Firefighters’ fight against PTSD: Before death, firefighter makes plea to others

In tonight's cover story we delve deeper into the firefighter-PTSD connection. Statistically, the numbers are shocking, more than double the number of suicides compared to in-the-line-of-duty deaths. But for most, the realization of the need for help comes too late. We have exclusive details on one firefighter who gave a final call to action before he died -- begging the world not to let another firefighter fall.

Leslie Dangerfield, David’s wife: “This is Station 2 coming up. This was his station for at least 12 years. So a lot of nights fire fighters’ families come and they eat dinner with the guys or stop in. When you have kids it’s hard, so you stop in and hang out for a while. You become one big family with all of these guys. A lot of hours out here. In some respects it was the first home because it impacted the real home.”

Leslie Dangerfield: “I asked him out, so Mr Strong Fire Fighter was too afraid to ask me out, but I asked him out. He was funny. He was funny and confident. He made everybody laugh.”

When Leslie and David Dangerfield married in 2002, they blended their young families and soon welcomed a baby boy … Bryce. It was a busy and full life in Vero Beach on Florida’s east coast. Leslie worked as a teacher and David as a career fire fighter paramedic for Indian River County.

Leslie Dangerfield: “He could keep somebody who was in absolute shock or pain laughing. Like he could take their mind away from it so he could treat them and take care of them and get them what they needed. He just had a gift of taking care of others. He put this Superman cape on outside in the world, but when he came home he was a different person.”

Kevin Slade: “We’ve run a lot of calls on the beach together.”

For much of their careers, Kevin Slade and David were part of Station 2’s dive team -- a special rescue and recovery unit that responds to water emergencies.

Kevin Slade: “He loved it. If there was a bad call Dave wanted to be on it. He was never the guy just trying to get through a career. He wanted to be on the calls. The flipside of that is shocking when you realize how much it was weighing on him.”

Leslie Dangerfield: “A few years ago there was a shark attack. A boy went in the water. They found his bathing suit and portions of his body. It’s haunting. There are nightmares.”

Kevin Slade: “There’s no doubt about it, calls with kids … those are tough.”

LESLIE: there was one in particular that haunted him that he talked about all the time. One of these homes right here on the water, a child fell off and drowned. And David had to recover the body and console a family, and that was one of the most haunting things for him.”

She can’t pinpoint a specific moment, but about four years ago Leslie began to sense a change in David.

Leslie Dangerfield: “He was not violent or aggressive towards me just completely irrational. Inability to sleep. Inability to take care of his own health needs because he felt he was invincible. One night he was just crying and sobbing, and he said, ‘What do you know about depression? What do you know about anxiety?’ He said, ‘There’s something wrong with me. I don’t know what it is.’ And we started looking it up, the symptoms. And I said, ‘You have PTSD. He’s like, ‘No that’s for veterans, the military.’ I said, ‘David this is you!’”

David did seek help -- he went to counseling and took medicine. Things were better … for a while.

Leslie Dangerfield: “I knew every night when I got home from my car ride, driving home, who is going to be there when I get home? Which David? The David I fell in love with? The romantic guy? The funny guy? The thoughtful guy? Or am I getting the PTSD David?”

Earlier this year Leslie and David separated.

Leslie Dangerfield: “It was his weekend with Bryce. He called me and he was crying. He said, ‘I can’t do it anymore.’ I said, ‘You can’t do this to the boys, you can’t leave them, please don’t leave them.’ He told me he loved me. He told me I was a good mother, and he hung up the phone.”

On the night of October 15, David drove for miles along an isolated stretch of highway … then walked into the brush and ended his life. Moments before he posted a message on Facebook:

“PTSD for Firefighters is real. If your love one is experiencing signs get them help quickly. 27 years of deaths and babies dying in your hands is a memory that you will never get rid of. It haunted me daily until now. My love to my crews. Be safe, take care. I love you all.”

Leslie Dangerfield: “He wanted the world to know. When he left, he left in his class A uniform, which is your formal attire. Bryce asked, ‘Why you all dressed up dad?’ He said, ‘I’ll be back soon. Don’t worry about it.’ And then Bryce realized David had his wallet on the counter. He ran it out to the truck, ‘Daddy, you left your wallet.’ ‘I don’t need it. See you in a little bit, buddy.’ That was my son’s last memory of him, watching him go.”

The Superman cape – a persona David wore so proudly – now rests on a simple wooden cross on the side of the road.

Leslie Dangerfield: “I always told David, ‘You are a leader, so if you are brave enough and start getting the word out and digging around, you could lead these guys to the help they need. He didn’t achieve it in his life, but he’s achieving it in his death.”

Related Coverage: Firefighters’ fight against PTSD: How losing a loved one has sparked a call to action