In 1994, I responded to an active killer incident at our hospital on Fairchild Air Force Base. For several years afterward, I struggled with PTSD, not because I took a life, but because so many others lost theirs. 20 years later, I was invited back to Fairchild to speak about the resiliency of survivors at a memorial ceremony. I spoke about trauma and my efforts to manage its effect on me. I want to share that message with you here.
When I was searching for peace, I read every story I could find about trauma survivors. I hope my story will help others who continue to struggle. More information about my experience, the Fairchild hospital shooting and the history behind it will be in my upcoming book, Warnings Unheeded. “Like” it on Facebook for updates as it nears publication.
The speech I delivered on 20 June 2014:
Twenty years ago today, a beautiful summer afternoon turned to tragedy. A man with a rifle moved through the hallways and parking lots of Fairchild’s hospital leaving a trail of chaos and devastation in his path.
Several men, women, and children received life altering wounds. Five families lost loved ones, Psychologist Captain Alan London was a devoted husband and beloved brother. Major Thomas Brigham, a gifted psychiatrist and family man. Anita Lindner, a loving wife and mother who was active in the Civil Air Patrol and a youth camp leader. Christin McCarron, a giggling eight year old girl, a big sister who often put others before herself. Michelle Sigman was one of the many wounded, as a result of her injuries she lost her unborn child, Taylor.
On that cloudless summer day, I was a 24 year old Law Enforcement Specialist working bike patrol. The call came over the radio and as I rode toward the hospital, time slowed down, it seemed like it took forever to get there. As I approached the area I saw a man walking down Graham Road in front of the hospital firing his weapon as people scrambled for cover behind cars and in ditches. He refused to drop his weapon and fired in my direction. From a distance of approximately 70 yards I engaged him with my Beretta M9, firing four rounds, two of which hit their mark and ended the killing.
My actions have been called heroic but there were many heroes among the patrons and staff at the hospital that day. If not for their actions the bloodshed and loss of life would have been greater. Numerous patients, parents and staff selflessly ushered loves ones and strangers to safety. Eva Walch, a fifty-seven year old widowed dependent wife hid under a counter in the pharmacy lobby. When 5 year old James Sigman ran past Eva she grabbed him and shielded him behind her back as she was shot several times in the leg. Michael Lecker a Sergeant with MWR was at the hospital with his family. Sgt. Lecker struggled with the armed intruder in the doorway of the shot clinic, denying him access and allowing others to escape. SSgt. Dave Root was a supervisor in the Pediatric Clinic. As the intruder tried to force his way into the clinic, SSgt. Root held a set of fire doors closed and yelled for his coworkers to evacuate the building. While the subject was in the area, countless medical professionals and bystanders selflessly cared for the wounded. After he was down, they continued their efforts undeterred as I and several other law enforcement personnel searched the hospital for a rumored second subject. The efforts of the 92nd Medical Group and the staff of four Spokane hospitals undoubtedly saved lives that day.
Fairchild was hit hard but was determined to carry on with their mission. Four days after the shooting, as the base was preparing for an air show, four officers lost their lives when a B52 was flown outside of its limitations and crashed near the Weapons Storage Area. Many of the airmen who had responded to the hospital, now found themselves securing the crash site, and searching a scorched debris field to recover the fallen airmen. (Learn More About That Here)
The base hospital was closed just long enough to replace carpeting and repair bullet holes. On the outside everything appeared normal again. Some might assume the people who experienced the trauma of that day might just as easily return to normal.
I have been in contact with many of the people who were there that day – doctors, nursed, med techs, fire fighters, cops and survivors – few, if any, escaped without mental trauma, and in varying degrees they still struggle with it today. I won’t speak for them, but I will tell you about my experience.
I had always taken my role as a defender seriously. I prepared for a lethal force encounter by practicing a technique known as “mental rehearsal”. I frequently visualized different scenarios where I would shoot to stop a deadly threat. My scenarios were flawed in that I never imagined anyone but the perpetrator getting hurt. I wasn’t prepared for so many people being wounded and killed. People I had a duty to protect.
I reluctantly accepted awards for heroism. Though well intentioned the awards only served to remind me of the wounded, the dead and the grieving families. I didn’t see myself as a hero or a life saver. I second guessed my response and could only focus on how the killer could have been stopped sooner.
