After Columbine: Purpose and Meaning Embedded in the Trauma
By: Joshua Browne, M.P.S.
Prelude to Columbine:
As a career law enforcement officer, I have accepted interaction with direct and vicarious trauma, as a component of my professional commitment. I understand I am required to run towards the sound of gun fire, even as others flea, regardless of personal risk to mind and body. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s reference to the “Wolves, Sheep and Sheep Dogs” analogy best describes the law enforcement and military ethos (Grossman, 2004; Grossman, 2006). According to Grossman (2004), the Sheep Dog confronts and neutralizes the wolf, relying on the empathy he feels for the sheep as motivation to use his gift of aggression. As a Sheep Dog, I accept the responsibility to protect the flock from the wolf.
As I reflect upon this ethos and consider the timing of my own entrance into the law enforcement profession, the events of April 20th, 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, provide an avenue to examine a profoundly traumatic and tragic experience and attempt to identify meaningful lessons and opportunities for personal growth. In February of 1999, I was offered employment as an officer with the San Diego Police Department, including a slot in the March San Diego Regional Police Academy. Since I was already enrolled in the Spring college semester, I was reluctant to incur the negative consequences resulting from a transcript indicating four course withdrawals. Fortunately, I was permitted to complete the semester and offered acceptance into the next overlapping Academy class, begging in July of 1999.
While awaiting the commencement of my law enforcement career, the infamous, traumatic, tragic and evil events of April 20th, 1999 transpired at Columbine High School. As the details of the incident were revealed, I became confused by the law enforcement response. Instead of quickly addressing and neutralizing the threat, the officers remained outside, awaiting SWAT teams. We now know that several officers voiced their desire to enter the school and confront the shooters, in opposition to both training and orders to remain on the perimeter and await SWAT team arrival. Their requests were denied and they were ordered to maintain their positions. As a civilian, I did not yet comprehend the powerful effect of legacy training and protocol, instructing the officers to act in this manner. My analysis was based solely on my own personal understanding, which included no law enforcement training or experience.
During the Police Academy, we studied the entire incident in precise detail. The comprehensive law enforcement community realized and acknowledged the previous “form a perimeter and wait for SWAT plan” was unrealistic, ineffective and not appropriate for an active shooter scenario. When I contemplated the implications of joining the first wave of law enforcement officers to be trained according to a new paradigm, one providing separate responses for static barricaded suspects and active shooters, I began to reconcile the dissonance regarding the previous response philosophy. Of course, additional problems, such as radio communications incompatibility (Brito, 2006) between numerous law enforcement and fire departments, also contributed to many of the response challenges at Columbine, but the basic legacy response paradigm related to active shooters explained on scene law enforcement behavior. Although I knew we could not prevent all future mass shooting attempts, I was comforted knowing that my agency and most others across the country, would now respond decisively and aggressively, limiting casualties. Still, my heart grieved for the responding officers to Columbine High School on April 20th, 1999, who may have struggled to reconcile the profound psychological and emotional trauma sustained from the carnage, escalated by their personal condemnation of their failure to act differently.
An Opportunity for Growth and Reconciliation:
Almost two decades later, an opportunity to explore the incident from a firsthand perspective was provided to me. Tami Diaz, now a neighbor and Columbine survivor, agreed to be interviewed regarding her experiences, life challenges and personal perspectives, providing permission to include her accounts in a future book related to identifying purpose in trauma. After our interview concluded, she consented to allow me to include excerpts from our interaction in an article, as a prelude to the book. I felt compelled to avoid delaying the dissemination of some of the beauty of the profound gifts of her insights, goodwill and kindness. I am certain her experiences and perspective will continue to uplift her fellow men. I would like to thank Tami for her candor, courage, charity, and outward facing orientation, including her encouragement for me to use her experiences and insights to lift others. As I relate, analyze and integrate Tami’s viewpoints with scientific research, as well as my own professional and personal experience, I implore you to contemplate your own life trauma and search for reconciliation and purpose.
The Event that Changed Everything:
What follows is an abridged description of Tami’s account of her experiences on April 20th, 1999, paraphrased from her comments disclosed during our interview:
Tami was seated in her high school chemistry class, when she perceived what she believed to be rocks striking the exterior windows. After seeing a female student run across the court yard, hearing additional noises and the exclamations from students that someone had a gun and was shooting, the reality of the true nature of the previously perceived sounds resonated in her mind. Additional gun shots and chaos ensued, when William David Sanders, known to Tami as Mr. Sanders, appeared in her classroom doorway. According to Tami, “Blood was coming out of his mouth like Kool Aide.” Tami characterized this physical evidence as the “shocking and traumatic” development of the episode that confirmed the reality of the situation. Tami’s teacher informed the students he was leaving to summon help and directed them to lock the door. Prior to exiting the classroom, her teacher located an older student she described as an eagle scout and a senior. The teacher escorted this male student into the room, intending for him to provide first aide to Mr. Sanders, subsequently vacating the area and never returning.
