Force Science National Advisory Board member and award-winning law enforcement author Chuck Remsberg has just released a ground-breaking new officer-survival book, Blood Lessons: What Cops Learn From Life-Or-Death Encounters, which offers major training opportunities regarding traumatic use-of-force confrontations.
Published by Calibre Press, a subsidiary of PoliceOne, for whom Remsberg serves as a columnist and senior correspondent, the project was completed after more than a year of intense research and unique personal interviews with officers who unexpectedly found themselves caught in life-threatening and life-changing street confrontations.
In gripping accounts, Remsberg details what these officers experienced and then highlights what they believe other LEOs can learn from their ordeals that will help them survive ultimate challenges of their own.
“As you move through each vivid recreation, you’re compelled to ask yourself what you would have done each step of the way as the event unfolds, and then to consider how the lessons learned apply to your own patrol practices,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center. “For trainers, Blood Lessons is a gold mine for creating realistic survival scenarios, for devising roll call teaching moments, for producing tactical brainstorming sessions, and for discussing the potential impact of stress and trauma and the techniques for coping successfully.”
This most recent release follows in the footsteps of Remsberg’s bestselling trilogy of textbooks, Street Survival, The Tactical Edge, and Tactics for Criminal Patrol. As with these books, a key characteristic of Blood Lessons is its extraordinary depth of content. “Some of the information revealed in this book wasn’t even known by the officers’ departments or even their spouses,” said Remsberg.
“This is not a package of hastily summarized war stories,” said Lewinski. “It’s a painstakingly compiled collection of thoroughly detailed incidents that pushed officers to the brink, and sometimes over it. Of all the law enforcement writers I know, only Chuck could delve as deeply as he does into these officers’ lives and with the skill of a surgeon, masterfully dissect their experiences to reveal a wealth of crucial survival lessons that only he knows how to find.”
Chuck has dedicated his life to law enforcement survival efforts, and officers know that,” Lewinski continued. “As a result, they trust him. They know that the goal of his project is to tell their stories accurately and completely and to do so without judging them. Ultimately, they know that the purpose of this book is to save lives through the difficult lessons they learned as a result of their experiences. For an officer, that’s priceless. If another officer can be helped by their hardship, it makes the pain of revisiting a traumatic event worth it.”
In all, 24 incidents are explored in Blood Lessons. Among them is the experience of a Chicago officer who found herself in a brutal fight with a gang member at the end of a foot pursuit.
“She was a tough and scrappy cop,” Remsberg recalled, “but the offender significantly outsized her. After an extended struggle he had her pinned to the ground in a vacant lot, mercilessly beating her face and trying to yank her pistol from its holster.”
The officer, severely injured, exhausted, and nearly unconscious, was about to give up, convinced she was going to die there in the weeds. “Then, very distinctly, in her head, she heard the voices of her three young children,” said Remsberg. “They were calling to her, motivating her not to give in, to keep fighting for so much that she had to live for. In those voices, she found a reservoir of strength she didn’t know she had. She was able to keep going and prevent her opponent from winning, until a backup officer was able to run into that lot and shoot her attacker dead.”
Another incident involves a deputy sheriff on a vehicle stop along a rural road in California. “He was questioning the driver, the son of a minister, about the dope that had been found in his SUV,” Remsberg told FS News. “Suddenly that suspect whipped a revolver out of nowhere and jammed the barrel up under the edge of the deputy’s ballistic vest leaving him perilously vulnerable.”
At the same moment, the suspect’s girlfriend released a huge pitbull that charged the deputy, snarling and snapping his jaws, clearly intent on tearing him apart. “With survival odds squarely against him, this officer was able to navigate a horrific trip through hell and come through it alive and willing to share his experience to help other officers,” said Remsberg.
Also included is the story of an officer in Washington, DC, who was standing on a sidewalk with his partner one night, trying to communicate with a citizen who was deaf. “As these officers struggled to get through to this individual, they were ambushed with gunfire from a passing car. The partner fell dead,” Remsberg recalled.
“In the days that followed, the surviving officer was wracked with guilt, feeling that there must have been something he could have done to save his partner’s life. After months of depression and mental torture, he went out to the cemetery, knelt by his partner’s grave and stuck his gun in his mouth. At the very last moment, he decided not to pull the trigger.”
In Blood Lessons this officer tells you, in his own words, why.
In each chapter, Remsberg itemizes the important lessons the officers feel they learned from their experiences that would help other officers. “Some of these lessons are very practical and tactical, some are philosophical, and some are what you might consider spiritual,” he said. “I call them all ‘blood lessons’ because they were bought with the physical and emotional blood of the officers involved.”
