Voices in Unity: A Conversation With Dan Willis

Captain Dan Willis, 51, is a 26-year veteran of the La Mesa, California, Police Department, where he commands the patrol division, SWAT team, and traffic unit. He is also the author of Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responder’s Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart, which won the 2015 People of Distinction Humanitarian Award, and was a finalist in the Books for a Better Life Award. Here, Dan talks about his career, his book, and his beliefs. Married to a police dispatcher, Dan has two stepsons and lives in his hometown of San Diego. 

Unity: Tell us about your book, Bulletproof Spirit.   

Dan: It’s a survival guide offering proactive wellness strategies to protect, heal, and nurture the spirit of all first responders and those who love them. First responders suffer immeasurably from the trauma and acute stress of the job, and this book provides them hope and a path toward healing.


Unity: You write that you always wanted to help people. Where did that come from?

Dan: Ever since I was a young boy, my mother would read stories to me at night before bed about people in history who devoted their lives to serving and helping others—Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, John Muir, George Washington Carver, Helen Keller, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and so many others. She would always tell me that having been blessed by God with a healthy mind, heart, and body I had a sacred responsibility to devote my life to serving and helping others. That’s when I began thinking of becoming a police officer, which really solidified during my high school years … I have always believed police officers serve and work, in a manner of speaking, for God in helping those in need.Another very significant influence for me growing up was a Unity minister, Andrew Carlson, and the Unity church I attended growing up in Escondido, California (north San Diego County). From early on one of my favorite Bible verses has been Matthew 25:34-46 relating what we do to others, we do to Christ. That verse has inspired me throughout my police career.


Unity: You write about having the realization that you no longer felt anything … that you had lost your inner self … that your own spirit was suffering. You admitted this to yourself, but did it take you a while to admit it to others? And is it acceptable in your profession to admit such a thing?

Dan: Yes, after about seven years on the job when I realized I no longer had any real feelings; I was indifferent and disengaged with others and with life, was truly a life-changing moment. I realized then if I didn’t do something toward healing and restoring my spirit to the person I used to be, then I was never going to survive my police career … It was years before I opened up and told others about my experience. It was a very personal journey in trying to discover ways to promote emotional survival. The book details all I’ve learned that has worked for me, or what I’ve seen work with others, to protect and nurture the spirit. It can be difficult for first responders to admit they are suffering or need help—but it is essential for their survival and quality of life. It is getting easier, but there is still a long way to go. Suicide is the No. 1 cause of death for police officers every year, with another 120,000 suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Twenty-two military veterans and one active-duty soldier commit suicide every day. Also, an estimated 15-20 percent of first responders have a serious addiction problem of some kind. Our first responders are suffering from the job, but the good news is there are effective treatments and emotional survival practices for healing and promoting wellness.


Unity: What happened when you started talking about helping first responders survive emotionally and heal their spirits?

Dan: The way I introduced the concept of proactive emotional survival training was to go to the police morning briefings and squad meetings and ask a question: “Raise your hand if the job has adversely affected you in some way—your health, your relationships, your outlook on life, or the quality of your life.” Every single hand always immediately went up—from the officers who were still in training to the 25-year veterans. I followed that up with another question: “Since we all recognize the job has the inherent tendency to negatively affect us in many ways, what do we do about it? Nothing and hope for the best? Or let’s work together to develop emotional survival strategies that will help us get through our career?” There was immediate buy-in from my colleagues wanting to see what could be done, because we have all seen far too many colleagues, as well as ourselves, suffer in many ways. Police work is the best job in the world. It should be life-sustaining, not life-depleting.


Unity: How long did it take for you to shift from the person who was disinterested and disengaged to who you are now?

Dan: Well, it’s been an ongoing process that is still continuing. Once I realized how the job had so adversely affected me and once I decided to try my best to do something positive about it, it’s been a continuous process of learning, adapting, healing, and growing. It began with learning to become more self-aware, more mindful of how the job was affecting me, as well as what could be done to breathe life back into my spirit and to proactively strive to process stress in a more positive and constructive way, overcome trauma, while continuing to find ways to serve with compassion. I’ve found it is serving with compassion that has so much inherent power to heal and restore us toward wellness.


Unity: How did you know you could write this book?

Dan: I have had several articles published previously, including one on emotional survival that was published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Because of that article, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tom Hallman Jr. contacted me and asked me to contribute a chapter to his book, A Stranger’s Gift: True Stories of Faith in Unexpected Places (Howard Books, April 2012). I have always loved to write, and knew if I wrote from my heart about something so meaningful and potentially useful, it would connect with readers.


Unity: Talk about the phrase “bulletproof spirit.”

Dan: First responders wear a bulletproof vest to protect their body. Yet there is no training and nothing traditionally offered to bulletproof their spirit from the emotionally scarring “bullets” of the profession consisting of heartache, trauma, danger, violence, and suffering. Our spirit is the essence of our life; it is the foundation of our mental, emotional, and physical health and well-being. It is our spirit that provides the inspiration to serve others. Our spirit is what allows us to process stress, overcome trauma, and serve with compassion; it is our character, our beliefs, and the sum of our humanity. It is our spirit that is most vulnerable to suffering; and it is our most vital component needing to be protected, sustained, and nurtured to not only survive, but to thrive in wellness.

Unity: How has writing the book helped you? How do you hope it helps others?

Dan: In a way, Bulletproof Spirit has been very healing for me, because for the past two and a half years I have focused on working to be useful to others. I hope the information in the book will positively affect first responders and their families in a profound way. I put all of my heart and spirit in writing and now promoting the book. I truly hope and pray others will find healing and peace from its message, and prevent suffering within the heroes that protect us each and every day.  I know it will save careers, marriages, the health and wellness of those who serve, and even lives.


Unity: Tell us more about your time in Unity.

Dan: I was raised within the Unity church in Escondido. Unity’s message of prayer with positive thinking and action resonated with me as a child. It gave me a spiritual foundation that I have always been most grateful for. Faith has been the single greatest influence allowing me to survive a career as a police officer. It gives a deep spiritual meaning and purpose to my life.


Unity: Can you share one emotional survival strategy from your book?

Dan: I deeply believe that it is imperative for us to concentrate not on what we want from others, but what others need from us—then finding ways to fill those needs for others. Too often, especially when we are suffering inside, we focus far too much on ourselves and what we want others to do for us. However, this will inevitably leave us frustrated, disappointed, and depressed. Focusing on what others need from us and concentrating on fulfilling those needs is inherently very healing. This provides meaning in our lives. By fulfilling what my wife, sons, work, or members of the community need from me, I am working and living in a much more positive and constructive way, which tends to heal and bring peace. 


Learn more about Dan Willis and his work at www.firstresponderwellness.com.

About the Author

Annie L. Scholl is a freelance writer and native Iowan who lives in North Carolina. In addition to writing for unity.org and Unity Magazine®, she is a regular contributor to Huffington Post and blogs at her website, anniescholl.com.