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Hamilton firefighters take up judo to fight PTSD after murder of colleague

Posted at 5:00 AM, Jan 12, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-12 05:00:13-05

HAMILTON, Ohio - Fires, death, drug overdoses … firefighters confront the worst human tragedy as a regular part of their job.

Coming face to face with trauma on a daily basis often takes a heavy toll on them. In many cases, firefighters develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result.

Now Hamilton firefighters are literally grappling with the problem as they deal with the murder of a colleague.

The mat popped on a recent morning at Budokai Judo and Jiu Jistu on Hamilton's west side. Hamilton firefighters were learning how to fall - learning how to diffuse their energy so they don't get hurt when hitting the ground.

Their training is all about learning what to do with energy - both physically and emotionally.

"Until recently it's not been talked about. It's not been discussed. It's been something we've pushed aside," said Jason Callihan, peer coordinator for the Ohio Association of Professional Fire Fighters.

Callihan was talking about PTSD.

"Five years ago, different story. Today, a lot of times it starts with a bad incident. Ours was a little over two years ago losing Patrick Wolterman."

In fact, Hamilton firefighter Isaac Sarris publicly acknowledged the problem with PTSD during the sentencing of Lester Parker and Billy Tucker for setting the fire that killed Wolterman in December 2015.

"Every single one of us that were on Patrick's crew have had marriage problems, have had family problems,” Sarris said in court.  “There's individuals in counseling, on medication, unfortunately going down the road with alcohol to get through their normal life at home.”  

Hamilton firefighter Bryan Hanna has been training for a few years and came up with the idea.

"Several guys close to me have suffered heavily," Hanna told WCPO. "The rebound of that is that their family suffers heavily, the job suffers heavily.

 “I've only been married for three years. In that three years, I have a 2- and 1-year-old and I know one thing and it's that I need to be good for them."

Hanna said that sentiment is catching on with other Hamilton firefighters in the training class.

"It's exploded,” Hanna said. “I'd say all in all we have over 20 members attending now and you can just feel the difference throughout the department."

Members of the fire service around the country have noticed what Hamilton firefighters are doing, and some think this type of stress relief could be a model for other agencies in the future.