Ex-NBA ref blows whistle on PTSD
June 29, 2012
FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- Bob Delaney said it's time to change the way people think about post traumatic stress.
The former New Jersey state trooper and NBA referee visited Fort Jackson June 21 to speak with Soldiers about his own struggles with post traumatic stress, and said he intentionally avoids using the word "disorder" to describe the problem.
"When you use the word 'disorder' it comes across as mental illness," he said. "My belief is that this is a human condition, it is not a mental illness. We need the doctors and the clinicians, but the first line of defense is peer-topeer therapy -- our ability to get these feelings out."
Delaney is touring TRADOC installations to hold outreach sessions with Soldiers and their families, discussing the impact Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has on the individuals, family and friends. He has been dealing with PTSD since working undercover as a New Jersey state trooper in the 1970s.
Delaney operated under the name "Bobby Covert" and posed as the head of a trucking company that served as a front for an investigation into organized crime. Dubbed "Project Alpha," the joint task force produced more than 100 arrests, beginning with a raid in 1977 that brought charges against members of organized crime in three states.
"On the day of the raid, we were going to lock up 30 mob guys from the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia area," Delaney said. "I was excited, because I was going to be able to go back to being Bob Delaney. I could get rid of this 'Bobby Covert' guy I'd been playing for three years."
The arrests went as planned, but Delaney said his emotional response to the raid took him by surprise. While standing with other members of law enforcement, he was spotted by a suspect named Ronnie Sardella as he was brought in for booking. Delaney had known Sardella well during his time undercover.
"Bobby, what'd they pinch ya for?" Sardella asked him.
Delaney relaxed his pose and revealed that his hands were not cuffed behind his back. A detective told Sardella that Delaney was a cop.
"The look that went between me and Ronnie Sardella was not one of anger, it was one of hurt," Delaney said. "He looked at me like, 'How can you do this to me? I'm your friend.'"
Delaney said his values were "twisted" and that part of him came to regret his actions. Betrayal didn't come naturally.
"I wasn't looking at myself like Bob Delaney, I saw myself as Bobby Covert," he said. "I didn't feel good about what I was doing to the people that I knew."
Ten days later, he learned that Sardella's associates had taken out a contract on his life.
During the following months, Delaney's professional behavior began to look more and more like the behavior of his undercover persona. A detective with a background in psychology suggested to Delaney that he might be suffering PTSD, an idea he initially rejected.
"I didn't take any particular notice to it and pushed him away," he said.
Because of the unique nature of the investigation, Delaney was asked to speak to organizations ranging from Congress to local police departments. During an address at a New Jersey police academy, he spoke to a psychology professor, a conversation that quickly turned into "informal therapy."
Delaney said he rejected the idea again, believing that post traumatic stress was something "Soldiers go through."
"I pushed him away, as well," he said.
FBI agent Louis Freeh, who would go on to become the bureau's fifth director, connected Delaney with Joe Pistone, a former FBI agent who spent six years undercover as "Donnie Brasco." Delaney said that speaking with someone who had lived with the day-to-day stress of undercover police work helped him to come to terms with his anxieties.
"That was my first introduction to peer-to-peer therapy," Delaney said. "Speaking to Pistone -- that was the first time I could look in somebody's eyes, hear their words and know that they understood what I was going through. So I'm a big believer in peer-to-peer therapy as the first line of defense against post traumatic stress."
Delaney went on to become an NBA referee who officiated more than 1,700 regular season games, 160 playoff contests, and nine finals before retiring. His tour is sponsored by the "NBA Cares" program, which has made him an ambassador in a PTSD outreach program.
Attendance at last Thursday's event was light, with fewer than a dozen Soldiers in the audience. Delaney abandoned many of his usual lecture techniques, bringing some of the audience closer to the front of the room for a personal dialogue.
"We don't have to eradicate post traumatic stress. We have to learn how to deal with it, manage it and try to lose some of it along the way," he said. "When we share experiences, we learn from each other."