MESA, AZ - We often hear stories from those who've served in active duty about their struggles with PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder.
But members of local law enforcement say they struggle with PTSD issues too, only to receive far less attention.
A former Mesa police officer told ABC15 that PTSD, and the lack of available help, cost him his career.
On May 28, 2009, detective Nathan Schlitz responded to a fight involving a known gang member.
When that suspect tried to run over his partner, Schlitz opened fire.
"What nobody knew at the time is that his 15-year-old cousin was with him in the backseat and one of my rounds hit and killed her," said Schlitz.
The realization Schlitz killed an innocent person, albeit unintentionally, sent him into a tailspin.
Schlitz now realizes he had started to experience the symptoms of PTSD.
"I think immediately after the shooting, isolation was the biggest one," said Schlitz. "I stayed in my house, didn't want to leave or talk to family or friends."
Four months later, Mesa paid for Schlitz to attend a treatment program in California that specifically treats PTSD in first responders.
He returned to work only to find himself on January 28th, 2010 in a shootout with the suspects who murdered Gilbert lieutenant Eric Shuhandler.
"After that and some specific things that happened on that incident, a lot of the symptoms came flooding back," said Schlitz.
Schlitz told ABC15 he sought help from the department's wellness office but was ignored.
The PTSD symptoms, namely anger, became so bad he went on administrative leave in August 2010.
He would never work as a police officer again.
"They make it so difficult for someone who has these problems, namely PTSD, to have it as an accepted injury," said Schlitz.
Experts estimate 15 percent of all police officers will experience PTSD symptoms.
In Mesa alone, that equates to approximately 100 men and women.
But Ryan Russell, President of the Mesa Police Association, claims cities like Mesa lack the wherewithal to help officers dealing with PTSD.
"We train our new officers how to shoot a gun and how our legal system works but we don't train them on what to do when they're not right," said Russell.
"I think it's an opinion," said Detective Steve Berry with the Mesa Police Department of Russell's claims.
Berry said all supervisors in the Mesa Police Department receive training so they can recognize the symptoms of PTSD.
"I feel we have a good program in place," said Berry. "I think we try to recognize it as early as possible and we do everything we can to get that person help."
Often times, Berry told ABC15 that help means sending officers to see a specialist.
That's where social worker Joan Siegel comes in.
"I think over the last 18 years, Mesa has come a long way in instituting a lot of services a lot of other law enforcement agencies don't have," said Siegel.
Russell maintains that due to an overall lack of training, Mesa is losing officers far sooner than expected.
"We were actually told by someone in Mesa 'aren't you hired to be shot at,'" said Russell. "If that's the approach they have, we're never going to get this better."
Because of PTSD, Schlitz ended up retiring from the police force in February of this year at 35 years of age.
"I loved that job," said Schlitz. "I didn't want to leave. If I had my choice, I'd be doing it today."
The Mesa Police Association estimates Mesa spends a quarter of a million dollars to recruit, hire, train and retain officers like Schlitz.
That investment only lasted a little more than a decade in Schlitz' case, when he says he likely had a good 20 years left.
"I think if I had gotten treatment earlier, I'd be an officer to this day," said Schlitz.
Copyright 2012 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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