ORLANDO — Omar Delgado was one of the first police officers on the scene of the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando on June 12, 2016. By the time he pushed his way through fleeing survivors to get inside the club, the shooter was holed up in a bathroom.
As Delgado’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, the full magnitude of the carnage came into focus.
“I start scanning the floor. Nothing but bodies. And I noticed a couple people started to move, and that’s when I went into action,” said Delgado, 45, an officer with the suburban Eatonville Police Department. He dragged multiple gunshot victims outside to safety and was hailed as a hero by many for his actions that night.
After rescuing the living, Delgado spent hours inside Pulse with the dead as the standoff with the gunman continued. He said he’s still haunted by what he saw.
“I can recall how everybody was positioned. I can recall the blood. I can see where a lot of the gunshots, the rounds, went into these people,” he said. “There are so many things that trigger the remembrance of that night: an iPhone ringing, hearing that sound for hours and knowing that there’s a loved one trying to call that other person that was inside that club. … It was so bad that there was a phone that started floating away in blood because of the vibration of the phone.”
Ever since that night, Delgado said, he has suffered from nightmares, depression and anxiety and has had major difficulty sleeping. He was diagnosed in August 2016 with post-traumatic stress disorder. After not being able to work for six months, he returned to the force but only at a desk job, the stress of patrol too much to bear. Delgado is continuing to see a therapist.
Now, a year and a half after the nightclub attack, the “hero” officer is about to lose his job, he says, because of his PTSD. Delgado was notified this week that as of December 31, he’ll no longer work for the department where he’s been an officer for nearly a decade.
“I answered the call that night, and because I answered the call, that’s the call that changed my life,” he said. “I gave it my all, and I thought they would’ve been proud of me and taken care of me.”
Though it’s an injury he sustained in the line of duty, PTSD is not covered by worker’s compensation in Florida. It was a shocking development that Delgado believes is tied to his pending 10th anniversary, which would allow him to collect a pension.
He said he was told that a doctor hired by the department to evaluate his health found him “unfit for duty” and that there is no civilian position available for him.
Eatonville Deputy Chief Joseph Jenkins confirmed that Delgado’s last day on the job will be December 31 but would neither confirm nor deny any further details, citing privacy regulations.
“We have embraced Officer Delgado wholeheartedly from the start of this,” he said. “We have surrounded him with love and support and continue to support him … and have done everything within our power for him.
“We’re not going to forget him or let him go. This is not easy for us, either.”
Delgado maintains that there are other Pulse first responders who are afraid to speak up. “Once you come out publicly and say you need help … it kind of makes you look weak. But you know what? I’d rather look weak than deal with it, because dealing with it is horrible.”
Up to 19% of law enforcement officers have symptoms of PTSD, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and almost one in four officers has thoughts of suicide at some point in their lives.
In Florida this week, there was a hearing on a bill making its way through the state Legislature that would give first responders worker’s compensation benefits if they’re unable to work because of PTSD. Family members of first responders who committed suicide testified as part of the proceedings.
“PTSD is a parasite in the brain,” firefighter Josh Vandergrift testified, according to CNN affiliate WFTV. “If it is not taken care of, controlled, it grows, and it eats and eats your brain.”
Delgado says his wife’s salary alone can not support him and their three children. A friend has set up a GoFundMe page to help with expenses.
Despite the mental — and now financial — pain, Delgado said, he wouldn’t change anything about his experience.
“I understand what I’m going through. It’s horrible. It’s my agony right now, running into that club that night, doing what I did, but I would do it over again in a heartbeat … because I was able to save (people).”