica.
Gerry has not been to work in eight months. Recently, his doctors said that he would never be able to return to the police force.
Jessica’s husband physically came home in June, but the part of him that saw the world in an optimistic way was lost.
“The man who left my home that day hasn’t come back since,” said Jessica.
OUTSIDE THE NIGHTCLUB
Take a trip to the #OrlandoStrong Memorial outside the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla. with this 360˚ video.