Las Vegas 5 years later: ‘Going back is a big deal’
CAL FIRE Captain Chris Wetzel and his treating mental health provider detail his road from defeat to appreciation in the aftermath of tragedy
Oct. 1, 2022, will be different for CAL FIRE Captain Chris Wetzel.
For the past four years, Chris and his wife, Amber, have spent Oct. 1 visiting the Beaumont, California, gravesite of Hannah Ahler – a ritual to honor the friend Chris had known for 20 years. This year, however, Chris and Amber will return to Las Vegas to attend events marking the five-year anniversary of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
Of the 10-person friend crew that had traveled to Las Vegas for the Route 91 Harvest festival, Hannah is the only one who did not make it home. Nearly 60 other victims were also killed in a barrage of gunfire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.
The return to Las Vegas will be a first for several members of the group who had been together that night – a significant moment in recovery.
“Going back is a big deal,” Chris shared. “Five years is a big deal. … And this will be the first year that we don’t visit Hannah on Oct. 1.”
They will still honor Hannah, of course, likely visiting her gravesite both before and after the trip. And while in Vegas, they plan to visit the Community Healing Garden, a park with memorials to each of the victims – a “quiet, peaceful and therapeutic” place, Chris described.
The final straw: ‘I was ready to give up the career’
It doesn’t feel like five years for Chris. Much has changed in his life since the shooting – an evolution from defeat to appreciation.
For the first couple months after the shooting, Chris didn’t go to work. He had served as a firefighter with CAL FIRE/Riverside for over a decade – a career that had hooked him 14 years earlier – but now, he was ready to throw in the towel.
“I honestly was almost ready to give up the career, just because I’ve seen a lot of stuff in my career with the fire service as far as death and injury and just bad things happening to people,” Chris admitted. “And then, October 1st was the final straw.”
Fortunately, Chris’ support system was strong, “endless” he called it. Several fellow firefighters recommended speaking with a mental health provider. That single decision ultimately steered Chris along a path of recovery and resilience, a decision that allowed him to continue working and living the life he knew before the shooting.
Perhaps the biggest sign for Chris that he was recovering was attending a different country music festival in 2018.
“Getting past that was a big thing for me and my wife,” he said. “After I did that, I kind of felt like I could do things again and things would be alright.”
Getting there wasn’t easy, though.
Recognizing trauma: ‘You can see it in their eyes’
“You can see it in their eyes,” Dr. Mynda Ohs explained about witnessing trauma in her first responder patients. “You can see it in the color of their skin; if they look at you, if they don't look at you; if their voice is monotone, if it's low, there's no inflection in their voice; how they move around on the couch. They could be super fidgety and anxious.”
But Chris’ affect was certainly not fidgety; he was very subdued, lethargic.
“He didn't look up a lot,” Ohs added. “His voice was almost hard for me to even hear. I'd have to say, ‘What?’ He talked very slow. It was extremely obvious [that he was traumatized].”
Chris is classic California laid-back, which some might use to explain away his subdued nature in therapy. But there is no “normal,” Ohs said; there is just a person’s baseline, which the mental health provider must discover through the sessions, then work to get them back to baseline. Chris may always be laid back, but when he came into therapy, Ohs noted, he was 10 times more laid back than his baseline.
Ohs is a mental health provider who works exclusively with first responders. She treated Chris for several months after the shooting. (Chris granted permission for Ohs to speak with FireRescue1 about his treatment, hoping to encourage others to seek out counseling if they need help.)
Ohs had been a first responder herself in the 1990s – an EMT – and later married a firefighter. It’s how she came to realize just how many first responders were struggling and needed help – help from someone who understood the unique pain and challenges inherent in the job.
“I still had my bank of calls that never went away and watching my husband have his bank of calls, and now my son's a firefighter,” Ohs shared. “There was nothing in the late-90s, even 2000s, where they were really addressing that stuff. It was still the ‘suck it up’ generation. I wanted to be a part of that change, and I wanted first responders to see that it didn't have to be weird and awkward, that it could be somebody that really did understand what it was like to pick up dead bodies and do CPR on a baby. I've held dead babies in my arms, so you don't have to explain that to me.”
So in 2015, Ohs shifted her practice to focusing on first responders and their families – and less than one year later, she faced an unthinkable call. Ohs was one of the first responding mental health providers to the San Bernardino, California, terrorist shooting at the Inland Regional Center that left 14 dead and many others wounded. She debriefed for 17 straight hours the first day and continued for two weeks after that.
The experience set the stage for Las Vegas.
Work brain/home brain: ‘A no-win situation for off-duty first responders’
The night of the Route 91 Harvest festival, Ohs’ husband received a call from one of his firefighters who was there, under the stage.
“He just wanted somebody to know he was alive,” she said.
