In the line of fire: Deputy's path from shooting to healing and finding help

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) - A classroom at the Charleston County Sheriff's Office seats about 30 people, but on a brisk February day there are only two men - a teacher and a student.

One of the men, Deputy Michael Ackerman, is teaching the art of detail and how to translate a scene in the real world to the black and white of paper and pen.

With a laptop and a TV screen, Ackerman and his pupil discuss each line of the scenario. They talk word choice, comma placement, and the fine details an untrained eye might miss: What seems out of place? Who appears injured? Where are the people involved?

But it's those very details that Ackerman now fights to erase every day.

"The person I was on Sept. 7 and the person I am now are two completely different people," Ackerman said.

See, five months ago Ackerman and his partner, Dep. Joe Matuskovic, were involved in a shooting that left Ackerman seriously wounded and Matuskovic dead.

Those details are still crystal clear in his mind.

"I'm still trying to figure it out. The fact that I'm still here being able to speak to you, for no other words, it's a miracle. I shouldn't be here," he said. "It started out as any other day."

Ackerman, Matuskovic, and the rest of their team were just moving back to the night shift. He says the 12-hour shift started off on a sweet note.

"We had a kind of a little ritual when we came back on the night shift where we would do an Oreo cookie party," said Ackerman. "Everybody would bring in different flavors of Oreos. I didn't realize there were so many."

It was a sweet job made sweeter. They were celebrating Matuskovic that night because he had served the most warrants in the previous month.

"We were working patrol squad; it's called the B squad," said Ackerman as he recalled Sept. 8, 2014. "We're a very tight-knit unit. We all got along very well. We complimented one another, our strengths and weaknesses."

But that spirit of celebration only ran a short course, and Ackerman was left with a repetitive horror that won't stop playing.

"It started out as any other day," said Ackerman. "I began answering calls for service and this was just another call for service."

That night, Charleston County deputies got a call about a disturbance at a West Ashley apartment complex.

"I remember arriving on scene. I remember what I saw when I arrived on scene. I remember once everything started happening," said Ackerman.

Ackerman says deputies were already on scene when he arrived. He says he parked behind another deputy's vehicle and walked toward Michael Oswald's door without a second guess.

Within two minutes, Ackerman says Oswald opened fire through the apartment door with an AK-47.

"I can still see the bullet holes that were coming out of the wall, that were coming at me," he said.

Within seconds, Matuskovic was gone, killed in the line of duty. He had been gunned down by a man who had barricaded himself inside his home with a small arsenal.

Ackerman was shot in the leg but says he kept firing until he couldn't stand any longer.

"It's very sad to say it," Ackerman said. "He was my partner; he was a friend; he was a father; he was a son - he was a person. And he was a good person. He loved what he did. He, more than anything, just like all of us in this profession, we don't do it because it's a job, it truly is a calling."

Ackerman watched Matuskovic's life end in a volley of gunfire. It's created an internal chaos that at times pours forth.

"I have moments where I'll just start crying for no reason. I've had a few panic attacks," he said.

It's an emotional roller coaster that sent Ackerman spiraling out of control.

"I haven't been in control. I haven't been in control of how I feel about the incident, how I feel about what I've been going through and that's been probably one of the toughest things for me to understand," the deputy said.

He's now forced to cope in the classroom, teaching himself a new normal. Instead of the varied scenery of Charleston County and interacting with the people he's sworn to serve and protect, Ackerman spends many of his days in the classroom.

Posters and pin-boards cover the white walls. Fluorescent bulbs shine light on the task at hand. Sometimes, the smell of freshly brewed coffee floats across the room.

And there's Deputy Ackerman at the head of the class, continuing to help his department improve and adapt.

"I've gained a greater resolve in what I do," he said.

"I haven't put on a bulletproof vest since then. I haven't put on that same uniform since then. That will be something that will be probably very emotional for me when I do that."

