Town Heals and Remembers

Newtown Officers Want Long-Term PTSD Coverage

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    NEWSLETTERS

    One of the first police officers to enter Sandy Hook Elementary explains the moments after the first calls for help came out. Hear what his life has become and why the police union says the town could be doing more to help the officers. (Published Thursday, May 2, 2013)

    Sergeant David Kullgren's life forever changed as a result of one of the darkest days in Connecticut history. 

    The 11-year Newtown Police Department veteran is sharing his experiences about the moment he entered Sandy Hook Elementary.

    "There was the constant feeling of who's going to come around the corner and try to shoot you," Kullgren said.

    Kullgren was among the first police officers to enter the school.  The officers had been trained for an active shooter situation.

    "It was the feeling of hoping, when I pull my trigger, that bullet better come out of the chamber," Kullgren recalled.

    But Kullgren didn't have to fire his weapon.  Shooter Adam Lanza was already dead.

    Kullgren helped evacuate the terrified students and school staff members. 

    The Connecticut State Police took the scene one hour later. Kullgren said he remained at the scene as a liasion between local and state police.

    His experiences inside the school haunt him to this day.

    "You walk down the street and you see a child the same size. Where does your mind go? It goes right back to being in those classrooms," Kullgren said.

    He said sleepless nights followed in the weeks after Sandy Hook. There were times when he couldn't focus, he said. Kullgren is now living with post-traumatic stress disorder.

    "Mental impact is forever and, for some, it's unfortunately worse," Kullgren said.

    Kullgren said other first responders are taking time off work periodically to deal with their symptoms. According to the police union, several officers are battling PTSD.

    Union president Scott Ruszczyk, a veteran Newtown officer who was not working the morning of December 14, 2012, said the department is now a much quieter, much sadder place.

    "When you have an incident like Sandy Hook, where you have so much of it at one time, it really is just going to change the entire culture of the department," Ruszczyk said.

    None of the officers was physically hurt, but their mental injuries could lead to permanent scars.

    "We're not going to know the true damage that this has caused for several years down the road," Ruszczyk said.

    The town of Newtown is helping the impacted officers pay for some of their medical expenses. 

    State lawmakers also approved a privately-funded relief fund for Newtown's affected first responders and teachers. Police said they are using the state-managed fund to pay for lost work time.

    Police union members said they appreciate the help but they need a long-term solution. Officers said once the relief funds expire, they expect problems getting reimbursed for possible future lost work time. That's one reason why they're fighting for long-term workers compensation benefits. 

    However, the police union said Newtown is denying the officers access to long-term workers compensation benefits. 

    "Up to this point, the employer and the insurance company disagree that the post-traumatic stress disorder is a physical injury," union attorney Eric Brown said. "They categorize it as strictly a mental injury and therefore won't provide benefits."

    Current state workers compensation law does not cover mental impairments unless they stem from physical injuries, but the police union said Newtown's first selectman could be doing more to help.

    "I think it's short-sided on her part in that she's looking at the short-term costs and rejects our proposal out of financial reasons," Ruszczyk said.

    First selectman Pat Llodra told the Troubleshooters it is hurtful for the officers to suggest she could be doing more. She said she cannot legally require the town's insurance carrier to approve the workers comp applications.

    "If there's something I could legally do, I would," Llodra said. "They're asking for something I don't have the capacity to do."

    State lawmakers could soon change that. If passed, Senate Bill 823 would cover mental injuries for anyone who is subject to a mass casualty incident on the job.

    State Senator Cathy Osten said 15 other states already cover this sort of event.

    "If we're going to take the issues of mental health seriously, we have to take them seriously on all levels," Osten said.

    However, State Senator Joe Markley said the added coverage would be too expensive for cities, towns and employers.

    "You're opening the door to unknown amounts of liability and even a small town could get hit with something that would cost it millions and millions of dollars," Markley said.

    Markley added a similar Connecticut workers comp law was in place 20 years ago, but it had to be repealed because of its cost impact on towns.

    If a new law is passed, there's a strong chance it would not be retroactive for Newtown's officers.

    "Hopefully the change in legislation will protect the guys in the future and we'll figure out how to retroactively take care of the guys that were impacted by Sandy Hook," Ruszczyk said.

    Llodra said she will try to find additional funding for the state-managed fund that is helping first responders and teachers.

    SB 823 is scheduled to be voted on within the next few weeks.