“One of the things that makes Blood Lessons so unique is the candor with which these officers share the psychological dimensions of their traumatic experiences,” Lewinski observed. “Often when people speak with officers about an event like this, they hear about the physical details of the incident–what the suspect did, how the officer responded tactically, what ended up happening legally–but the emotional and psychological realm goes untouched. Not so in this book. With impressive honesty, the officers in Blood Lessons talk not only about what they did, but how they feltduring and after their encounters.
“Hopefully the chance to talk about those feelings proved cathartic and healing for them. Undoubtedly, their willingness to do this gives other officers the chance to understand and prepare for these same kinds of emotional responses should they, heaven forbid, also end up experiencing a traumatic event,” Lewinski continued. “It’s certainly possible that some officers who read Blood Lessons may experience a critical incident and they will think back to the stories in the book and realize, ‘What I’m feeling is normal. I’m not alone. Another officer has experienced these same feelings…I remember reading about it.’ There’s potentially life-saving value in that.”
“This was not a easy project for these officers to cooperate with,” says Remsberg. “Several of them broke down during our conversations. At least one officer had to go back into therapy to deal with the memories that were dredged up. One officer was just fine while she was telling me about what happened to her, but then I asked her to send me some crime scene photos to include in her chapter, and she wasn’t able to do it. Just touching those images was too painful.”
Although not a happy book, in the traditional sense, Blood Lessons is, oddly enough, a “feel-good” book. “It is a profound testament to the resiliency of the human spirit and to the unique, remarkable bond that’s shared by law enforcement personnel,” said Remsberg.
As an example, Remsberg shared a portion of one chapter…the last in the book. “It had its beginning one quiet Sunday morning,” he said. “Tpr. Ken Gager of the Nevada Highway Patrol stopped a car because something was wrong with its license plate. Initially, he intended only to issue a warning, because the driver had his 8-year-old daughter in the car and whenever kids were involved, Ken Gager was a soft touch.
“But this guy copped a major attitude, one thing led to another and he ended up getting arrested.
“Time passed and Ken thought this incident was well behind him. He didn’t realize that the man he stopped had told friends for years that someday he wanted to kill a cop, just for the fun of it.
“Unbeknownst to Ken, the offender started stalking him. He followed him home from work and found out where he lived. He found out where his wife worked and tailed her to and from her job. He built a secret hideout near their property where he could spy on them through binoculars and study their habits. He rummaged through their trash and compiled a file of their personal information, including Ken’s date of birth.
Then shortly before Ken’s next birthday, the offender told his wife, ‘I’m gonna send that cop a present he’ll never forget.’”
From the book:
On September 8, two days before his 42nd birthday, Ken was off duty in the kitchen of his new house, cooling down after a late-afternoon run. Arriving home from work, his wife, Deanna, had brought in the day’s mail – some letters and a cardboard box, thickly taped, plastered with stamps, and with a typewritten label addressed to Ken. The return address looked like it had been scraped away in transit.
Gager was more interested initially in a birthday letter from their son, who was serving in the Air Force. “I’d been sad lately because our three children, all grown, had moved out during the last year. I was so happy to get the letter.” His son mentioned he was sending a pair of boots as a gift. Ken and Deanna figured that was the package she’d set on the kitchen island.
Deanna tried first to open it with her fingers but she couldn’t pry away the tape, so she left the job for her husband. She opened the refrigerator door and bent over to get some fixings for a dinner salad. Gager grabbed a steak knife and sliced through the heavy tape.
Six sticks of dynamite packed tight in a bristling cocoon of fence-post staples, nails, screws, and other shrapnel exploded with the release of a pressure switch.
“It was an ungodly blast of heat. Everything turned black,” Gager says. “The noise was like a freight train through my head. I felt myself shoot airborne. I don’t remember coming down. I was knocked out for a moment.”
The explosion ripped a hole in the kitchen roof, shook loose every piece of drywall in the house, shattered windows, ruptured pipes and sent water gushing, and clogged the air with smoke and debris. It was heard five miles away.
To describe Gager’s injuries as devastating understates them. The steak knife had been hurled back into his right forearm. His left hand was blown off above the wrist. His left eyeball dangled down against the bloody mess that used to be his face. Eyelids gone. Lips gone. Eardrums burst. His midsection was ripped open, innards exposed. His flesh was slashed and gouged by jagged missiles of shrapnel. His clothes had been torn away, and his underwear was on fire. He was expelling blood and body fluids like a squeezed sponge, and he was gasping to recapture the air that had been knocked out of him.
Deanna was hurt, too, from the concussion and shards of shrapnel, but her injuries were less critical because she’d been bent into the refrigerator. Moving in a zombie daze, she called 911, patted out the fire, and knelt by Gager, urging him to “hang on.”
