Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Binding Firefighters' Psychological Wounds
By Robin Finn, New York Times, October 14, 2004

MALACHY P. CORRIGAN'S father was a fireman for 38 years, a member of Engine 292 in Woodside, Queens, but if he thought it a treacherous job, he never let on to his wife and children. Firefighting was a manly calling; real men didn't complain or cry. Mr. Corrigan, a sentimentalist, keeps a model of his father's fire truck near his desk. But the reason he is more than busy- overwhelmed, really- as director of the New York City Fire Department's counseling service unit is that his father's heyday is long gone. Real men do complain, cry and have nightmares, especially the firefighters who survived the World Trade Center collapse.

Business is booming at Mr. Corrigan's office on Lafayette Street. He kind of wishes it weren't. There was always a full caseload; he transformed an alcoholism-focused treatment unit into a full-service clinic after being hired 22 years ago, a brawny redheaded guy with a brand new master's degree in mental health nursing. But ever since Sept. 11, 2001, it's as if he's held two jobs.

"The reality of it is that for a lot of firefighters, and for their families, this has come to be perceived as a riskier occupation, and it's having mental health consequences, marital consequences, drug and alcohol abuse consequences, you name it," he says, dropping heavily into a chair.

Add a persistent orange alert to the post-9/11 mental landscape, and an unsettled work force is all but guaranteed.

With his pessimistic posture and bleary blue eyes, Mr. Corrigan makes an ideal, if unintentional, advertisement for the demand for Project Liberty, a government-sponsored, and fiscally endangered, program that provides mental health services for firefighters affected by 9/11. The program, which he runs, is financed through 2005, but Mr. Corrigan, who tracks down $6.5 million in noncity money each year for the counseling unit, is convinced the department needs Project Liberty-caliber counseling through 2008.

His red hair has faded to near-transparency; the same goes for his eyebrows and eyelashes. His yellow shirt emphasizes a bleached-out spirit, not a sunny disposition. He lost 60 friends who were firefighters at the trade center. He is 53, yet looks a decade older. The instant-aging effect may be inevitable when one's caseload increases by 400 percent virtually overnight. The peer-counseling division had one practitioner before Sept. 11; now it has 40. Saturating firehouses with peer counselors was his idea.

"I don't think we as a society place the same value on emotional injuries being able to debilitate an individual as we do on physical injury," he says, "but within the department, we believe we've put a big dent in the myth of 'I'm a tough guy and I can't be weak emotionally or else the other guys won't accept me back in the firehouse.' ''

Besides coordinating program financing and treatment for more than 3,000 Fire Department clients, 80 percent of them with issues traceable to the attack, Mr. Corrigan, a seminary dropout who took up mental health nursing as a default career, is himself undergoing therapy.

He waited more than a year before realizing that he, too, needed help to cope with 9/11-related nightmares and their daytime- and much scarier- equivalent, intrusive imaging. (He describes it as a hallucination of the horrors experienced at ground zero.) The conversation is nearly two hours along before he divulges that smidgen of personal information. "My job was not to dig through the trade center rubble to find pieces of civilians and colleagues; my job was to be there with the men who were doing it," he says quietly, as if speaking in a monotone helps keep bad memories at bay. "Intrusive imaging wasn't just words on a page. I had it happen to me, too. So I'm still in therapy; I don't yet have a game plan for when I'll be done."

A GRIMACE is his only response to the political squabble, reported last month in The New York Times, which may cost Project Liberty an estimated $4.45 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency money. (The agency's commitment to Project Liberty expires at the end of this year.) Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat, thought she had gotten extra money through a Senate amendment only to learn that Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, planned to use the money for other programs.

Mr. Corrigan's plans simply include continued counseling for any client who needs it. "I've faced the same funding realities with Project Liberty ever since 9/11," he says. "Every 9 months, every 18 months, you have to justify why the money is still needed. When the federal money is no longer available, I've been assured the city will assume the burden." But he's taking no chances. He recently secured a $2.78 million grant from the Department of Justice. "I'm not worried about where the money comes from; as long as it's legal, I'm interested."

Interested, perhaps, to the exclusion of everything else. He is lucky to have an understanding wife - a Fire Department nurse. In the fall of 2001, their season tickets to the New York Giants went unused. When he wasn't at the office, he was at ground zero ministering to the work crews from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.

This season's goal, he says, was to attend eight games. "But I've already missed the first one,'' he says. "Had a memorial service to go to." He spends a lot of time in churches, an ironic outcome for a Catholic boy who studied for the priesthood but dropped out just shy of ordination because he saw "too many unhappy priests." Now he hears, and shares, confessions of a different stripe.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


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