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Greg Wheelen: Keeping Your Cool A Few Feet From a Gunman

I’m Jennifer Moore. This week, for our Sense of Community series, we’ve been profiling local people of courage.

To understand what courage is exactly, I looked it up in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. It comes from the French word “coeur,” and originally the Latin word “cor,” which both mean “heart.”

According to that same dictionary, courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the ability to face and withstand fear, as well as danger and difficulty.

“There’s a big difference between fear, and begin scared,” says Greg Wheelen, the director of the Springfield Police Academy. It’s his job to make sure the city’s new police officers are not scared when they hit the streets or respond to a call.

“I look at fear as being friendly. I look at being scared as something that’s gonna get me killed, in this line of work,” he says.

And he has come close to getting killed.

On August 5, 1997, Wheelen was a Springfield police officer working the streets, and also working part time on the special response, or SWAT team.

"Actually, I was coming back from Jefferson City," he recalls.

On the police scanner, he heard chatter of a standoff between a parole absconder and police at the American Inn.

Despite that he wasn’t on the schedule that day, he called the team leader to ask if he needed extra help. He did.

He went to headquarters and got his gear: tactical vest, gas mask, helmet, eye protection, and 9-millimeter fully automatic, shoulder mounted weapon. With his gear, Wheelen drove to the scene.

The police and US Marshals had already been there for several hours. A gunman was in the hotel room negotiating with police outside.

Greg Wheelen took a position near the door of the hotel room. They put in a mirror to try to get a better view of the gunman, but the gunman shot the mirror.

The special response team prepared to deploy chemicals into the hotel room, in the hopes that it would force the gunman out.

Wheelen was at the door.

The gunman had moved from the closet to the bathroom. The SWAT team deployed the chemicals by hand.

"When that went off, it just filled the room with smoke. He was in the bathroom, put both hands around the corner and just started pulling both triggers as fast as he could," said Wheelen.

One of the rounds hit the door jam, ricocheted 90 degrees and hit Wheelen in the groin.

"I returned two rounds in the bathroom. My first thought was to distract the guy, because I knew my rounds weren't the proper thing. Then I realized I was bleeding pretty bad. [I] plugged the hole with my finger, sat back and said, ‘I’m hit.’”

Wheelen was taken to the hospital. His team members continued to engage in a firefight; the gunman, Marty Swindle, was eventually shot and killed.

Despite being a few yards from a gunman who was clearly not afraid to shoot, Wheelen he says he had fear, but he wasn’t afraid. He said his training had prepared him for this moment, and he knew what to do.

"You should never not have some type of fear when you're doing this job," he said. That fear gives a person his or her sixth sense, he said.

Wheelen says his personal view of courage extends far beyond facing one's physical fears.

"Ethics to me is very important. I think it takes courage to be ethical," he said.

At the police academy, Wheelen says he tries to impart that ethical courage on the cadets who go through his program. His co-workers tell me what he wouldn’t: that he’s brave.

Mark Schindler works in recruiting and the firearms training at the academy. He says when Wheelen teaches the cadets how to take custody of someone after being maced, he has someone spray mace at him then proceeds with the drill. Also, he’s voluntarily been Tasered several times.

Wheelen says courage, no matter how you define it, is a way of life for a cop.

"I just think that everybody down here has courage," he said.

Greg Wheelen is the director of the Springfield Police Academy.

For KSMU’s Sense of Community Series, I’m Jennifer Moore.