When Steve Brown burst into tears on the way to his brother's wedding, no-one knew what was wrong, or how to console him.
Steve didn't know either.
This wasn't common behaviour for a cop with 17 years' experience out in the field, chasing crooks and dealing with life and death situations on any given day.
In hindsight it was the pile-up of little things - or not so little - that caused the senior constable's meltdown on that special family day.
And it changed his life forever.
"At the time you just run on adrenalin and carry on but looking back there were so many things," the former Nowra man said.
"I grew up one of five kids, so I was used to contact and a bit of biff, but when you actually use a baton to break a guy's kneecap, that's not a good feeling," he said.
"This guy was going for my gun, I had to fight for my life ... the other guy in the truck with me just sat there scared shitless.
"You have to defend yourself, it's you or them. But then you've got to go through court, explain yourself and you're worried you're going to get into trouble. It's a bloody awful feeling from start to finish."
Mr Brown was working in a NSW country region when he succumbed to the stresses of the job and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
He'd worked in some heavy-duty Sydney police stations where he'd seen too many dead bodies, dealt with too much gang violence and chased too many drug dealers.
He's still kept awake at night by the memory of confronting an armed offender who'd just shot an innocent bystander in the head.
Mr Brown thought life as a country cop might ease the tension and anxiety that was slowly building inside of him.
But highway patrol brought the father of two its own grief.
In a small town of 3000 people, chances are high that the next mangled body in a car wreck could be someone you know.
"I had three in six months, people I knew that I had to see on their death beds. These are some savage prangs, it just all builds up and looking back, I see a lot of reasons why I got like this."
Mr Brown went to his GP in May 2012 when "the adrenalin wouldn't shut down" and stopped him from sleeping. He was relieved to hear a psychologist was on the way, but was soon let down when he realised the appointment was more about defining the terms of any potential compensation claim than his emotional well-being.
"It wasn't about me, it wasn't about my welfare. That was really shit."
For the next few months, Mr Brown worked restricted hours and was "up and down" until finally one day "it just all got to me and I cried my eyes out".
He was discharged from the NSW Police on June 20, 2013.
"It wasn't a relief, it was shit," he recalls.
"Half your life is spent slogging it out for the good of humanity and then you're just out on your own.
"I get 75 per cent of what I was on for five years and then I get nothing.
"It used to be until you retired but then the politicians changed all that.
"It's a bit different to the hefty pensions they receive."
During his time on sick leave, Mr Brown found a second job, approved by the police service, to avoid "sitting home moody, thinking about things".
"You have to keep busy, get out and do things or you could end up topping yourself," he said.
While his money will run out in a few years, his life has been changed for ever.
"You still wake up with bad dreams, you think about things you've done, you doubt yourself. I drink too much, I can't stop smoking. I get angry too much, that's not like me."
Mr Brown said PTSD has robbed him of more than his police career.
"With my condition, I have memory loss, I've forgotten a lot of the bad stuff but the good stuff is gone," he said.
"When I got out, I went for a job as a trainee engineer but my brain won't function like it used to.
"I've had to go for a job that requires less training and less qualifications. The works comp ethos is get people back to where they were before the PTSD but that's not going to happen. I have a brain trauma and there's scar tissue from that.
"It's not going to work any more. I'm not able to make the money I could make before or have the lifestyle I could have before all this."
With police officers five times more likely to die by their own hands than in the course of duty, there are renewed calls for a parliamentary inquiry into how the NSW Police Force and insurers deal with serving and former officers who have suffered psychological injuries.
Greens MP David Shoebridge said the NSW Police Force treated its officers like disposable assets and ‘‘once injured they are thrown on the scrap heap’’.
He said delays in deciding compensation cases, along with ‘‘aggressive use of surveillance, can seriously aggravate an officer’s psychological injury’’.
Mr Shoebridge, who hosted a forum this week where officers from across the state shared their stories, said the government had failed to address the problem, leaving hundreds of injured police fighting long and lonely battles against insurers MetLife.
Police Minister Stuart Ayres said he was disappointed former officers were experiencing stress as a result of surveillance techniques used by MetLife.
“The NSW Police Force has advised me it has met with MetLife and the First State Superannuation Trustee Corporation to address the delay in assessing claims.”
A MetLife spokeswoman said post-traumatic stress disorder was a serious and complex issue and it was working closely with all parties to resolve outstanding claims. MetLife had paid more than $156million in benefits to former NSW police officers, she said.
Slater and Gordon lawyer John Cox said it was encouraging to see greater awareness about the issue.
‘‘As a police compensation lawyer, I am working with many former officers who have developed post-traumatic stress disorder and, sadly, are not recovering as a result of insurance company Metlife failing to handle their compensation claims in an appropriate and timely way.
‘‘The NSW government needs to immediately establish an independent panel to resolve the approximately 240 to 260 total permanent disability outstanding claims and also implement robust procedures to prevent mismanagement and gross delays of future claims,’’ Mr Cox said.
Something had to be done to ensure police officers who once put their lives on the line to protect the community obtained the compensation to which they were entitled, he said.
- CYD MARDON
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