"First of all, I'm not OK. It took me a while to admit that."
In sharing his own experiences of the shooting rampage that took place in Las Vegas, Nevada last year, Jesse Gomez wasn't afraid to describe the trauma that has changed his life. Appearing as one of the the keynote speakers at the A. Michael Mullane Health and Safety Symposium at Florian Hall in Dorchester, Nevada, Gomez remains adamant about the need for better mental health care for firefighters following similar traumatic experiences.
The 45-year old Gomez had been with the Clark County Fire Department for over fifteen years but what happened on the evening of October 1, 2017 was unlike anything he had ever encountered before. For reasons that remain unclear, 64-year-old Stephen Paddock barricaded himself in his room at the nearby Mandalay Bay Hotel and began firing more than 1100 rounds into the crowd of music-goers that could be seen from his hotel balcony. After killing 58 people and leaving 851 injured, Paddock killed himself as police attempted to close in. It remains the deadliest mass shooting committed by a single individual in the United States.
As for Gomez, he wasn't even on duty that night. Instead, he and his wife were attending the country music festival on the Las Vegas strip when the shooting began. "The band, everyone, they don't know what's going on. ... And then you just hear more pop, pop, pop, and all of a sudden ... Jason Aldean and his whole band takes off. Everyone at that moment knew what was going on -- that someone was shooting," he said.
He jumped on his wife to protect her and they both began running, he recalls. "I just wanted to get out of there. I needed to get my family. ... At one point, there was a lady on the ground, and her head was bloody, and she was a mess. ... At that moment, my brain switched from running away to helping people." As one of the only trained emergency responders on the scene, Gomez knew he was needed though it meant becoming separated from his wife as he carried wounded people to safety. He also contacted dispatch and provided an on-the-scene estimate of number of people injured or killed.
Despite his training, Jesse Gomez admits that it took him months to admit that he needed professional help to deal with the trauma of that night. Something that has made him an outspoken advocate of the need for better mental health care for firefighters and other emergency service workers. His personal account of the shooting remains one of the highlights of the Symposium. And people in the audience were outspoken in their praise for Gomez and the other responders who helped save lives last October. "That was one of the bravest things I've ever heard. ... To go back in and save all those people, it's just an amazing feat," said Lieutenant Jim Campbell, a Staunton firefighter who attended the symposium and heard Gomez' story.
As more mass casualty events take place, the need for mental health treatment services for victims and emergency responders alike will become ever more acute. Making those services available will a critical challenge in the years to come.