Darren DeGraw and PTSD
The illness is debilitating and deadly, even to the best of us
Sometimes post-traumatic-stress disorder can take years to manifest itself. For Darren DeGraw, my Point Pleasant Boro High School classmate from 1985, it took 11.
Darren was 39 when he died in 2006 in Lake Worth, Fla., of possible heart failure, according to The Princeton Packet. But what happened in 1995, shortly after joining the Manville, N.J. police force, may have been what ultimately did him in.
Darren, who had also lived in Barnegat, resigned on June 30, 2005 from the Manville force because of the PTSD he suffered from following a 1995 shooting, his ex-wife, Donna DeGraw, once told The Princeton Packet.
Even as he suffered, he apparently showed the same leadership spirit he had as a high school student, hoping to revive a community that had a wrecked economy and a population that suffered from a debilitating and deadly illness.
But there is only so much a person can do to save themselves, especially when they face the tragedy of depression and trauma that not only affects those around them. Mental illness is often a force bigger than ourselves. It was for my mother, who died of a heart attack in our Point Boro home, in 2003, after suffering from obsessive compuslive disoder for nearly 40 years.
For Darren, it was, apparently, a force that - despite the good life he led - was too big to conquer.
On Feb. 23, 1995, a man confronted Darren and another officer with a shotgun after a routine traffic stop, according to The Packet. The man stopped his vehicle, near Darren's police car, and reportedly asked him, "Why are you following me?"
The man then went back to his truck and took out a 12-gauge shotgun. The Packet reported that Darren and the other officer attempted to drive their police cars away from the man, but Darren's car was shot at from 30 feet away, shattering his windshield.
"He loved being a police officer," Donna, who lived in Barnegat at the time of her ex-husband's death, told The Packet. "And he was very good at his job. There were unfortunate events that led to the post traumatic stress disorder."
I worked in Manville for about five months, in 1990. In the early 1990s, Manville was devastated by the loss of the Johns Manville asbestos plant. By then, the company that once made the town a thriving, blue-color community had moved to Colorado, leaving the town in ruins.
The plant's workers - as well as the barbers who cut their hair, and had contact with the dust that settled on their scalp - were dying of mesothelioma because they were exposed to the lethal product that had made Johns Manville a leading producer of home-insulation materials.
By the time Darren got there, the old plant was still there, soon to be replaced by a Wal-Mart. But the community's depression - economically, and in spirit - lingered, making it difficult for anyone to be there without sharing in the grief.
While Darren was there, however, he did his best to save others. He showed the same selfless, fighting spirit he had in high school, where he was active as a student leader, campaigning for some of the class's highest achievers for leadership positions.
He campaigned hard, often going up to students' desks, pointing at the ballot for class president and saying, "Here - vote for Pete Zazzali!" He was asked to run himself, but Darren always refused. He always saw others as better for the job; he was always better for the background.
Back in the mid-1980s, his greatest accomplishments came when he was a senior, when he had a few run-ins with students who didn't see things his way. Instead of joining the fray, and being a follower to people who would, for instance, knock down the mailboxes and harass people they didn't like, Darren never compromised. Not on principle, at least.
Instead, he moved to the background, stayed out of the fray and graduated in 1985 with his reputation intact.
During his time at the Manville Police Department, Darren was recognized for saving a Manville resident's life using a defibrillator in July 2000, and he received a medal of honor in March 2001 for his bravery during the shooting, according to The Packet.
The Packet also reported that, in October 2000, Darren helped organized and launch the borough's "Fright Night for Manville" with the help of the Manville Recreation Department.
In 2003, he helped lead a Manville High School forensics course, teaching students about crime scene investigations. He also had been active in the annual PBA toy drive, The Packet said.
"He was a very good-hearted person," Donna told The Packet. "He loved his son immensely."