Recently someone questioned my right to park in designated handicapped parking spaces. My close friends know that my long federal career took a toll on my health, but other people appear to be unaware. During my career, I was fortunate to be able to serve as a National Park Ranger, a Special Agent with the United States Customs Service, and (after 9/11) a Federal Air Marshal. My career was unlike any other person’s and I would not trade the experiences, and success, for anything.
However, there was a toll for such a rich life. The Office of Workman’s Compensation told me that I had a 43% physical disability as I was retiring. I fear that increasing age has made that percentage much higher. Some days require immense pain to walk from the bedroom to the living room; other days I can comfortably walk in the woods of our family farm in Kentucky. There is no rhyme or reason for the differing levels of physical pain that I experience daily.
However, there are scars that are not visible which I must endure, and I am not alone. Members of the military, police officers, sheriff’s deputies, EMTs, firefighters, and other first responders have seen the side of humanity that would make you recoil in horror. Mutilated people, pieces of bodies torn apart with impact trauma or uncontrolled emotion, or the aftermath of a shooting incident that involved the responders – these are the scars that you cannot see. We have seen the worse that humanity has to offer and have dealt with it the best we can to remain productive members of society. If we are blessed, we can take a small step forward each day and move on with our lives. If we are cursed, we become frozen in the past and unable to move. But make no mistake, we have to relive the incident repeatably. It is our burden to bear for those rewarding careers.
I see the faces of the civilians from the first two gunfights that I endured as a National Park Ranger. I know their names and remember them before the shooting incidents that ended their lives. I see the last seconds of our shared time together and I so desperately wish that the outcomes would have been different. But that was a choice that they made, and I suffer the consequences of their poor decisions.
If you look closely, you can see the scars of emergency room visits and subsequent surgeries from incidents in my career on my face and body. My old National Park Service Setson hat has the stains of body fluids from failed CPR attempts from the people that I tried to help in the last moments of their lives. I remember each time when I look at that old uniform hat and I feel a scar that you cannot see. And I am not alone in bearing that burden.
If you are one of those first responders that suffers from those scars that you cannot see, stop by the house one evening when I am on the front porch and have a beer with me. We can quietly discuss our shared emotions and I can tell you what worked, and what didn’t work, for me. I will be glad to remind you that sometimes you have to bleed emotionally to know you are still alive.
If you are one of those people who wonder why I park in a designated handicapped parking area, just look at the hang tag under my rear-view mirror. The blue placard represents the scars that you can see.
The scars you cannot see, they are the ones that really hurt sometimes…
Ed Byers is a resident of Charlestown and a retired United States federal agent. He is finishing his Ph.D. program at the University of Louisville in Criminal Justice with a specialty in policing and is an adjunct professor at that university. His dissertation examines factors involved in police shootings.