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State's worker's comp law doesn't cover PTSD

Some quizzes are tougher than others. Each day is a reminder of how close he came to death and who would be left to pick up the pieces if he had.

He deals with issues of mortality more now than ever before.

"Processing and understanding that I almost left my daughter without a father has been the most difficult for me," Ackerman said.

But the journey from that terrible day last September until now is a test he needs so badly to ace.

"I was asked by many people if I was going to give it up and I can unequivocally say, absolutely not," Ackerman said.

His life was spared. And now, if it didn't have laser-focused purpose before, it definitely does now. Ackerman's service has a new mission and a new assignment that's taking him to the chambers of the Statehouse.

On desk duty since September, Ackerman's routine may seem simple but he's the first to say each day is far from easy. Each day he wears the weight of his partner shot and killed just feet from him.

"What I've been trying to work through is trying to figure out what that new normal is for me, trying to not only process the incident itself but process how it's affected me," he said.

It's been 155 days since the shooting at a West Ashley apartment complex. Ackerman is still crippled in his recovery.

"I recognized I needed something more specific. I needed to speak to somebody who understood more directly, the challenges that we face in law enforcement," he said.

Ackerman says it's a painful process that many misconceive officers are trained to handle.

"This is something that should be able to roll right off of you but understand that well it's not. And it is affecting me and it is having a significant impact on who I am," said Ackerman.

So he went in search of a specialized psychiatrist, someone who could help him address the PTSD. Ackerman says an attorney recommended Dr. Gregg Dwyer, medical officer for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and forensic psychiatrist at the Medical University of South Carolina.

"I let my worker's comp case manager know a couple weeks in advance of the appointment date, gave her all of his information and she said, 'No problem. I'll submit it up,'" said Ackerman.

One day before his appointment with Dr. Dwyer, Ackerman says his case manager told him he needed to contact a third party administrator, saying she could no longer help him. Ackerman says he called the administrator immediately and was shocked to hear what she had to say.

"At that time she told me they were not going to cover my psychiatric visits with Dr. Dwyer," said Ackerman.

Instead of help, he found an ages-old loophole in South Carolina's workman's compensation laws.

"They have refused to pay Dr. Dwyer and his office. I've had to retain an attorney now to represent me just to have worker's comp pay for the treatments for this incident," Ackerman said.

Standing in the shadow of a gunman is where Ackerman learned PTSD and mental illness are not compensable injuries for first responders.

Based on the law as it's written now, mental injuries and illnesses that are not considered "extraordinary and unusual" to the normal conditions of his job are not covered.

In 2012, the case of a Spartanburg deputy who used deadly force after a domestic disturbance questioned the interpretation of "extraordinary and unusual."

The South Carolina State Supreme Court determined deadly force was common for first responders and therefore psychiatric counseling should not be covered under worker's comp.

"What the court seemed to say was when it comes to law enforcement that they are trained to, and almost expected to be involved in circumstances like a shooting or like a scenario where they have to use deadly force, and as a result it was not extraordinary. It was not unusual," said Sen. Paul Thurmond.

As Ackerman tries to take a healing step forward, the state's laws are keeping his feet stuck in place. It makes him angry, Ackerman says.

He's a single parent sharing custody of his daughter.

Because of his desk duty right now, he's not eligible for overtime.

"I'm on a very fixed income now," he said. "Now they are telling me I have to now fight worker's comp to get them just to pay for me to get the services I need so I can come back to full duty. I find that appalling."

Now, Ackerman and Thurmond are working together to change the law.

It started with a friend of Ackerman's who told Thurmond all about the struggle with worker's comp and the problems he's having getting treatment for PTSD.

"The language that I'm hoping to address is to say that significant events, these very tragic events are unusual or should not be looked at in such a way that the officer is prohibited from being able to recover if he develops Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," said Thurmond.

Ackerman has now vowed to be the face of transformation. He plans to publicly and honestly share his story until no first responder has to endure the same battle.

