AZTEC, N.M. — As part of the leadership team at the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Mark Pfetzer and Lt. Jarrod Slindee both know it’s vital to provide help and support to first responders who face tremendous stress due to the nature of their jobs.
They’ve decided to put their lives on the line, and their bodies in a small boat on the capricious waters of the Atlantic Ocean, to make a difference – with the full support of their boss, Sheriff Shane Ferrari.
The pair behind the Team Guardian website is planning to bring attention to lives lost by first responders due to suicide by buying a specialized boat through community fundraising efforts and rowing 3,000 miles across the ocean during the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge.
“First responders see things most people never experience,” Pfetzer said. ”When we repeatedly see death, crimes against children, child abuse, at some point, it affects us.”
“First responders suffer from issues we don’t know about,” Slindee added. “As supervisors at the Sheriff’s Office, we try to discuss mental wellness, but there’s a stigma about it and most people are scared to talk about it.”
Mental wellness isn’t always covered by a first responder’s insurance, either, Pfetzer and Slindee said.
“PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) isn’t an ‘on the job’ injury,” Pfetzer said. “We’re limited as to what we can do. First responders are a different breed and saying or doing the wrong thing (to help them) can do more harm than good.”
“Volunteer firefighters are exposed to all of the things other first responders are exposed to,” Slindee added. “And most of them aren’t covered by insurance or financial support.”
On the Team Guardians website, Pfetzer and Slindee state, "The psychological traumas experienced by our nation’s police, fire, EMS, and 911 dispatchers can lead some down a destructive and all too often deadly path. The consequence of seeing tragedy on a regular basis can contribute to depression, substance abuse, and other effects of post-traumatic stress. Tragically, for some, a false sense of hopelessness results in suicidal behavior.
“The number of first responders who die by suicide is alarming and heart-breaking. More powerful than the problem is the reality that the effects can be prevented, and the damage treated. Through awareness, training, and treatment by culturally competent clinicians, first responders affected can move on to live full and satisfying lives. It is the hope of Team Guardian, through this initiative, to make as big of an impact in this as possible.”
San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari supports and appreciates the efforts of Pfetzer and Slindee.
“I’m very supportive of Mark and Jarrod’s new venture,” Ferrari said. “I also think they’re crazy. The movie ‘Cast Away’ with Tom Hanks comes to mind when I think of them rowing across the ocean.”
“For far too long, there has been a stigma associated with PTSD among first responders. The traumatic incidents they witness on a daily basis and constant high stress is considered part of the job,” Ferrari said. “In fear of being looked down upon by their peers or losing their career, it’s common for first responders to bottle their emotions. Some turn to substance abuse during their time off to cope; others just deal with it. This has an impact on their relationships at home, creating a never-ending cycle of depression.”
“Feeling hopeless, too many take their own life to escape their demons. Lately, first responders have made self-mental care more acceptable,” the sheriff added. “Using critical incident debriefing, access to confidential mental health services and acknowledging emotions tied to their work are a few ways this is being accomplished. However, these resources aren’t available to everyone due to budget constraints, agency size or it may not be the right fit for the individual.”
Pfetzer and Slindee chose Team Guardian as the name of their efforts to increase awareness of the mental and emotional issues that face first responders by participating in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. The challenge is a 3,000-mile race across the Atlantic Ocean from Gomera to Antiqua on an ocean rowing boat. It will be held in 2022.
Team Guardian members posted the reason they're participating in the race on the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge website.
“The psychological traumas experienced by our nation’s police, fire, EMS, and 911 dispatchers can lead some down a destructive and all too often deadly path. The consequence of seeing tragedy on a regular basis can contribute to depression, substance abuse, and other effects of post-traumatic stress. Tragically, for some, a false sense of hopelessness results in suicidal behavior. The number of first responders who die by suicide is alarming and heart-breaking. More powerful than the problem is the reality that the effects can be prevented, and the damage treated. Through awareness, training, and treatment by culturally competent clinicians, first responders affected can move on to live full and satisfying lives. It is the hope of Team Guardian, through this initiative, to make as big of an impact in this as possible.”
The boat the duo will compete in is between 26 and 28 feet long and 5 to 6 feet wide. There are two cabins on the boat, one at each end, Pfetzer explained. One cabin is for sleeping and the other is for supplies.
While the challenges are many, the weather could be a big issue for them, with wind and potential storms. While the world record is 29 days, “It will take us about 24 days (to finish the race),” Slindee said with a grin. “Honestly and realistically, it will probably take us 30 to 40 days.”
Training for the race has already begun. While Pfetzer is an avid mountain climber – he was on Mount Everest in 1996, when a storm killed eight fellow climbers – he and Slindee have already begun training for the race. They are focusing their training on building core strength, endurance and flexibility, they said.
“We need to be mentally and physically ready,” Pfetzer said. “This (race) isn’t like an Olympic race, it’s an endurance race.” Pfetzer also said the duo will be training at Navajo Lake soon.
The race is an unsupported race, which means they can’t take on assistance from anyone. If they do, Slindee said, they will be disqualified.
The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge website states, “The Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge brings together teams from all walks of life united by the same objective: to take on the unique challenge of crossing an ocean in a rowing boat. The atmosphere is electric as people help each other prepare for the challenge of the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Teams battle with sleep deprivation, salt sores, and physical extremes inflicted by the race. Rowers are left with their own thoughts, an expanse of the ocean and the job of getting the boat safely to the other side.
While the training, the preparation and the anticipation will continue until 2022, Pfetzer and Slindee are already looking for sponsors for their efforts and for their cause. The duo has paid the $5,000 registration fee with their own money, but is seeking funds for the boat, which costs $60,000.
The boat the team needs to purchase is from Rannoch Adventures, a company that specializes in rowing boats. It is designed to be fast and safe, Pfetzer and Slindee explained.
“We’d like to find a title sponsor that will fund the cost of the boat,” Slindee said. “We’re hoping local companies and residents will join us to raise awareness for our cause.”
Any and all additional funding will provide funding for mental health awareness for first responders.