The weight of the badge: Former Willmar police officer finds new direction in creating art
WILLMAR — Wearing badge number 224 for the Willmar Police Department meant everything to Jared Wosmek.
It's a badge he wore for 18 years — working first as a patrol officer before moving to the special city gang unit and finally working in the coveted role of detective.
Being a police officer was a job that fulfilled Wosmek's goal to "serve people and be there to make a difference."
He loved the job and for the first six or seven years, he thought being paid was just a bonus for doing work he loved.
"It was noble. It was exciting," said Wosmek, while sipping a coffee at the Goodness Coffee House in Willmar as his badge lay on the table.
"It was every part of me," he said. "I was doing what I felt I was supposed to be doing."
But then things started to change.
He said the cumulative effect of the job began to take its toll — fights, crashes, assaults, witnessing deaths involving children and being involved with police calls that could have turned deadly. There were "heightened moments of terror and adrenaline," the fear of making a mistake when drawing his service weapon. And constantly looking for — and finding — "bad" things.
Stress and a deep darkness enveloped him at work while he wore badge 224 and at home when he took it off.
The badge weighed just 2.275 ounces.
"But it felt like an anchor," he said.
In December, after being diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder that he attributed to 22 different work events that "really piled on each other," Wosmek ended his career as a police officer.
While currently in the process of recovering, healing and finding a new path through self-care, self-compassion and creating art, Wosmek said he is still determined to continue to serve people and to make a difference.
He intends to do that by talking about his complex PTSD in hopes that it could help others with similar experiences.
And in the process he's creating artwork that also carries his message — and potentially — a new career.
After graduating from New London-Spicer High School in 1993, Wosmek said he considered pursuing a college degree in art but felt drawn to a life of service as a police officer.
His first job was in Glenwood before landing a spot on the Willmar Police Department in 2001.
It was a job he was good at, he said. Typically calm under pressure, his colleagues called him "Father Woz." He had been trained to help people who were experiencing a mental health crisis.
He said being a cop was his "everything" and he pictured himself working 30 years and then retiring with a party.
But as the stress started to accumulate, he thought if he made it to 25 years, that would be OK. Then the goal was to make it to 20 years.
"Then it was, oh my gosh, I need to make it to the end of the year," he said.
And finally, as his "world was crumbling," Wosmek said the goal was to make it to the end of the day.
The job that had been so easy for him in the past was dragging him into a dark hole.
"Everything was like a fog," said Wosmek, 44. "I felt like I was sliding off the edge of the cliff."
He said it was like "somebody took a sledge hammer to my whole being."
That's when he finally started talking.
"I walked into the chief's office and said 'I need help,'" Wosmek said. "I had to reach out. I didn't have any other options."
Wosmek took a leave of absence from the job in April, anticipating that after a few weeks he would feel better and get back on the job.
But that didn't happen.
As part of a separation agreement with the city, he left the job in mid-December, ending his law enforcement career.
"It was a long, excruciating loss," Wosmek said. "I had wrapped my identity up in being a police officer."
Leaving it behind was like the death of a loved one, he said.
Emotions in art
Wosmek, who said he felt guilt, shame and embarrassment with the diagnosis and leaving his job, has found peace by doing yoga, meditation, prayer and counseling.
He has also turned to art to work through his feelings.
Wosmek for many years has created and sold stone sculptures that he crafted from alabaster. But this time he turned to two-dimensional art. He joined a weekly drawing club in New London where different art mediums and techniques are taught.
In his sunny home art studio, he uses bold colors to create abstract paintings, many with large spirals. Wosmek said he doesn't typically paint with a plan, he just lets his emotions flow through the brush and onto the canvas.
His early paintings "show how fragmented my spirit was," he said.
But even though there may be "doom and gloom" evident in some pieces, he said there's also movement — like in the spirals — that indicates there's "always hope and a way out."
Some of his paintings are currently on display at The Goodness, where they can be seen through March 30.
In a printed statement alongside the display, Wosmek said his paintings are attempts to "work through the emotions that come with complex PTSD" and that he's pleased his paintings have "positive energy and people can relate to them in their own way."
In a process he describes as a "slow thaw," Wosmek said he is a "better person" now — but he may never be the same kind of person he was before, when he was a "super cop" and the life of the party.
He said his willingness to talk openly about his complex PTSD is because he wants to help others — including other law enforcement officers — before they go down the same dark hole he did.
Wosmek said local law enforcement officers are "exceptional people," but it's not uncommon for people to be negatively affected by trauma and "constantly being immersed in negative situations."
"It's important that we continue to take care of one another's mental health within our community, especially the mental health of our officers," said Wosmek, noting that the number of law enforcement suicides is increasing in the U.S.
"They are human, they play a vital role in our communities," Wosmek said. "We need them to succeed. It's in all of our best interest."
He said the Minnesota Association for Injured Peace Officers — which can be found online at, www.officerneedshelp.com — can be a positive resource.
Wosmek said he would like to balance his artwork with some kind of speaking role in helping others with PTSD and to "be a voice for our officers and first responders."
Talking about mental health and PTSD "shouldn't be taboo," he said.
If nothing else, he said, by sharing the story of his journey, people will know they're not alone.