A Helping Hand for Peacekeepers Under Pressure

Bob Delaney, a 2010 graduate of the M.A. in Leadership program, is one former police officer who knows a bit about stress. 

As a young state trooper in New Jersey, he infiltrated the mob in 1975 as part of an organized crime investigation called Project Alpha. For a year and a half, he lived a double life as trucking company executive Bobby Covert, often wearing a wire to record conversations with gangsters.  It was nerve-racking work. “I would leave a meeting and pull over to the side of the road to throw up,” he recalled.

Despite his alias, the mobsters welcomed him into their fold, and the evidence he gathered helped convict more than 30 members of the notorious Genovese and Bruno crime families.  Afterward, instead of breathing a sigh of relief that he had escaped detection — and certain death — he found himself spiraling out of control, caught in a maelstrom of emotions and behaviors that he couldn’t understand, including isolation, avoidance, anger and paranoia.

“My personality was chipped away,” he said. “Bob Delaney was in the rear-view mirror.  Bobby Covert was who I believed I was.” Years later, he would co-author a book with journalist Dave Scheiber about the experience called “Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob.” But at the time, he was in turmoil, and unsure how to handle it.

One day, after he’d given a speech about his undercover work to a local group, a psychology professor approached him and said:

“You’re going through post-traumatic stress.” That’s how Delaney began to learn even more about stress, and especially about Post Traumatic Stress, a syndrome that haunts people who have experienced severe or prolonged trauma. For those who suffer from it, random events like a car backfiring can remind them of gunfire, for instance, and send them right back to the moment of trauma. Even without such triggers, sustained or suppressed psychological distress can lead to erratic behavior, violence and even suicide.

“It’s common among those who wear uniforms.  They think they can leap tall buildings and handle anything, but it takes a toll,” Delaney said. “Trauma is like an earthquake. It’s felt strongly at the epicenter; then the aftershocks rock you for days or weeks or months.” To relieve the stress, Delaney turned to one of his passions — basketball. He had played on the State Police basketball team, and in the early 1980s, he began refereeing at Jersey Shore League games just to unwind. At one game, Darell Garretson, then the National Basketball Association’s head of officiating, happened to see the young ref.  And that’s how Delaney ended up spending 24 years as one of the top referees in the NBA, from 1987 to 2011.

If there’s anything almost as stressful as infiltrating the mob, it might be refereeing an NBA game, where a disputed call can bring you face-toface with a seven-footer like Shaquille O’Neal or a coach with anger management issues. But Delaney didn’t see it that way. For him, it was relaxing.  It was during his years in the pressure-cooker world of the NBA, that he started dreaming of attending the Saint Mary’s leadership program.  He carried an ad for the program around in his briefcase for years, and finally, at the age of 56, he enrolled. Because much of the instruction is online, he was able to continue officiating, flying in for the bimonthly meetings from wherever he was on the road.

Like a lot of students in the program, he already had quite a bit of leadership experience.  “I saw it in action first. I learned leadership around the kitchen table, in the community, even from the mob — the wrong kind of leadership,” he said. “I wanted to understand it from an academic perspective.”

The program helped him to become more tolerant and also more reflective, he said, adding, “I wish I had done it at 26 instead of 56.” It also helped him to make the transition to the next stage of his life. While still in the master’s program, he was recruited as an NBA Cares ambassador to provide post-traumatic stress education, prevention and awareness training to the military, law enforcement and firefighters. In 2009, he traveled to Iraq to work with soldiers in the 25th Infantry Division, and after four Oakland policemen were killed in a shootout with a suspect, he was called in to offer his counsel.

He has a special feeling for police officers because his father was a cop. Quoting Matthew 5:9, he said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Every time I hear that, I think of my dad. He was a peacemaker.” He shares his experience with the officers, and it helps them to open up and express emotions they have kept bottled up inside.

“People breathe a sigh of relief when they realize:

I’m not crazy. I’m not the only one here that’s experiencing this,” he said. “Having the courage to speak up is not only freeing for yourself, it’s freeing for others.” Since retiring last year, he has thrown himself into this work and he has released a new book, “Surviving the Shadows: A Journey of Hope into Post-Traumatic Stress.” Logging thousands of miles, he has traveled to Afghanistan with the U.S. Embassy Sports Diplomacy Program and has visited nine different military institutions. He’s been to Iraq several times and to Landstuhl, Germany, working with America’s “wounded warriors,” including soldiers recovering after IED attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Post-traumatic stress is “a human condition, experienced by many people. We have to look at it as a human condition, not a disorder,” he said, adding “Those who serve us are being put at risk and we have an obligation to take care of them.”