AZTEC — Two officers with the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office are raising funds to row 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, from the west coast of Africa east to the Caribbean island of Antigua.
Capt. Mark Pfetzer and Lt. Jarrod Slindee – Team Guardian – will compete in the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge in December 2022. The race, founded in 1997, involves boats designed for the ocean and alternating teams who row for two hours and then sleep for two hours. Each team competes for a cause, and in the past four races, they’ve raised $6 million for charities worldwide, according to race organizers.
Pfetzer and Slindee will be rowing to support first responder wellness, according to the team.
Pfetzer said their choice was easy “because we’re first responders.” After learning more about the stigma and barriers to access, the pair decided to focus on first responders who lose their lives to suicide.
Slindee said the race has been a great opportunity to discuss mental health with coworkers when it might otherwise have been hard to bring it up. “There’s a stigma around it, and most people don’t want to talk about it,” he said.
“That’s the great thing about the row,” Pfetzer said. “When people hear a couple guys are going to row across the ocean, that’s a lot more interesting than if we were just talking about mental wellness. And when we’re talking about rowing, we’re going to be talking about mental wellness too.”
First responders – law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics, emergency medical technicians and paramedics – are at a higher risk for depression and anxiety, and in extreme cases, suicide. In 2019, 134 police officers died in the line of duty, and 228 police officers took their own lives, Slindee said. For firefighters, suicide was almost twice as deadly as the job: 58 firefighters died during work, and 113 took their own lives in 2019.
Because of the stigma surrounding suicide, the suicide rates likely are underreported, he said.
“You can have those acute issues, but a lot of times it’s those proverbial death by a thousand cuts, and it’s the things you see day after day and you stuff it away,” Pfetzer said.
While the pair are about three years out from the actual race, Slindee said they are focused on “getting the word out and talking about the cause.” The pair also presented at the San Juan County Commissions meeting Wednesday. Their efforts are focused on fundraising for both the race logistics and their cause. The team hopes to raise $300,000 and is accepting donations on its website.
To further the mission beyond the race, Pfetzer and Slindee also established a nonprofit organization, Guardian Initiatives, in February 2019. They plan to continue the work of helping first responders access mental health support and raise awareness around the groups’ increased risk of suicide. “That’s the start,” Pfetzer said. “Where we can make an impact before we even touch the ocean.”
Right now, they’re focusing on raising money for the $60,000 boat the team needs to purchase before the race. But the funds for the mental health trainings and events the duo hope to bring to the Four Corners will also come from its fundraising initiative. The team is accepting donations on its website.
Through Guardian Initiatives, the pair have started to organize mental health support and trainings for the first responders in Farmington and San Juan County. They have at least two trainings scheduled for the next six months, one for first responders and their spouses and a second to train local clinicians on how to best treat first responders.
Pfetzer and Slindee hope to carry their goal outside of their own department and community of first responders.
“We are doing it for the whole Four Corners area,” Pfetzer said. “Our efforts are to reach beyond Farmington.”