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Think seeing traumatic events doesn't faze first responders? Think again.

Stress can be deadly, even to the strongest individuals. That's why they're learning to talk about it.

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Starbucks Upstanders Season 2

"I'm good to go" is a phrase that Marines and first responders like Mike Washington are usually all too familiar with.

It's often the knee-jerk response to the call of duty, even if emotionally they're anything but "good."

"As firefighters, as law enforcement, as military, we try to play that tough image," explains Washington, a firefighter for the Seattle Fire Department. "And we wouldn’t share if we’re having a hard time dealing with something. We internalize it."


Mike Washington, Seattle firefighter. All photos provided by Starbucks.

Washington's been a firefighter for 29 years, and before that, he did four combat tours with the Marine Corps. He always sought a life of action, but what he didn't consider was how other people's traumas might affect him.

"Seeing that level of human tragedy, of a car accident or a shooting or a murder — it takes a toll," Washington says.

But it was losing his son in 2008 that was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Washington and his son.

While at work, he learned his son, Marine Sgt. Michael T. Washington, had been killed in action in Afghanistan. Even though he was completely devastated, he didn't let anyone see him cry, not even at the funeral.

But this time, the strain of emotional suppression was too much to bear.

He began drinking heavily. He got into bar fights and fights with his colleagues. He'd even run through red lights on his motorcycle in hopes that someone would hit him and end his suffering.

Washington at his son's grave.

After several years of witnessing this distressing behavior, his veteran friends knew Washington needed help.

They organized a post-traumatic stress retreat to a place called Save a Warrior — a weeklong detox program designed to help veterans cope with their trauma.

Through counseling, he began to come to terms with the years of trauma he'd experienced and even uncover incidents he'd buried so deeply that he had no memory of them.

"You will see things that you can't un-see," Washington says. "We ignore it, but they're ticking time bombs. And if we don't learn ways to deal with that stress, to work with that stress, eventually it's all going to catch up to you."

Slowly but surely, Washington began to recover — and it didn't take long for him to realize the best way for him to continue healing was to help other first responders.

Washington with first responders in Critical Incident Stress Management.

So he joined the Seattle Fire Department’s Critical Incident Stress Management Team, a national effort to help first responders relieve their emotional stress by talking through it.

The goal of the program is to show first responders from day one that they don't have to keep it all inside. There are much better ways of coping that will keep you healthier and happier on the job.

That's why Washington is as candid as possible when describing his own trauma with those he is trying to help. "I don't want another firefighter to be in this situation where I was, and the way to do that was to just lay myself out and just say 'here it is,'" Washington explains.

And so far, Washington's support has helped several of his colleagues, including firefighter Denny Fenstermaker.

Fenstermaker had been a firefighter for 39 years, but in March 2014, he witnessed destruction and tragedy like he'd never seen before.

First responders on the scene of the Oso, Washington, mudslide.

Oso, Washington, a town near where Fenstermaker was fire chief, was devastated by a mudslide, so he led in a crew to rescue survivors. In the process, Fenstermaker wound up uncovering bodies of many people he knew, and the experience took a toll on him — to the point where he felt like he was losing his ability to lead.

Thankfully, Seattle’s Critical Incident Stress Management Team came on the scene, and Fenstermaker met Washington. They connected right away, and Fenstermaker started opening up to him.

"This is a guy that understands exactly where I'm at because he's already been there," Fenstermaker explains.

Washington talks to a veteran with two other firefighters.

Washington feels like he's a better person and firefighter because he's no longer keeping his traumas inside. His all around courage is helping so many others find their way again.

Trauma can affect anyone, no matter how strong they are. But talking about it is the first and most important step back from the edge.

Learn more about Washington's story here:

Upstanders: The Firefighters’ Rescue

This program is making mental health a priority for firefighters.

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