Megan Vila still cries when she thinks about her brother and former New Tampa firefighter Stevie LaDue, who killed himself last year, a victim of the overwhelming mental anguish his job had brought him.
A drive down Bruce B. Downs (BBD) Blvd., however, sometimes helps bring Megan solace. That’s where a recently erected sign on the corner honors the memory of Stevie’s fight, as well as the one she has waged since his tragic passing.
The stretch of BBD from Cypress Preserve Dr. to just past Fire Station 20 in Tampa Palms, where Stevie served as a firefighter and paramedic for his last 15 years, has been officially renamed as the Stevie LaDue Giving Hope Highway.
“I am elated,” said Megan, a Lutz resident. “It’s incredible.”
The idea, which Megan says she spent six months relentlessly criss-crossing the state for in 2018, is that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a real thing, and must be taken seriously. LaDue’s father Stephen cited a number of calls, including one where his son saw a decapitated body and another at a rape scene where the victim turned out to be Stevie’s ex-girlfriend, as instances that scarred him mentally.
“It took such a toll on my brother,” Megan says.
While Stevie saw a psychiatrist, his growing anxiety made it so he could no longer go out on calls. He found out when trying to get worker’s compensation that mental trauma was not covered.
He felt that the system had failed him. He began to drink. His despair deepened to the point where he felt he could no longer go on.
“When he died, it became my mission to change this so any firefighter could be able to get help,” Megan says.
She traveled the state to speak to any representative or senator who would listen. Armed with facts like a firefighter is three times more likely to die of suicide than in the line of duty, she enlisted the help of the state’s Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. She made 16 trips to Tallahassee, lobbying lawmakers to change the laws and extend the benefits to first responders.
And, in 2018, Megan finally realized her goal.
At the Tampa Firefighters Museum in March, then-Governor Rick Scott signed Senate Bill 376, which provided worker’s compensation benefits for first responders in Florida who are dealing with PTSD, as well as requiring mental health training for those agencies.
On the last day of the legislative session in 2018, Megan and her husband, Tampa Fire Rescue Captain Ricardo Vila, watched from the floor of the legislature as the plans to honor Stevie with a stretch of BBD passed unanimously.
Florida State Sen. Lauren Book, who sponsored SB 376, also suggested the sign that now graces the corner of Commerce Park Blvd. and BBD be erected in his honor. Megan said the LaDue family came up with the name — “Giving Hope Highway” — and wanted it to be near the station where Stevie spent 15 years.
More than a year later, it was erected with so little fanfare even Megan didn’t know it had actually gone up until she saw a picture of it.
“The fact that the City of Tampa firefighters posted it on their Facebook page was great,” Megan said, as her voice began to crack. “That’s the whole idea. We don’t want anyone who is suffering to not come forward. Now they can.”