- Christal Hayes USA TODAY
An officer hailed as a hero after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla. and says he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from the carnage of the massacre is being let go — just six months before he’d become vested in his pension.
Omar Delgado, 45, a corporal at the Eatonville Police Department, was one of the first officers at club in the early hours of June 12, 2016 after a gunman opened fire and left 49 dead and dozens more injured in what is now the second-deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
He scoured through bodies that littered the ground and helped survivors get out. One of the club-goers he helped save was Angel Colon, who’d been shot six times. The pair’s story of survival and their growing friendship gained attention across the globe and was covered nationally in The New York Times, USA Today and CNN.
But the police department is letting him go at the end of the month, Eatonville council members confirmed at a Tuesday evening meeting. His last day on his $38,500-a-year job is scheduled for Dec. 31.
Eatonville Mayor Eddie Cole said the situation is complex but added he hopes to start a conversation about helping law enforcement officers after a tragedy. He said he couldn’t specifically talk about Delgado’s situation.
Officials at the city’s police department also did not comment on Delgado’s termination.
Delgado has mainly been on desk duty since the attack. He tried coming back to work about a month after the shooting, on the Fourth of July, but the loud bursts of fireworks gave him flashbacks to gunfire.
Colon, the man he helped save during the shooting, said he is shocked to hear about Delgado's situation.
“He was my hero. He saved my life and for them to just do what they’re doing to him in front of my face is a slap to my face as well,” Colon told WFTV, a local ABC affiliate. “He did his job that night on June 12 so they should have his back 100 percent totally and just be there for whatever he needs.”
Delgado said he hoped for a better outcome to his employment.
“It’s a small town and we’re like a family,” the officer said. “You don’t just throw a family member to the street. They’re acting like a Fortune 500 company and saying since you can’t do your job, we’re going to replace you. Even if the world saw me as a hero, that was yesterday.”
PTSD is more common in law enforcement than in the general public — but still is somewhat rare.
Between 7 to 19 percent of police officers show symptoms of PTSD, compared to about 3.5 percent of the rest of the population, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
NAMI also says 1 in 4 officers will have thoughts of suicide because of the stresses they face on the job. Compared to the national average, the number of officer suicides catapult in smaller departments like Eatonville, a small town of 2,200 just outside the city of Orlando.
Delgado says the department told him they needed to replace him because of his PTSD and because they need an additional officer on patrol, a job he can no longer do.
He said he’s ready to leave the department and concentrate on his mental health but asked his superiors to wait an additional six months so he can mark 10 years at the department and become vested in his pension.
“Just let me get vested and I will be more than happy to pack up my troubles and leave,” he said. “This is the thing I’ve been working toward for 10 years and to be six months shy then be fired, it’s like ‘wow!’”
The extra six months would have allowed him to receive 64 percent of his salary with benefits for life, the Orlando Sentinel reported, adding if he’s terminated before making it to 10 years he’ll receive 42 percent of his earnings.
Delgado said he partially blames his termination on his decision to speak up about his mental state, adding he did get help and regularly sees a psychologist.
But he says it hasn’t helped much.
For more than a year and a half, Delgado has woken up to the same nightmare every night. It always starts the same: He’s working to get survivors out of the LGBT nightclub when gunman Omar Mateen starts firing his rifle.
He and other officers drop to the ground. They don’t know where the gunshots are coming from or where they’re aimed.
Delgado wakes up screaming and sweaty. He can never go back to sleep.
“I never thought I would have gotten to this point. I thought I’d shake it off and everything would be fine,” he said. “But that hasn’t happened. Nothing has been right since that day.”
Delgado said he plans to apply for disability but until he’s approved, it’s going to be an uphill battle financially for him, his wife and their three kids.
“This Christmas is going to be a really sad one,” he said. “There’s simply not enough money to make it.”