Those who are first to respond when people need help can come away with their own, non-physical injuries. The trauma experienced by first responders was recently recognized after a harrowing fatal crash. The good news: there are services and people ready to step in when these helpers are the ones who need help. 

The crash

A southbound vehicle crossed the median and hit a northbound vehicle driven by David Greiner on Interstate 35, south of Hinckley, on May 14, according to the Minnesota State Patrol incident report. 

Pine  County Chief Deputy Scott Grice said the first responder veterans noticed a military uniform in the vehicle and presumed Greiner was on his way to the 148th Fighter Wing-Minnesota National Guard base in Duluth that weekend.

Grice said one of the first responder veterans suggested getting a flag to cover the veteran. 

The brother of the driver of the northbound vehicle, Jason Greiner, wrote a heartfelt post on Facebook in appreciation of the care given his brother. He said he appreciated the first responders who went above and beyond to show respect for his brother that evening. 

“We were honoring him and his service,” Grice said. “We had no idea the family was going to find out. It’s nice to make an impact.”

Elliott Golly, chief of the Hinckley Fire Department is a Marine veteran. He said the deputy asked his opinion about getting a flag. He agreed it was a good idea. Golly said it was a team effort between all of the responding departments.

Helping the Helpers

Jason recognized that first responders to crashes can come away from these incidents with different kinds of injuries than the ones they treat. 

“These men and women deal with the worst of circumstances on a regular basis,” Jason wrote in his post. “I know from experience that each and every incident sticks with you and wears on you, but they continue to be there for us in our worst of times.”

“Everyone surrounded the car in total silence until the flag arrived,” said Grice. “Once the funeral home left, everyone else left. It was surreal.”

Even though their response to the crash was over, the mental effects of witnessing such a traumatic event can linger. Sometimes first responders struggle to deal with an incident after the fact.

“It’s hard to tell which accident is going to affect you,” said Pine County Sheriff Jeff Nelson. “It’s not consistent. I don’t know what it is that makes one more impactful than another.”

In  2019, the Pine County Sheriff’s Department contracted with a therapist to come to the office once a year. Everyone in the department is required to have at least one visit with the therapist. Some employees choose to schedule follow up sessions afterward. 

“It’s like any other injury, it’s just not visible,” Nelson said. “If you carry it around, it will manifest.”

The sheriff’s department also offers critical incident stress management group meetings after especially difficult incidents throughout the year. He said the meetings are open to all first responders from the scene. 

“The  responders don’t always know the whole job,” Nelson explained. “Each person does their part, then goes home. It leaves a bit of a disconnect.” 

Talking to other responders at the meetings helps them process the incidents.

“We all suffer from trauma, law enforcement and first responders,” said Nelson. “We see things, we smell things and we hear things that can really make an impact on a person. Some can’t deal with it and quit.”

He said there are many parts of a car crash that leave a lasting imprint on responders, such as odors.

“All fluids have a smell,” Nelson said. “A broken battery has a smell and body fluids that might be involved have a smell. The smells stick in the memory and have an impact on the first responders.”

The Sheriff’s Department responds to an estimated eight or nine fatal accidents in an average year.

Nelson said he feels the sheriff’s office has good support from the local community, although listening to not-stop negativity towards law enforcement on the news is frustrating and difficult.

“These people do this day in and day out and don’t seek, nor desire gratitude for what they do,” wrote Jason Greiner. “It’s just part of the job. They all deserve a tremendous amount of gratitude for what they do and a heartfelt thank you from the bottom of my heart for going above and beyond to ensure proper respects were in place for Dave.”

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