“I could feel air where I wasn’t supposed to feel air, so I knew the trauma was severe,” Gager recalls. The pain was beyond anything he could have imagined. “I’m not gonna make it,” he mumbled to Deanna. “I can’t stand it. Get my gun and finish me off.” He muttered that he loved her and asked her to tell their kids and his parents that he loved them, too.
Their 25th wedding anniversary was coming up in December. “Look,” Deanna said steadily, “you promised me we’d renew our vows on our anniversary. I’m going to hold you to that. Now hang on!”
A month later, after several surgeries, Gager awoke from an induced coma. Vision in his remaining eye was blurred, but he could make out some of the brass from his agency standing by his hospital bed. Groggily he asked, “Did I crash my patrol car? Am I in trouble?”
The Patrol’s protective pampering of its vehicles was legendary, and everyone laughed. There was little more to laugh about for a long time.
Gager was four months in the hospital, marginally functional at home for months more. Over the next two years, he would undergo 21 surgeries. The explosion had left him “horribly disfigured.” His left eye was gone, his right legally blind. Attempts to rebuild his face included skin grafts to form eyelids and hair transplants from the back of his neck to create “funny looking” eyebrows. There were operations on his lips, operations on his nose. The prosthesis to replace his left hand seemed more an annoying burden to him than benefit. He couldn’t lift his left leg because of muscle damage. By the time surgeons were able to work on reconstructing his midsection, some muscles there had calcified–”turned to stone, essentially”–complicating internal repairs.
“When I realized all that had happened to me, I was upset that I was still alive,” he says. “I thought, Look at me. Why bother saving me?”
During one period of depression, “I hit a real low. I contemplated eating my gun.” He sat alone in his garage and gave the idea “hard thought.” Two truths hit him. “First I realized that checking myself out would just be giving in to the coward that blew me up. He’d have a good laugh. Then I thought of everyone who’d worked so hard to keep me alive. They’d be so disappointed.”
He made a personal commitment that has sustained him through many agonizing days. Rather than grieving for what was lost, “I would build a new life with what I had.”
Part of his determination was to return to work. He set a goal: He’d be back in whatever capacity he could serve within a year of the bombing. He made the deadline with two days to spare. “I still had some surgeries to go, but I walked in the door and said, ‘Here I am.’ I had to wear a uniform big enough to fit over my bandages, but I was back on the job.”
Going back on patrol, his true love, was out of the question. But with the full support of his agency, he filled a supervisory slot in the training and auditing section of Nevada’s criminal records repository, which is managed by the Highway Patrol. “I was still part of law enforcement,” he says.
“Of course Ken couldn’t go back on patrol,” said Remsberg. “He took an assignment in a records division and rode a desk there for the next 10 years–something most street cops would consider a sentence to Siberia. But Ken didn’t see it that way. To him, he was still serving in law enforcement, and he was proud of the fact that he didn’t go out on disability.”
The final chapter of the book closes like this:
Ken Gager has been retired from the Highway Patrol for five years. He is building a 3,000-square-foot house from the ground up on the Oregon coast. From his construction days, “I understand the chronological order of how a house is supposed to go together.” But for a one-handed blind man, the challenges of wiring, plumbing, sawing, finishing, and setting cabinets are not easy.
“My wife is my eyes and hands,” he says. “I get in and do what I can physically. When I hit a rock wall, I explain how to do it and Deanna does it. I couldn’t get anywhere without her.”
At night, he still sometimes dreams of being back in his Mustang cruiser, chasing taillights. “I loved being a cop. In my dreams, some kind of miracle is performed and I’m able to see well enough again to go back on the road. I’d do everything I could to make that happen.”
How does he come to terms with all the job has cost him?
“I stay positive. I can’t think that this sacrifice was for naught. We are a nation of laws, and laws without enforcement are just suggestions. As an officer, you have to engage the troublemakers, the bullies. They want their way, and they don’t care what they do to get it. In the game of life, there have to be referees. Without them, our society would be just another Third World country.
“If you’re looking to be a hero and get a ticker-tape parade because you’re a cop, you’re going to be very disappointed. You may get hurt–hurt bad. People may not even remember your name. But there’s an inner satisfaction.
“When you’re old and have grandchildren on your lap, you can tell them with pride that you were a referee of human behavior and the calls you made made a difference.”
“Blood Lessons is a book about referees,” Remsberg concludes. “My admiration for the officers featured in it and the thousands of other like them who are on patrol out there right now is beyond description.”
Click here to see an interview with Chuck Remsberg and hear an audio excerpt read from the book.
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