I moved to a new base and continued working as a patrolman. I had intrusive memories of the incident that caused a fight or flight reaction. I got anxious whenever I experienced loud noise, crying children or crowded environments. I was hyper alert and on edge. I assumed the shooting was bothering me but I didn’t know why or how to fix it. When I sought counseling I was relieved of duty so I stuffed my feelings, hid my symptoms and pressed on. When I was off duty, I self-medicated with alcohol and became withdrawn, depressed and emotionally numb.
As time passed my symptoms intensified. Almost everything I saw or heard invoked memories of the incident and eventually – even a cloudless summer day caused me anxiety. I couldn’t relax. I unconsciously clenched my fists and it felt like electricity was constantly flowing through me. I was quick to anger and easily irritated. The mild adrenaline rush I used to get during a traffic stop now caused my hands to shake and my voice to quiver. Five years after the shooting the job that I loved became just another source of stress. I self-referred to Mental Health and was diagnosed with chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Counseling and medication didn’t help and although I was terrified to leave my law enforcement career I reluctantly chose to get out of the Air Force.
I returned to Spokane where I met my wife and started a family. My symptoms didn’t improve and I didn’t assimilate into civilian life very well, bouncing from one industrial job to another. I couldn’t sleep and was irritable, depressed and reclusive. I listened to news and talk radio programs that fueled my cynical view of the world and my community. I was constantly on guard and expected the worst from everyone I interacted with. If someone looked at me funny, followed me too closely in traffic or played their radio too loud, I took it personally. It was as if they were intentionally trying to piss me off.
Like many people with PTSD, I wasn’t a danger to myself or others but I didn’t like the person I had become. I wasn’t the best husband or a good example to my young son and daughter. I went to counseling, attended PTSD programs and tried various medications. The relief was always temporary and I began to accept that I would never feel normal again. For the sake of my wife and kids I continued to search of healing. I read countless books about trauma and PTSD searching for that one secret – the quick and easy cure. I eventually discovered my path to peace and recovery from PTSD would consist of a series of small deliberate steps.
One step occurred in 2006 when I found a fulfilling and purposeful job with the US Border Patrol. Another step occurred in 2009, when after repeated Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests I received a recording of the law enforcement radio traffic from 20 June 1994. For the first time I was able to listen to our response and was relieved of a lot of guilt when I discovered it took me less than two minutes to respond and stop the killing.
I started writing a book about the shooting and the history behind it. Writing and repeatedly confronting the details of the incident diminished its effect on me and has been therapeutic.
In 2010, I completed two new programs offered by the VA. Instead of the usual talk therapy or masking symptoms with medication, these programs helped me process the shooting and uncover the source of my symptoms. I realized I had a lot of subconscious negative thoughts and that those thoughts contributed to my negative feelings and symptoms. When I learned to recognize and challenge those thoughts I began to crawl out of the dark hole I had fallen into.
I moved further down my path toward peace when I took a break from the fear generating news and mass media. I made a conscious effort to focus on the positive and be more empathetic and forgiving of people. I stopped self-medicating with alcohol and found new ways to control my anxiety. When I was overwhelmed with stress, my breathing was shallow and rapid. By slowing down and focusing on my breath I was able to clear my mind and calm my anxiety. I practiced being mindful; not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future but being aware of the present moment. When I took the time to be aware of what was happening right now I began to appreciate the simple things in life that I had been taking for granted. I may never be the person I was before the shooting, but in some ways I am stronger for it and I have found peace.
I haven’t lost the habits I developed as a patrolman – I am still vigilant for evil and ready to stand in its way when it threatens innocence. There was a time when all I could see was darkness, but today I practice a balanced awareness; I see the beauty of the world while I am watching for danger. Today – I can once again appreciate the simple wonder of a cloudless summer day.
I will never forget the survivors and heroes of June 1994. And although I never met them, I will never forget Christin McCarron, Anita Lindner, Thomas Brigham, Alan London and Taylor Sigman. Because I didn’t know them I was hesitant to speak at this memorial ceremony. I was worried that I wouldn’t pay them a fitting tribute. But whether you knew the fallen, or not, we can all honor them today, with a greater appreciation of life.
Andy Brown – 20 June 2014, Memorial Ceremony at Fairchild AFB, Washington