A Pottawatomie County Sheriff's Deputy who survived a near-death experience on duty in recent years is doing all he can to help make a difference for law enforcement and other first responders who may experience traumatic events on the job.

A Pottawatomie County Sheriff's Deputy who survived a near-death experience on duty in recent years is doing all he can to help make a difference for law enforcement and other first responders who may experience traumatic events on the job.

Deputy William Wheeler knows all too well how a traumatic event can impact a first responder.

On Jan. 31, 2015, he responded to assist at an accident call east of Shawnee. He spoke with two troopers he had never met before, then less than four minutes later, that scene turned to chaos.

He saw a headlight coming toward them before a vehicle with a texting driver veered off the highway and struck the two troopers — Nicholas Dees and Keith Burch — but the car narrowly missed him as he jumped out of the way.

Dees died from his injuries and Burch had a long road to recovery. Wheeler wasn't hurt physically, but what happened that night made an impact on his life. He began to speak publicly about what happened and how the tragedy was preventable. Through “Nick’s Promise,” Wheeler was among those trying to educate area students about the dangers — and consequences — of distracted driving.

Now Wheeler is taking what happened to another level while trying to help law enforcement officers and first responders who may suffer from PTSD after experiencing traumatic events in the line of duty.

His message is being shared with officers who are getting ready to begin their careers.

He speaks to law enforcement cadets a day or two before their graduation day from CLEET, and his main message to them before they hit the streets is to know that “it's OK to seek help or ask for help in our profession.”

And while they may wear law enforcement or first responder uniforms and are always expected to save the day, Wheeler said they're all people too.

“We're not Superman — we're human like everyone else,” he said.

Law enforcement officers and first responders can experience and see all types of horrific events, whether it's an accident, the death of a child or other types of traumatic events.

In his message, Wheeler, recalling his own traumatic event that night on I-40, still wonders why he had a second longer to get out of the way.

He feels speaking to new cadets about what happened is a way to give back and give them the tools they need before starting their careers. His message also helps officers know what signs to look for in fellow officers who may be having a difficult time.

And the concern for law enforcement officers is a real one, Wheeler said, after a recent study found that more firefighters and police officers died by suicide in 2017 than all line-of-duty deaths combined.

Wheeler said USA Today reported that 103 firefighters and 140 police officers nationwide died by suicide in 2017, compared to 93 firefighters and 129 officer line-of-duty deaths that same year.

That study also found that little has been done to address PTSD and depression in first responders, he said, even though they are five times more likely than civilians to suffer from symptoms.

That's why Wheeler hopes to make a difference by sharing his story and what he experienced through a 45-minute Powerpoint presentation. And oftentimes, the new law enforcement officers have many questions for him as well.

“The main message is that we're not above asking for help,” he said, adding there is a stigma among officers and first responders about not wanting to talk about things that may bother them, and that has to change.

Because of his experiences, Wheeler also serves as a peer officer here locally, which means he's available to assist other law enforcement officers when needed.

Whether it's an officer gunfight or if there's been a critical incident, the entire group of responders can get together to debrief, which gives everyone a chance to talk about what happened, which can be beneficial in the healing process, he said.

Deputy Wheeler can be reached by email at deputy.wheeler@pottcoso.com