After the single shot at Central High: To train or not to train

In October, I will have the opportunity to attend a certification program and will become what is called a “Peer Support Specialist”. This opportunity, afforded to me by the Veteran’s Administration and the Springfield Veteran’s Center, is essentially my chance to forward the knowledge and foresight I have gained through three years of better understanding some very difficult times in my life, how they have affected me, and how I can keep from allowing my experiences from interfering with my life in a negative capacity. In short, I have been told I’m far enough along in my “recovery” to help others who have been through many of the same experiences I have been through – namely war, but I may also have the opportunity to help with those who have dealt with chemical dependency, unexpected death, and other traumatic events that do in fact alter the way one views life. I have had a rough run in life, but hopefully my desire to better understand and deal with it will be able to benefit not only me, but others.

One of the benefits an organization has by using a Peer Support Specialist is that they are using people to counsel that have actually experienced traumatic events. These may be people that have become educated institutionally since (or before), but have in fact gone beyond the scholarly articles, research, and other academic instruction; they have walked the walk.

While I look forward to the opportunity, I do realize the difference in impact one can have when they have done the walk. With that as a backdrop, I want to share an experience that I don’t hide, however, it’s not something I share unless there is purpose.

On the night of September 16, 2005, I was serving as a Vehicle Commander for a US Marines Unit that was charged with convoy security in Iraq. On the mission I am going to discuss, I was a commander for the vehicle that carried our Corpsman (medic). Our mission on this particular night was to go from Fallujah to Al Asad – from one American Base to another – and pick up a few Marines in our unit that had been temporarily assigned to work with another unit.

This was our next to last month in Iraq, and after 40+ missions I had personally been on, we had come under fire about a dozen times. All of them were very quick occurrences and ones that there wasn’t too much time to think about what was going on until after the fact. As well, up and to this time, I had absolutely grown exhausted from training… training, training, training. I would think, “This is lame – we know what we’re doing and we will do it if and when the time comes.”

This particular September night the issue of “things happening fast” would change.

While on our way to Al Asad, we came into contact with an Army convoy that was going the opposite direction on the very narrow road we were on. Custom had it that we would make contact with them and discuss any threat or concern from where each of us had come from since we were going where they had been and vice versa.

As this happened a roadside bomb detonated. Immediately someone came on the radio frantic and needing assistance – medical assistance. I was better positioned to access the downed vehicle than was the other unit’s medic so we made it known we would be there as soon as possible.

Shortly after, we made contact with the downed vehicle. As I got out of the vehicle I noticed one soldier from the Army Unit holding another. I asked if they needed assistance and was told, “No, she’s just scared.” The Corpsman and I then made our way around to what was left of the downed vehicle… to the passenger side. What was in that Humvee was something I won’t describe, but let’s say it altered how I would look at life for the rest of my life. The sights and smells that actually exist can’t be fully understood until experienced.

The Corpsman began helping the individual in the vehicle, though the help would not bear fruit in the end. As he ordered me to do the small tasks that I could, the time came where the orders stopped and I realized I could be of better use helping another Sergeant mark the Landing Zone and land the Med-Evac (helicopter).  We did exactly that, loaded the injured Soldier on the bird (helicopter), and they left.

Now I want to back up and discuss a brief moment that seemed to be an eternity between the time I helped the Corpsman and helped with the landing zone.

I will never forget taking a gravitating mental note that while my unit was helping this Army Unit evacuate their wounded, setting perimeter security, making contact with the base closest to our position, and landing a helicopter in the middle of the dark desert, not a single Marine had to be told what their assignment was; because of the training I had always disliked, we were a fine group of United States Marines that didn’t have to be told what to do… not one of us. It was the most impressive moment I remember having as a Marine.

I never again complained about training.

Fast forward to 2014 – the location is Springfield, Missouri. In the August 31 edition of the Springfield News-Leader, an opinion was posted from a professor and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. The title? Schools are safe: Nix the scary drills. In this article the professor, who I can only assume has never been in a school shooting or hostile situation where he was under fire, states that the drills in schools to train students how to react in a shooter situation are too scary and traumatizing. He says schools are safe and that we as a nation need to “nix” the drills.

Ironically, less than a week later at Central High School (again, Springfield, Missouri), a single shot rang out when one student was passing to another a backpack and the backpack was dropped; that backpack contained a gun that was loaded and obviously ready to fire.

Now, as I’m sure the rest of the community agrees, we are all very thankful and feel blessed that this wasn’t an actual school shooting – the type we have witnessed from afar and across the nation over the past many years. But what I want to concentrate on here is the reaction of the school staff.

There was never a lock down. At least one parent who called seven minutes after her child texted her was initially told by the school nurse that the nurse wasn’t aware of any shooting. The same mother called back and was told by another staff member, “Oh no, there has been no shooting, nothing has gone on here.”

There are two very big questions and the Springfield community should expect answers:

  1. Was school staff ordered to tell mistruths about what happened if/when parents called or was there was actually staff in the building who, seven minutes after the shot was fired, didn’t know there was a potential security hazard? Logically, one of those two have to be the answer.
  2. As a veteran, I submit as common knowledge that when shootings happen, they begin and end in a relatively short period of time. With that in mind, how long from the shot being fired was the command decision made that there was not a threat and that a school lockdown was not necessary? After all, seven minutes after the shot being fired two different staff members denied any knowledge of what had happened.

Beyond that, I am curious if the News-Leader Editorial Board who opted to publish the “nix the drills” article feels that our schools are as safe as they alluded to a week ago when they chose to publish the article.

Lastly, the article itself submits that by training our kids how to act in an emergency situation we are traumatizing them. As somebody who is not in to the academics and institutional aspect as much as I’m in to the reality of it, I would be curious if we are more comfortable with training our children to react automatically or having them actually traumatized if a situation like Columbine or Sandy Hook happens. Without preparing them they’re not trained, and if they make it out alive of a real shooting, they are truly traumatized because the lives that could have been saved were not due to our lack of desire “to hurt their feelings and sensitivities” by training them.

Maybe I’m a Marine in the minority, but I vote to hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and be real with our children about the threats that exist.

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