From Officer to HomelessnessOver the course of eighteen years in law enforcement, Chief Jason Fitzwater, co-owner with Sheriff Michael Neal of N & F Training Solutions, went through hell and back as a result of what he now knows is PTSD. In 2001, he started as an officer in west-central Florida with great intent to protect and serve, but within a few years, he was leading a double life – alcoholic partier by night, functioning officer by day. The things he witnessed in that large metropolitan area took their toll as he tried to bury the trauma in booze. Deep down he knew he was living a fast life, neglecting his wife and baby daughter, and taking advantage of his position … then it spiraled out of control one drunken night. In his unmarked work-issued vehicle, he hit a concrete median and was arrested for a DUI with property damage. The career he loved and the life he knew ended when he was forced to resign in October 2007. Within a short time, his eroding marriage ended in divorce, he lost his home and the privilege of spending time with his little girl, and ended up sleeping in the car his mom gave him. He was working as a dispatcher, dealing with court proceedings, and drinking so heavily, he went through a case of beer per day plus hard liquor. With help from family, he eventually got an apartment, but he slept on a towel on the floor and lived with the bare minimum to get by. All his money was spent on booze, child support, and legal defense. According to Chief Fitzwater, “you always think, ‘it won’t happen here and it won’t happen to me.’ Until it does.”
A Fateful Christmas NightThroughout all the terrible job-related horrors, his failings, and hitting rock bottom, he never lost his hope and faith in God that things would get better, until Christmas night, 2008. His ex-wife decided he could have his daughter for the night. In excitement, Chief Fitzwater fixed up the apartment and bought her presents, only to learn his ex-wife changed her mind at the last minute and said he could only see her at her house for 15 minutes. He was crushed. Right then, he lost all hope and faith and decided to kill himself. He spent his allotted 15 minutes with his baby girl and headed for the Skyway Bridge over Tampa Bay to jump. He knew he didn’t want to shoot himself due to the suffering it would cause his fellow officers and friends, and once he jumped, he would probably never be found. Very few people survived jumping from that bridge, it would be his end too. On the way to the bridge, he was about to run a yellow-to-red light and saw an officer nearby, so he locked up the brakes to stop. Shortly after, he noticed one of his favorite bars with its inviting flickering sign and Christmas lights and stopped in to numb the pain of what he was about to do. He asked his friend and bartender for a whole bottle of whiskey and started slamming. When he was sufficiently drunk, out of the blue (or maybe not), a cop he knew walked in and she and the bartender got him to her place for safety. He doesn’t remember leaving the bar, but he knows hitting the yellow light, going into the bar, and her coming in was a series of fateful events that saved his life. This was divine intervention and a turning point to get clean and change his life. He was on a new trajectory with renewed hope and planned to take it one day at a time, even with his looming court hearing.
“Go Make a Difference”A few months after Christmas in 2008, he finally had his police board hearing to determine his future. He watched the first ten offenders go in front of the judge, get the book thrown at them, and lose their licenses; he was next. By some miracle, he was sentenced to six months of probation and had to take several classes, but most importantly – he would keep his license. He walked out of there in total disbelief as the Commissioner came up to him and said someone had vouched for him and to give him a chance. To Chief Fitzwater, he said, “Do me a favor, go make a difference.” And that request has been his inspiration ever since. Several years later, doing better but still struggling to find his purpose, he realized he wanted a future in law enforcement, which was never going to happen again in Florida, so he moved back to his hometown in rural Missouri. In 2012, he began working as a police officer at the Fredericktown Police Department in Southeast Missouri. That same year, a recent academy graduate named Chris was hired by their department as a part-time officer. Seven weeks into the job, he was shot and killed. Chaos broke out, all tactical teams were called in to find the killer, and Chief Fitzwater realized there was just not enough training for a situation like this. Beyond the difference he was already making in his job, his chance to make a profound difference presented itself.
Inspiration from Ambushed OfficersLate in 2012, in honor of Chris, he founded the annual nonprofit Southeast Missouri SWAT Challenge to train officers and empower them. Within five years, the several-day event was up to 15 teams from around the nation, hosted renowned speakers like Ron McCarthy, and toured nationally. Then, in 2016, when cops started getting ambushed in their cars, first in Dallas, then in Baton Rouge, he knew his teaching and training skills could be put to further use. He left the police department and in seven weeks wrote the curriculum for the Critical Mindset for Counter Ambush class, and began officer training sessions. He vowed to keep his training affordable, having experience with the tight budgets of officers and law enforcement departments. His main goal was not about making money – it was then and is now about saving lives through education and being a resource for other officers. Soon, word spread about the classes and highly decorated, 2011 International Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Sheriff Mike Neal of Monroe County, Arkansas, took notice. He hired Chief Fitzwater to host a class for his own law enforcement team and from then on, the duo has partnered to train law enforcement nationwide.
Practical Tactical Training & ScheduleN & F Training teaches officers and first responders throughout North America practical counter-ambush training that takes place over 3 days and includes Tactical PTSD: The Silent Sniper – real-life PTSD debriefs. The PTSD classes have been so effective, 1300 first responders applied for just 12 spots at the recent Hero911® conference in Indiana. “None of our training is theoretical ‘what-if’s’ and statistical information. It is all first-hand, real-life, active training, stories, and the knowledge we’ve gained over the years from horrific circumstances. We are the only ones who know what it’s like to be in these distinctly unthinkable situations while saving lives, come out on the other side, and still have to function in this world.” – Chief Fitzwater Training scenarios and classes, given by Sheriff Mike Neal, Chief Jason Fitzwater, and guest speakers cover: engaging from the car in an ambush while operating a patrol vehicle, traffic stop ambushes, malfunction drills during an ambush gunfight; officer down during an ambush, fighting your way out of your vehicle, and engaging multiple targets. N & F Training Solutions also hosts on-premises training and waives the entry fee for law enforcement agencies. Classes and training count toward continuing education. Upcoming 2019 Events (please go to the website for more detailed information and to sign up):
- October 8-10, Jasper Indiana, SILETC, Huntingburg Police Department
- October 23-25, DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office, DeKalb, Georgia
- November 3-5, Tennessee Narcotic Officers Conference, Nashville, Tennessee
- November, International SWAT Round-Up, Orlando, Florida