He didn't have “spider sense,” carry a vibranium alloy shield or wear a powered exoskeleton uniform, but Walter Wasilewski just might be the closest thing to an actual crime-fighting superhero that New York City has seen.
After racking up more than 3,000 arrests and earning more than 200 medals and awards in a career that spanned some of the most dangerous times in the history of New York City, the 52-year-old former police officer takes on a new foe this month, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), after being named the third member of the CK Crew of Veterans and First Responders with PIRTEK Team Murray.
“It's a great feeling to be part of something where you can actually give back,” said Wasilewski, now retired as the most decorated person with the rank of Police Officer in the New York Police Department.
“This is my opportunity for me to give back and I am honored, proud and happy to be a part of it. For me to stand up and represent police officers and say, 'Hey, we are all human and we have feelings and consciences and it's OK to need to deal with things and there is help out there.' If I can help one person in any way, shape or form, it's a great start.”
Wasilewski joins former Navy SEAL David Rutherford and California firefighter Sonny Saghera on the CK Crew, which will represent PIRTEK Team Murray on Miller Lite Carb Day (May 27) in the TAG Heuer Pit Stop Competition at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The remaining CK Crew members will be named soon. The entire crew will spend 10 days in Indianapolis, training extensively for the competition with Jim Leo of PitFit Training, but also taking in the events surrounding the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 29.
The CK Crew is an initiative of PIRTEK Team Murray, which is fielding rookie driver Matt Brabham in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the Indy 500 this month. The team is partnering with the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation, named after the former Navy SEAL and author of “American Sniper,” Chris Kyle, who died in 2013 at the hands of a fellow veteran suffering from PTSD.
The CK Crew program has the support of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, which produced the 2014 film of the same name and is releasing a special Blu-ray edition of the movie this month. The program plans to bring 500 veterans, first responders and their families to Indianapolis 500 celebrations over the course of the month.
Taya Kyle, widow of Chris Kyle, best-selling author of “American Wife” and founder of the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation, was pleased with the addition of Wasilewski to the honorary crew. Wasilewski, who went into private security after his NYPD retirement, has protected numerous celebrities including actress Sienna Miller, who portrayed Taya Kyle in the film.
“Walter is a good friend and I admire what he did throughout his career, as does the New York Police Department,” Taya Kyle (pictured above with Wasilewski) said. “While awards show how much he was revered, what he did to help others through his service, no award can place a value against that.”
Decorated first responder Wasilewski knows all about PTSD after serving at Ground Zero during the rescue and recovery period following the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. He hopes that his stint with the CK Crew will help police forces around the United States become more attuned to PTSD.
“In the military, PTSD is being recognized and it is being treated, even though there's still a lot to be done, but many people don't realize that it's very extreme in policing,” Wasilewski said.
“You see a lot of death and destruction, poverty, physical abuse and chemical dependencies (as a police officer) – it's total mayhem. You go through that for eight hours or 16 hours and then you are expected to go home to 'normal life.' It's a tough transition: You don't just switch it off.”
The NYPD 46th Precinct beat Wasilewski worked offered many stressful moments. His years on the streets of the South Bronx included the 1990s when rival gangs fighting over drug territory made it one of the city's, if not the country's, most dangerous places. At the height of the drug wars, the one-square-mile area he patrolled saw upward of 100 murders annually, something that prompted The New York Times to call it the most dangerous square mile in America.
Political will combined with the hard work of countless officers like Wasilewski turned things around. Today, the same area has seen homicides drop to about five a year. That fact is what makes Wasilewski puff out his chest the most.
“I worked with a lot of great people and I am proud to say that I was a part of cleaning up New York City,” Wasilewski said.
“In my youth, I remember going down to Times Square and it was a combination of fear and adventure; now you go down and it's like a giant Disney World. It's pretty cool to say I helped to do that.”
In addition to participating in the CK Crew and raising money for veterans and first responders, Wasilewski hopes to fulfill a childhood dream at the famed Brickyard by meeting one of his boyhood heroes: Racing legend and 1969 Indianapolis 500 champion Mario Andretti.
“I was a kid in the Mario Andretti days and racing was the coolest sport in the world,” he said.
“The Kyle Foundation is the most important thing, but then you are talking all these famous racers, the most famous race, the 100th (running) of the most famous race, and then Mario Andretti might be there, I mean, where does it end? I have goose bumps just talking about it.”
While he likely won't be chasing down any bad guys in pit lane, Wasilewski hopes the skills he learned and teamwork he experienced on NYPD will come in handy in the pit stop competition.
One thing is clear: Wasilewski's time on the force means he'll be the most prepared member of the CK Crew should things go wrong for driver Brabham as he tries to hit his marks.
“I have a little bit of experience with people trying to run me over a few times, but at least if Matthew does it, it will be accidental,” he laughed.
More information about the CK Crew can be found at www.teammurray.com.au and the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation at www.chriskylefrogfoundation.org.