Story by LISA ANDERSON
“I wish my head could forget what my eyes have seen.” –James Geering
He was born in Bath, the largest city in Somerset, England. He was raised on a farm, and he had hopes of becoming a firefighter or a doctor when he grew up — that is until the annual school medical exams eliminated those dreams. James Geering was diagnosed as colorblind.
“It was really quite deflating,” he says about hearing the news. “Pilots, firefighters, all these really cool childhood aspirations were taken away.”
James started his medical training but admits he didn’t have the higher math skills to continue. This led to working as a lifeguard for quite a while until he found the world of stunt work. He had studied martial arts most of his life and was a national champion in England for Taekwondo. As a stuntman, he accepted a job in Japan, where he met his future wife—a Floridian.
Life Changing Moment
Shortly before flying over to the United States, James, then 26, had an epiphany: he wasn’t colorblind. He went to a doctor to confirm his hunch. “They showed me the book, and I could see some of the numbers. I told them to point to something and ask me what color [it was].”
It had been about 13 years after his original diagnosis, but James had been correct. He wasn’t colorblind, which meant he could train to be a firefighter/paramedic when he got to the States. It was a childhood dream come true. “It was literally everything I wanted,” he says with a smile.
“The best way to describe [the fire service] in America is, if it doesn’t involve what the police do, everything else is us. The element of being a jack of all trades and the master of none, and also not knowing what was going to happen every time the tones go off was extremely exciting for me. The downside was, as I progressed through my career, I started seeing the mental and physical health effects of the job on my people.”
What My Eyes Have Seen
James lost six of his friends to both physical and mental health related deaths and suicides over a two-year period. During this time, he wasn’t getting the Hollywood endings of patients jumping up to hug him after saving their life. Instead, he was getting a rash of patients who were beyond saving. Then, on a sleepless night, he wrote his first blog titled, “I Wish My Head Could Forget What My Eyes Have Seen: PTSD in First Responders.” A week later, the blog went viral. It made him realize there was a desire for physical and mental health solutions. So, he started Behind the Shield, a podcast that discusses nutrition, exercise, PTSD, sleep deprivation, and more. To date, there are over 470 episodes.
“What I’ve seen the last few years is definitely a shift where we’re acknowledging it’s a thing, but the next barrier is, ‘What are we going to do with that?’ There are some very important solutions, but it’s a hard sell because people don’t want to address the uncomfortable topics. Not just responders—people in general—military responders,” he reflects. “They’re all hurting.”
Even though he hosts the podcast, and has written a book, One More Light: Life, Death, and Humanity Through the Eyes of a Firefighter, James doesn’t consider himself an expert. “Because there are good people out there making a difference, I just want to be a conduit,” he says.
“There are some things people see, and there are some elements they don’t realize, which is why I bring some of the guests that I do [to the podcast].”
Sleep deprivation is a huge topic James talks about on the podcast. “Marion County, for example, does 24 hours on, 48 hours off, and you’ll hear people say it’s one on, two off. Well, a 24-hour shift is not one day. It’s three days—three eight-hour days. So, it’s technically three on, one off. So, every third day these people aren’t sleeping,” James explains.
This doesn’t allow your body to heal properly. Sleep is the time when we process everything in our brain and when our bodies focus on restoring our muscles. Enough sleep also means quicker processing time for better responses. “These men and women are up for 24 hours. Our police officers are driving around in cars the whole time. It’s like water torture; every shift you just get a little weaker, little weaker.” His hands make the motion like dripping water onto someone’s forehead. “That split-second thinking that we need to have is dulled as we progress in our career.”
James also believes we need to think about what people bring into the job. “Everyone assumes we’re a blank canvas the day we put on the uniform. I know now there are a huge amount of men and women in those professions that had some pretty awful childhoods. I think we have to stop looking at our responders as superheroes and [start] looking at them as human beings, again.”
While he is no longer married [Correction: James is remarried.] and works in Orange County, James has lived in Ocala since moving to Florida. He continues to use martial arts, boxing, and kickboxing for balancing his work and personal life.
Find the Behind the Shield podcast at JamesGeering.com.
For more resources and help visit redlinerescue.org.