As Tami hid behind a table, she contributed to the collective care of Mr. Sanders, providing her exterior shirt as a make shift bandage to control the bleeding, while students scrambled for anything to be used as first aid supplies. Tami believed one of the suspects shot through her classroom window, but added, she wasn’t “one hundred percent sure this was a true memory.” As many studies and my professional experience can validate, lapses and disjointed memory are a common symptom of trauma (Grossman, 2004; Hamilton, 2015). She was sure one of the shooters shook her door, subsequently hurling a bomb into a chemical storage area for the adjoining science rooms, initiating a fire. Still, as the chaos progressed, Tami described a feeling of peace communicated on a spiritual level. She was certain the shooters would not be permitted to gain access to her room, even while yelling and gun shots echoed from the library, as the perpetrators continued their vicious attacks.
Later, Tami and her classmates heard periodic gunfire, coupled with occasional explosions. Phone lines were jammed with excessive traffic flooding the system. Tami remembered one male getting through to his dad. At one point, a helicopter hovered near the window. Tami was sure their sign stating, “1 bleeding to death,” had been seen and expected a rescue to transpire shortly. However, the anticipated assistance did not arrive. As time passed, Mr. Sanders continued to lose blood, while frightened teenagers attempted to control the hemorrhaging with inadequate training and supplies. Tami related, “I remember the last two gunshots, but we didn’t know that was the killers killing themselves.” The 911 dispatcher assured her classmate that “they are coming,” yet more than four hours elapsed, as Tami and her fellow students waited for SWAT teams to enter her room and escort her outside.
“I never really felt scared. I felt a lot of peace during it, which was a huge blessing.” Still, Tami remembers that “not everybody was feeling that way.” Some of the students suggested jumping out of the two-story window. Another teenager said, “Please pray for me. I don’t know how to pray, somebody please pray for me, which broke my heart.” Tami looked to see who had made the statement and noticed a different male she recognized from her church congregation, on his knees under a desk praying. She described this scene as “imagery” she “would never forget.”
Eventually, Tami and her fellow students were escorted outside past “the bodies” and the carnage, patted down and transferred to a bus, relocating them to another school where parents were waiting reunification with their children. Tami watched as students and parents dramatically ran towards each other into an embrace. However, Tami’s mother was calm. Her mother exhibited no fearful tears or hysterics. Instead, she calmly said, “Let’s go.” At first, Tami interpreted this as insensitivity. However, her mother explained she had a spiritual prompting reassuring her that Tami would be safe. Upon reflection, Tami realized the shroud of protection she had felt during the attack, had likewise been communicated to her mother.
Searching for Meaning and Reconciliation:
I asked Tami to elaborate on any follow up conversations transpiring between her and her mother in the aftermath of the incident. Tami’s response was simple, yet profound, “We did have a conversation where she basically said, ‘you know, you can do a lot of good with this.’ I kind of agreed.” Tami was sure this experience would “somehow turn into a good thing” and that it would “somehow help other people.” I am convinced her words are both profound and prophetic, as her outward facing orientation is consistent with professional experience and academic research related to Post Traumatic Growth. Individuals experiencing Post Traumatic Growth report feeling increased empathy for others, desiring to shoulder burdens, and share their newfound insights with individuals seeking to reconcile their trauma and identify meaning (Chopco & Schwartz, 2009; Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2003).
As I proposed reflective follow up questions and listened to Tami’s responses, her orientation towards others emerged as a consistent theme. This is not to say Tami did not initially incur significant trauma symptomology. In fact, when she was originally assessed, she remembers scoring “very high on the PTSD scale.” In the immediate aftermath of the incident, her dreams were so terrifying, she dreaded and avoided sleep whenever possible. However, the precursors for her healing process began to be implemented, even as gun shots echoed throughout the school. Tami reflected on the agony the parents of these shooters would be experiencing and her “heart went out to the parents.” She “just wanted to reach out to them.” Tami took no credit for this development, characterizing it as “a blessing from God.” Tami’s expressions of love and empathy are a hallmark of those who successfully transcend their PTSD responses and orientate towards Post Traumatic Growth (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2003; Plat et al., 2010).
Law Enforcement Officers: Post Incident Reflection:
As I contemplate the emotional and psychological trauma incurred by the officers I previously referenced, I continually return to a thought that has yet to escape my mind. How can these officers expect to experience comprehensive emotional and psychological healing, absent the closure that can be facilitated by personal connection with the surviving victims? Perhaps some of the responding officers to Columbine High School have been afforded the opportunity to interact with survivors like Tami, who epitomize the positive character development embedded in Post Traumatic Growth. I asked Tami what she would say to the responding officers to Columbine High School, who may be “struggling to reconcile the profound psychological and emotional trauma sustained from the carnage, escalated by their personal condemnation of their failure to act differently.”