Ohs immediately recalled the torment experienced by first responders from the San Bernardino shooting – but Las Vegas would be different. The first responders in San Bernardino faced horror in dragging bodies out of the building. In Las Vegas, so many of the firefighters and other first responders were off duty, just enjoying a concert when the shots rang out – their guards were down.
“They didn't have their work brain on, their shield of armor that protects them, because when you're in work brain, it's adrenaline-filled,” Ohs detailed. “When fueled by adrenaline and a version of flight or fight, they're operational, they're task-driven, and there's no emotions. They can focus. They can compartmentalize. When you're not in work brain and you're in home brain, you don't have that shield of armor that's compartmentalized. Everything's vulnerable and everything's susceptible.”
Ohs continued: “This was a no-win situation for these off-duty first responders because if they got their family members out and went back, they were going to feel guilty because they left their family. If they got their family members out and they stayed with their family, they would feel guilty that they didn't go back and do more to help. These poor men and women were being pulled from work brain to home brain: ‘Do I click in and get busy and get operational and address the task at hand and help where I'm needed, or do I stay in home brain and stay with the one I love the most and protect them?’ It was this dichotomy of them being pulled.”
Like so many first responders at the concert, Chris was pulled in multiple directions at once. He had laid atop a shooting victim to protect him, and he could see his wife hiding under a table. When there was a lull in shooting, he coaxed her to come to him – and then the shooting started again.
“Oh God, what did I just do?” Chris worried, his wife now in the open. But she quickly found cover.
Then another lull and Chris moved to his wife, grabbed her hand and started running. Home brain. But then, another victim in need of help. Work brain.
“This guy’s limping around, bleeding all over the place,” Chris recalled. “As soon as I grabbed him, there was another round of shooting, and Amber was out. She was gone, she booked it. I don’t know what it was, but I couldn’t let the guy go. I knew my wife running away was a good thing. I think it was the next week that she told me, ‘I was running because one of us had to go back to our kids, even if it wasn’t going to be you.’”
Family dynamics: ‘Do we keep them together?’
These shared traumas immediately prompted questions for Ohs and other mental health providers, who knew they would soon be treating some of the dozens, if not hundreds, of off-duty first responders who had been at the festival along with their families.
“It was a very bizarre dynamic of, ‘Do we keep them together? Do we separate them?’” Ohs pondered at the time.
Chris saw Ohs one-on-one for most sessions, but his wife came with him for some – an important step, especially as Chris’ behaviors were negatively impacting his family life.
“They'll live with the nightmares and how they feel,” Ohs said. “But it's when it starts to affect the family … that’s a big push to get a lot of the first responders help, when the spouses are like, ‘That's it, you need help or I'm done.’”
The key was to integrate Amber into the sessions because as the patient starts to heal, it can change a relationship, how they communicate, interact and set boundaries, Ohs shared.
Chris and Amber met together with Ohs several times, each processing the trauma in different ways.
Treatment brings progress: ‘The client laughed in session today’
Chris was ultimately diagnosed with PTSD. In addition to nightmares and irritability, he was having panic attacks. Loud noises, like fireworks, were unsettling. He snapped at his kids. He struggled with work and burned through his sick time. There was so much – too much – to process from Oct. 1.
In a matter of hours, Chris had laid atop a shooting victim, protecting the man from further injury at great risk to his own health. He had lost contact with his wife and friends. He had helped a second victim, Zach, into an ambulance, likely saving his life. He had returned to the scene to assist additional victims. And he had learned of Hannah’s death.
In addition to all this pain and confusion, Chris had also suffered a gunshot wound from a bullet that ricocheted off the ground while he laid atop the first shooting victim. Days later, bullet fragments emerged through the skin of his abdomen – a “weird” physical reminder of the horror, he said.
This is where the personalized nature of therapy is so essential, Ohs noted. While there are certain commonalities with trauma victims, like wanting to isolate or feeling overwhelmed or numb, each person has a different experience and needs unique interventions.
“Psychology 101: Be where your client is, not where you are,” Ohs said. “Get to know your client. We have a plethora of interventions that are available to adapt to each person.”
With Chris, his affect – his flatness – was particularly concerning to Ohs, so she began working on getting him back to his baseline communications, sleep and interactions with others while helping him not give up his career.
“He needed to get back to some kind of physical activity,” Ohs said. “Even if it was one day a week, he needed to do something to burn off the hormones that are produced as a result of trauma. Then practicing better communication with people in his life. If he was feeling overwhelmed, instead of just shutting down and closing everybody out or acting out his emotions, he needed to communicate with his wife or kids or whoever that it wasn't them, but he was just having a rough day and he was trying to work through it.”
Another coping skill for people in a state of depression or trauma is to show them they can, in fact, accomplish tasks. It starts by having the person write out a nightly list for what they want to accomplish the following morning.
