Portsmouth team counsels in wake of Navy Yard shootings
NORFOLK, Va. — As carnage was unfolding last month at the Washington Navy Yard, a sailor at Norfolk Naval Station got on the phone.
"Get home, get your stuff," Petty Officer 2nd Class Charles Blalock told each of his team members. "There's a good chance we'll be called in for this one."
Blalock, a hospital corpsman, was one of 21 mental health specialists sent from Hampton Roads hours after a gunman opened fire at the Naval Sea Systems Command headquarters, killing 12 and injuring three others inside Building 197.
The Special Psychiatric Rapid Intervention Team was dispatched to help care for those who weren't hit by bullets but still suffered as a result of the mass shooting.
SPRINT, a collateral duty for sailors with expertise in mental health, provides short-term counseling in the wake of tragedies. The team, based at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, responded to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007. It also helps out after smaller-scale incidents on Navy ships and bases.
In Washington, the team set up a command center at the Navy Yard and began counseling sessions the morning after the shooting.
They met with witnesses to the slaughter, as well as those far from the scene. Some were tormented by nightmares; others, consumed with anger.
"Our job as a team was not to go in there and make people better," said Cmdr. Ingrid Pauli of the U.S. Public Health Service, a psychologist who led the team. "First of all, they're not sick. They're having normal reactions to a very abnormal experience. Our job was to go in there and facilitate them being there for each other."
The team counseled more than 7,500 civilian defense workers and service members during three weeks at the naval base. Much of the interaction came during group sessions with teams of employees.
Cmdr. Duane Lawrence, a psychiatrist, recalled counseling a group of workers that was together for the first time since the shooting. Several of the workers had come face-to-face with the gunman; one narrowly escaped injury. Simply sharing and hearing one another's stories was therapeutic, he said.
"No two human beings are going to have exactly the same response to the same event, even if they're standing shoulder-to-shoulder," Lawrence said. "We all come to those moments in time with our own backgrounds. Our job was to help them come together and share their own experiences to help them fill in the gaps of perspective."
Helping others grapple with a traumatic event can levy an emotional toll, said Lt. Jeremiah Ford. The psychiatrist was feeling totally drained one afternoon after an intense conversation with a woman struggling to cope with the tragedy.
He stepped away from his duties, took a walk and found a Cold Stone Creamery — his way of decompressing.
"I did what I would tell others to do — figure out what helps you get that release," Ford said. For some people, that means exercise or taking a walk. "For me, it was ice cream."
Lt. Lance Lopez, a psychiatric resident, said several people in the group sessions expressed feelings of guilt, either for walking away unhurt or not stopping to help someone else. Co-workers reassured them: You did everything you could have done. We're glad you took cover because we care about you.
"And so because of that group conversation, a big component of that person's mental injury, which would have eaten them alive while they tried to sleep at night, that's gone now," Lopez said. "All these people and how they came back together reaffirmed my belief in the human capacity for resiliency."
The mission lasted longer than expected — most SPRINT missions are only a few days — but the team was not there to provide long-term care. If someone was showing signs of more extreme mental trauma, they were referred for more in-depth care.
The vast majority of people the team interacted with seemed to be on the path toward healing, Lawrence said. Part of that process involves "learning to craft their narrative."
"There was the story of the one guy who unleashed unimaginable terror, but then there's hundreds of stories of folks who went back in the building to get somebody they knew was left behind," Pauli said. "There were so many stories of people taking care of each other."