With Ackerman on the floor of the South Carolina Senate, the bill quickly gained widespread support. There were more than a dozen co-sponsors by the end of the day, Thurmond said.

Thurmond adds he's pushing his fellow lawmakers to get the bill in subcommittee quickly to give it a chance to move through the process and hopefully end up on the governor's desk.

It's not an easy path, but Ackerman has proved he's willing to fight. Much like his care and rehabilitation, it's a process he's vowed to see through.

"At least I would know that the pain I've gone through both physically and emotionally, the pain that the Matuskovic family has gone through will not be in vain," he said.

"We can't bring Joe back. We can't keep me from getting injured. We can't change anything that occurred that day. But, being able to help move forward - this is my opportunity to take a tragic event and turn it into something positive."

His one-man battle doubled when Thurmond joined the fight, and already they're nearly two dozen strong. It's not just for him, but for the officers he now trains.

Ackerman hopes his courage will influence other officers to seek psychiatric help when needed.

"We're not very comfortable a lot of times asking for help and I'm hoping that speaking openly about my struggles and everything will encourage other first responders who are dealing with similar issues, to come forward, to get help and to not be afraid to talk about it," said Ackerman.

"We can admit that we are human, and I think it's time we do that."

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The Aftermath: Therapy may be only course for healing after traumatic experience

A "shots fired" call can be an officer's worst nightmare. Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon got a similar call last September while overseas in Israel. One of his deputies had been killed and another injured.

"One of the things about an incident like this," said Cannon. "It's sort of like the ripples that are caused by tossing a stone in the water. Over time, more and more people are affected by it and they in turn are traumatized."

Response was his first order of business once he was back on American soil. Investigators determined details about the suspect, Michael Oswald, and the weapon he used to kill Matuskovic and seriously wound Ackerman.

"We did not realize until much later that the individual had been killed by the officers and their return fire," said Cannon. "So you can't emotionally make plans on how you are going to deal with situations like that."

In the days following the shooting, law enforcement agencies and first responders huddled around the Charleston County Sheriff's deputies in a rally of support.

"Fortunately, we have the kind of relationship with area departments like City of Charleston and the City of North Charleston -- there is an incident like that we will offer to have police officers ride with officers of the effected department," said Cannon. "We know they are going to be thinking about what's happened to their colleague and that sort of stuff. And it's helpful to have someone who is not directly impacted by it."

Soon after, Cannon would realize a select few of his deputies would need a specialized help his department couldn't provide.

"We and the military certainly have come to recognize to a greater extent the effect that being in severely traumatic situations can have on people when they are involved," said Cannon. "To find out that counseling is not a part of the benefits and services that are provided to police officers is unconscionable."

Under South Carolina's workers' compensation law, psychiatric care and counseling for stress disorders developed on the job are not compensable injuries for first responders, which includes fire, EMS, and law enforcement.

The mandate leaves first responders who experience fatal and/or traumatic circumstances to pay for their own psychiatric recovery.

According to a 2009 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, twice as many law enforcement officers die every year from suicide than traffic accidents and assaults. The average law enforcement officer who dies by suicide is male, 38.7 years old, has 12.2 years of experience, and is usually below the sergeant rank.

That same study also reports for every suicide that is successfully performed, 25 more are attempted.

"You can't completely train or prepare somebody to have no response," said Dr. Gregg Dwyer, an associate professor and director of Community and Public Safety Psychiatry Division for the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at MUSC. "You're still talking about human beings here."

Dr. Dwyer says if an officer is suffering from a stress disorder, professional psychiatric care could be their only saving grace.

"Sometimes you need to go to a professional who actually works on those kinds of issues," said Dr. Dwyer. "But, when that's the case and you need that level of help, that's the only solution for it."

Research alone shows just how significantly psychiatric care benefits could impact the health of law enforcement officers. If the workers' comp law is changed, South Carolina would be one of just a few that cover mental illness.

"It doesn't really seem to make sense as to why it wouldn't be available," said Dr. Dwyer.

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