By Jay Dobyns – ATF Agent (retired), Best Selling Author and Keynote Speaker
My entire adult life was spent as a United States federal agent confronting violence and predators on behalf of the good and innocent people in the communities I served; people who simply wanted to live their lives peacefully and safely. I wanted to stand up for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t do that for themselves.
My fourth day on the job I was shot by a suspect. The bullet entered my back, traveled through my lung missing my heart by millimeters and exited my chest. I hadn’t yet received a paycheck and I was bleeding to death in the dirt and garbage of a trailer park with blood spurting from my chest like having a thumb held over the end of a garden hose.
As I recovered, personal injury attorneys worked to convince me they could acquire millions of dollars with a claim against the government arguing I was not yet properly trained to be placed on the point of such a hostile situation. I refused that path. I simply wanted to go back to work and do my part to confront America’s violent crime. In my mind, I was bulletproof.
Eighteen months later I was shot again, and run over by a suspect’s vehicle, after gang members attempted to flee arrest. That didn’t matter. I believed myself invincible.
For 27 years as a street agent, I participated in over 500 undercover operations. Sidewalk dope to large scale narcotics. Saturday Night Special pistols to rocket launchers. Workbench grade pipe bombs to sophisticated C-4 IEDs. Gang infiltrations. Home invasion operations. Murder-for-Hire events. Raids, arrests, prosecutions, convictions. It was a long-running accumulation of trauma that I was blind to.
While undercover I built relationships with dangerous suspects, ultimately gaining their loyalty, trust and sometimes love; only to ultimately betray that by exposing the crimes they allowed me to gain knowledge of.
I believed undercover work was how I would put my dent in the universe. I loved it more than anything… and thus, my problem.
In the process, I’d abandoned everyone and everything behind a self-created hero syndrome brainwashing myself to believe I held a destiny to serve a greater good. I pushed everything in my life aside to get close to bad people doing bad things. Ego and the pursuit of a false legacy got in my way. Adrenalin and risk became my drug of choice.
At the end of my career and at the height of my professional success, it all crashed.
Mine is not a hero story; the opposite, in fact. Mine is a story of self-created personal chaos. No one held a gun to my head or forced me to take these assignments. No one insisted on my aggressiveness, at times recklessness. Those choices were mine.
Suspects from my past resurfaced with threats of violence against me and my family. At a point in time, four international crime syndicates held murder contracts for me. Credible threats to kidnap my children and gang rape my wife were escalating. I ran but there was no escape.
The government I served found itself unwilling to help confront those seeking to harm us. In one instance, I had was engaged in a full-on fistfight, brawl with suspects on a commercial airline flight. No one cared.
Internal pleas for help were ignored and I made that fact public knowledge. Yes, to protect myself, but also to try and insure that in the future, the treatment of my peers would be better than what I’d received. Someone had to take a stand and all I’d ever known was to fight back.
Friends and peers I once adored lost my number. When you hang out dirty laundry…, one day they call you “brother”, the next day they just don’t call. The legacy I’d hoped to leave had been reduced in some eyes to that of a traitor. To the people I’d bled for, I’d become nothing more than a stale french-fry at the bottom of their fast food bag. Everything I believed I stood for, like my undercover persona, was counterfeit. The betrayer was betrayed.
In payback for the exposure and embarrassment my story had caused, executives with power and influence over my career forced my previously concealed personal information into the limelight.
Three months later and no longer hidden, my home was attacked by arsonists in a failed assassination attempt. My family narrowly escaped in the dead of night but not before losing everything. Personal trauma is a cost of doing business as a 1st Responder. We know that going in. Trauma to families brought on by events of the profession? That is unacceptable, but sadly, it is real.
When I thought it couldn’t get worse, it got worse.
The retaliation continued as those same executives maliciously attempted (but failed) to frame me as the arsonist of my home and thus, someone willing to murder his own family by fire. The reputation that had become so important to me was destroyed. I was forced into a long and expensive legal battle to defend myself against the most powerful law firm the planet had ever seen, the United States Department of Justice.
The courtroom victory was hollow. You don’t ‘win’ legal battles against the government, you merely survive or surrender to them but, challenging bullies was all I’d ever known.
I again thought it couldn’t get worse, and again, I was wrong.
I wasn’t bulletproof or invincible. I found myself helpless. Hopeless. Isolated. Afraid. Through my work and actions and the events inspired behind it, I’d train wrecked my family. I’d betrayed the very people who loved and supported me the most. The realization of my own selfishness was back-breaking and humbling.
A lifetime of PTSD caught up to me. Depression sank in and took me over. Thoughts of suicide became part of my escape plan. Addiction found its way into my home. Trauma takes many victims.
I didn’t know where to find help.
I learned that if the only time you are talking to God is when you are in trouble… you are in trouble. Somehow, through His grace, the resilience and love of my family and at times our stubbornness to never give in or give up, we survived it. Others have not been as fortunate.
Now – by being publicly transparent about myself, my mistakes, my failures, my regrets, my turmoil – through my Catching Hell training and with the partnership of organizations like Safe Call Now and others, I have found a new purpose. To help those in the 1st Responder professions understand they are not alone and that there is assistance available, ready, wanting to help.
I am open and honest about myself so others – those lawmen, firemen, emergency services personnel, those in the military – can maybe be encouraged to seek help before it is too late. I use my own confusion as an example of the road not to travel.
The trauma we experience is real. It touches everyone who cares about us. The way some of us chose to address it has become epidemic.
We may be scarred but we are not broken.
Help is available. We will help you find it.
Safe Call Now: 24 Hour Hotline: 206-459-3020
Jay Dobyns is a retired ATF Agent. He is a New York Times bestselling author of No Angel, My Harrowing Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels and his follow-up book, Catching Hell, A True Story of Abandonment and Betrayal. He conducts training for Street Cops and 1st Responders through his Catching Hell training program.
For more information on the “Catching Hell” Training Series: Click Here
View Jay’s battle for his reputation against the federal government: Click Here