“It gives them a visual, it's black and white, they can cross things off, and at the end of the day, when they feel like they did nothing, they can actually see, ‘Oh, I actually did accomplish something today.’”
Ohs also recommended eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a form of psychotherapy that she says helps victims dislodge the stuck trauma memories and essentially file them away so they aren’t always right at the surface of your memory.
“It might be filed under ‘worst day of my life,’ but it’s filed, and the intensity of the memory starts to decrease,” she explained.
Over time, Ohs saw Chris growing, improving, healing.
“The first thing I saw was his mood and his affect in session,” she said. “I didn't have to work as hard to get words out of him. I didn't have to work as hard for the conversation. There was some inflection in his voice. There were actually some laughs. I remember charting, ‘The client actually laughed today in session.’”
Fast-forward five years, Chris reflects on how far he’s come: “Let me see what I’ve got. I got my associate degree. I’m working on my bachelor’s degree right now. I’m just doing a lot of things in life that I normally wouldn’t have done – traveling, vacations. I think that moment kind of made me realize that there’s a lot of things in the world I need to do.”
Important realizations: ‘It would have been impossible to see’
While Chris’ panic attacks have subsided, the reality is that trauma never fully disappears. Chris will forever remember when he first realized someone was shooting – seeing a woman not far from the group who was dead, and the fear on his wife’s face.
“You can never unsee. You can never unhear. You can never undo those things,” Ohs said. “The way I tell it to my clients is this: ‘It's a chapter in your book, it's not the book.’”
And this is where the coping skills come into play, as Chris quickly experienced: “It wasn’t too long after I went back to work that I had my first shooting call, and you kind of have to process that and be like, ‘Alright, I’ve got this.’ Then you’re always watching your back. I think still to this day, my senses are more enhanced when I’m in certain areas, just kind of looking around and checking things out.”
But at the end of the day, vigilance only gets you so far, he said, explaining that Vegas was a different beast altogether: “You can be aware of your surroundings all you want, but where that guy was, the 32nd floor of Mandalay Bay, no one is going to see there’s a guy breaking out a window on the 32nd floor. It would have been impossible to see.”
There really was nothing he could have done – an important realization and acceptance for many victims who felt helpless that night.
Much like Ohs’ direction to clients to feel the accomplishment of completion, even if just one to-do, many first responders find being proactive to be an effective antidote to feelings of helplessness. One example: Since the Route 91 Harvest festival, CAL FIRE has increased its active shooter training, both in Riverside and Chris’ current division, San Luis Obispo. This type of proactive training helps Chris feel better prepared, more in control, knowing that first responders can make a difference, especially when working with law enforcement counterparts.
Empathy and advice: ‘Talk about it’
Since Oct. 1, 2017, there have been more than 80 mass shootings in the United States – a fact that frustrates Chris: “It just keeps happening, and what’s the solution? I don’t have one. But most other countries, this doesn’t happen. We just keep going through this once every couple months.”
Fortunately, these events have not served as a trigger of any previous symptoms for Chris, he says, although they do prompt empathy for the victims – and advice.
“Having a support system is the biggest thing,” Chris says. “Don’t try to do it on your own. You need the support whether you think so or not. I was one of those guys all the time, thinking, ‘I’m good, I don’t need it.’ But it did help. Even talking to folks that have been through it, even if it’s not Vegas, but another shooting they’ve been through, having someone that understands is a big help.”
And for the other first responders who were at the Route 91 Harvest festival, Chris encourages them to push forward and open up: “Don’t hold it in, talk about it. I know first responders, we think we’re all macho, but at the end of the day, no, we’re not. Don’t hold things in; be open about it.”
Positive perspectives: ‘The human factor is still good’
With the help of therapy and his support system, Chris has found his positivity once again, embracing important realizations.
“A lot more people appreciate you than don’t and you do make a difference,” Chris emphasized. “… I think at the end of the day, there’s still way more good than bad in the world, and there’s always a lot of people who are willing to take a chance, even if it’s not costing them their life, but they get hurt themselves. So the human factor in the world is still good, even though we see a lot of bad stuff on this job.”
And on Oct. 1, 2022, Chris will try to harness his positivity as he stands alongside countless first responders, other victims and survivors, a collective support system like no other. Chris will visit Hannah’s memorial and remember her positive spirit – a positivity that each member of their crew has channeled, over time, in the wake of the shooting.
It will be different, better.
Read more about Wetzel's experience
Quiet Warrior: How one off-duty firefighter switched from concertgoer to first responder during Las Vegas shooting
Chris Wetzel, a firefighter with Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department, recalls what it was like to be on scene while a gunman opened fire on 22,000 concertgoers on the Las Vegas Strip