Sonny’s Outlook: Cop-turned-therapist reflects on 9/11, 15 years later

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Sonny Provetto poses for a photo in his Winooski office last Friday after reflecting on his time in New York City during the days following September 11, 2001. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

Sonny Provetto poses for a photo in his Winooski office last Friday after reflecting on his time in New York City during the days following September 11, 2001. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

Sonny Provetto remembers sitting alone on a New York City subway. Empty cabs stretched down the track as the train screeched to a halt.

Only one person joined him on the Wall Street platform that Thursday, the desolate station bearing no resemblance to its usual morning self.

Sunrays from the street, usually blocked by commuters, spat freely down the stairwell. The light unveiled a convoy of white particles floating above.

Sirens echoed beneath the city’s growth, a familiar sound for the former cop, who, just two days prior, was working on a construction project in Essex when the homeowner ran outside in tears.

“She couldn’t even put words to what just happened,” said Provetto, a Bronx native.

The day was Sept. 11, 2001, when nearly 3,000 people died after terrorists flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Penn.

Inside the house, Provetto witnessed the first tower collapse, an image that would replay for generations to come.

A day later, he headed home.    

‘They need a cop’

Provetto began his law enforcement career with Burlington police in 1988. He served a five-year stint in the Vermont State Police, his last year serving as a peer support officer, performing debriefings after critical stress incidents.

Provetto was intrigued with the psychological side of policing and wondered how officers could manage high levels of trauma on a daily basis. So he returned to school, earning a master’s in social work from the University of Vermont in May 2001.

Four months later, he was in the midst of the worst terror event in America’s history. En route to NYC, Provetto got through to his cousin, John, director of NYPD’s Cop Shot program, who gave him the name of the department’s psych director. The next day, Provetto walked into the NYPD headquarters at 1 New York Plaza ready to help.

He made it as far as the director’s door. “Do you have a Ph.D.?” he recalls her asking after he introduced himself. He did not.

“We don’t need you,” she said, slamming the door.

Discouraged, Provetto left and headed to Ground Zero, where he helped hand out water to first responders as their frantic search for survivors eventually turned into recovery efforts.

A few days later, a mental health company retained him after learning of his law enforcement background. They paid him to be on-call for American Express, which lost 11 employees in the attacks, while he continued to volunteer with the Red Cross.

Therapists from all over the country soon showed, Provetto said. Most were accustomed to controlled settings. They struggled to adapt.

“I could tell [they] had no exposure to this level of trauma and didn’t really understand, from a psychological perspective, how this trauma manifests,” Provetto said. “I was watching them become traumatized.”

Provetto’s experience as a cop helped him endure. Most officers hadn’t begun to process the trauma they faced, sticking with their trained mission of “save, recover, save, recover,” Provetto said.

He recalled sitting at Penn Hotel with a group of New York State police officers as they prepared for another 12-hour shift on “the pile.” He handed out water bottles and asked how he could help. One officer pointed at a Sharpie before pulling down his pants.

“‘Write my social security number on my arms and legs,’” Provetto recalled the man saying. “‘So if the building falls on me, at least they’ll be able to identify me.’”

Still, Provetto struggled to connect. One day, his older brother, a therapist in NYC for 10 years, convinced him to alter his approach.

“They don’t need a therapist,” his brother said. “They need a cop.”

Provetto agreed, but it wasn’t until 18 months after 9/11 when most realized the extent of their trauma, he said. In 2002, he joined POPPA, a nonprofit that provided peer-oriented counseling post-9/11, where he counseled officers for three years.

Some days he’d perform presentations on PTSD and how to get help. Others, he’d meet officers in parking lots to talk them down from suicide.

Breaking point

As Provetto supported officers, the scenes and stories of 9/11 eventually took their toll. One Friday afternoon, Provetto’s mentor, Ed Campbell, called just to check in. Provetto insisted he was fine. Campbell wasn’t convinced. He asked Provetto to look around and describe what he saw. Tanks, Humvees and soldiers, Provetto said.

“Is that the New York you remember?” Campbell asked.

Provetto, frustrated, hung up shortly after. Later, as he drove onto the West Side highway at 59th Street, he began to cry, the tears continuing until he reached the tollbooths in Albany, nearly three hours away.

Eventually, he reached a breaking point. Fed up with a rude client at a group session for American Express, Provetto asked the man to step into the hallway. He grabbed the man’s throat and told him to never come back.

Provetto planned to take a year’s leave until the police organization begged him to stay on at fewer hours, 40 a month. He spent the rest of the time at a property he purchased in Colorado. Provetto went on to open his own private practice, working in New York for seven and a half years before moving back to Vermont in 2009.

Despite hoping to one day visit the World Trade Center memorial, he hasn’t been back since.

“I don’t believe I’m actually healthy enough to do that,” he said.

He can’t remember the names of people he worked with every day. Sometimes, he believes he fills in the gray areas.

“I don’t even trust my own memory anymore,” he said.

Provetto still has files of old photos, one showing Ground Zero from the American Express building. Another shows the wall where people posted photos of loved ones who died in the attacks. He used to wish he’d taken more. Now he believes it may be for the best.

“There’s something about our psyche that knows how to protect us,” he said.

Asking for help

Provetto now works with almost a dozen Vermont police agencies, including Colchester and state police. Some were on duty during the attacks. Others were in elementary school.

Vermont is ahead of many states in understanding the role of wellness in law enforcement, he said.

Some 216,000 officers suffer from post-traumatic stress or similar anxieties, according to Badge of Life, a group that studies PTSD among police. Additionally, there was 51 police suicides in the final six months of 2015, the group reports.

Provetto employs an analogy when talking about trauma. Each officer starts with a tractor-trailer, and every call is another package strapped onto the trailer.

But there’s a storage limit. Failing to practice the right kind of self-care, like asking for help or checking in every six months, can result in the trailer getting too heavy.

Though many officers cited 9/11 as the source of their trauma, Provetto believes it’s rather the accumulation of exposure to tragedy, violence and death over many years. It eventually affects their entire worldview, he said.

He said September 11 altered the way people in emergency services think about handling trauma.

“It broke down the stigma, [and showed] I can ask for help,” Provetto said. “This was so outside the realm of our own experiences that it gave [us] the comfort to say I’m not dealing well with this.”