Tami provided a lengthy, thoughtful and candid narrative response. An excerpt of her reply is as follows: “There’s good that can come of this. There’s only been growth since then. We can never stop these things from happening. It’s absolutely impossible. There’s always something we learn and something we can protect next time. I know it is a burden. I can’t even imagine. To know next time, there might be someone you save because of that experience. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Good can come out of bad situations. That’s where the hope comes in.”
Epilogue: Tami’s Current Trauma:
The nature of this mortal human existence exposes us to continual trial, trauma and tragedy. Tami realizes this component of life, as she continues to interact with and find meaning and hope in current tragedy. While she celebrates the birth of her fourth child and second daughter just days ago, she continues to shoulder the cascading effects of supporting her husband, diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. As she reflects on her traumatic experiences both past and present, Tami confesses, “When I think about everything, I can’t handle it.” However, she quickly pursues hope each day, assuring all of us with her conviction that she has “always known there was a plan.” Amid the storm raging around her, she finds peace in serving her husband, children and anyone else placed in her path. Even now, Tami is collaborating with some of her fellow Columbine survivors to orchestrate “ways to keep kids safe,” all while seeking opportunities to shoulder the burdens of others in their traumatic circumstances.
Finding Personal Hope and Healing:
“Those who were meant to experience the shooting were there.” Tami finds meaning, peace and hope in her personal conviction that her experiences on April 20th, 1999 were no coincidence. She remembers several parents who felt they should not send their teenagers to school that day. While Tami is “not grateful for what happened,” she is “grateful” she could “experience and learn from it,” adding, “I’m glad it was me and not somebody else.” She rejoices in the safety of those who were spared the experience, while identifying profound meaning in her trauma. What is Tami’s advice to those struggling to reconcile trauma in their own lives? Tami repeatedly references empathy and “reaching outward” as critical components of reconciling the trauma and developing the hope that leads to joy. Again, this advice is consistent with the available literature related to Post Traumatic Growth (Plat et al., 2010).
Whether you were one of the responding officers to Columbine, the recent Parkland, Florida attack, any other mass shooting, or are another in a helping profession, wondering about the emotional and psychological state of a victim or client with whom you shared a traumatic experience, or are dealing with your own direct trauma, I implore you to consider Tami’s hopeful words. Tami is not alone in her ability to experience profound perspective and character growth in the aftermath of trauma. Notwithstanding the difficult work, this alternative pathway is available to all who have and will experience profound personal trauma of various natures. I urge the law enforcement professional, firefighter, paramedic, military veteran, victim advocate, dispatcher, therapist, social worker, trauma physician, nurse, medical assistant, as well as any other helping professional or human being on the planet who struggles to find hope and healing, to accept the truth that joy is still possible. Even more encouraging, consider that the very traumatic experience causing pain, along with a multitude of difficult symptoms, can be the catalyst towards robust personal character development.
In both his bestselling book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” as well as his foreword for “Prisoners of our Thoughts,” by Alex Pattakos and Elaine Dundon (2017), Stephen R. Covey paraphrased an excerpt from a book he picked up in a library that altered the trajectory of his thinking indefinitely. He paraphrased that passage as follows: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and happiness” (Covey, 1989). Covey (1989) attempted to locate and identify the book years later, only to find the library no longer in existence. Regardless of his inability to properly cite the source, the wisdom contained within these three lines epitomizes the essence of the concept of Post Traumatic Growth. Embedded within our trauma is a space, an opportunity to choose our response to the stimulus. Although difficult, often incremental and usually arduous, tangible and transformative personal growth is possible following traumatic experiences.
Inside all of us resides a quiet, reverent and infinitely wise voice. I recognize this transcendent communication as the wisdom disseminated from my creator. It is a call to accept my trials, trauma and tragedy, as a vital component of a divine plan, orchestrated to allow me the opportunity, to become someone possessing the capability to empathize with others struggling to identify meaning and purpose in their trauma. This realization leads me to the transformative understanding that “life is a mission, not a career” (Covey, 1989), including its companion revelation that your unique mission involves serving others in some capacity, sometimes professionally, but always personally. This is a profound principle repeatedly rediscovered by those who engage in courageous, humble and introspective pondering. I invite you to consider and discover your life mission or to simply pursue the mission you already recognize as your stewardship. I believe that in this discovery, you will find the personal meaning and purpose embedded in your trauma.
Sgt. Joshua Browne, M.P.S. is a police sergeant, adjunct professor within The George Washington University’s Master of Homeland Security Program, and founder of Heal the Badge Consulting. He authors articles and provides training courses in the realms of emotional resilience and altering organizational culture towards wellness. His efforts seek to realize the goal of fortifying law enforcement professionals, leaders and their families, by providing the necessary resilience tools for success within, outside and beyond the law enforcement career. He also utilizes his law enforcement and academic experience, to lead individuals outside of the first responder community, towards reconciling their traumatic experiences and realizing the meaning and growth embedded therein.
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