Fort Hood ministry teams care for, counsel Soldiers, families in aftermath of tragedy
April 23, 2014
WASHINGTON (April 23, 2014) -- On April 2, 2014 around 4:15 p.m., Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Addison Burgess, 1st Cavalry Division chaplain, was getting ready to leave his office on Fort Hood when he was told to stay put. He heard shots and hoped that it was a routine memorial ceremony.
His worst fears came true when the lockdown alarmed sounded. Soon, the installation learned of the shooting attack by Spc. Ivan Lopez, which once again enveloped the Army base in tragedy.
Immediately following the lockdown notification, the Chaplain's office began accounting for all Unit Ministry Teams. With some individuals at medical appointments, en route back from the National Training Center at Fort Hood, or already home for the day, it took about 15 minutes to reach 100 percent accountability of all division chaplain personnel.
At 6:45 p.m., the Chaplain's Office heard from Headquarters to send four chaplains for casualty assistance, and at 7 p.m., other Unit Ministry Teams were notified to move to two different gyms to provide support to the two brigades caught in the crossfire of the attack. Every Soldier in the sustainment brigade and 1st Medical Brigade was required to report to the gym, where they had a chance to speak with unit leadership and chaplains to both share information about the incident and talk to someone if they wanted help.
"It was an emotional roller coaster within both settings," Burgess said about the gyms, which were chaotic in the aftermath of the shooting. As limited information about the incident spread piecemeal, Chaplains moved around to talk with Soldiers and to make themselves available if anyone wanted to talk.
"You have to give Soldiers an opportunity to process where they are," Burgess said. "Chaplains need to remind Soldiers and loved ones that they are safe, that we have to be able to gather the pieces but are here as a community to walk through this together."
As family members of Sgt. 1st Class Daniel M. Ferguson, Staff Sgt. Carlos L. Rodriguez, and Sgt. Timothy W. Owens, who were killed in the attack, were notified, chaplains were assigned to each family for ongoing pastoral care. The chaplains were tasked to stay with the families until the memorial ceremony -- but even after the memorial, all have volunteered to stay on until the families are ready for them to leave. Each of the three families of the casualties belonged to community churches, and Burgess described a healthy collaboration among military and civilian groups, who wanted to do anything they could to help.
Chaplains also ensured that Mrs. Lopez, wife of the shooter, was taken care of in the aftermath of the attack. They assigned a Spanish-speaking chaplain to work with her and her young family as they cope with the tragedy.
By 6 a.m., the morning following the shooting, the Chaplain's Office stood up 24 hour chaplain coverage at two locations: the Spirit of Fort Hood Chapel and the Scott & White Hospital.
After trauma, some find it difficult to look ahead to the future. Burgess gave an example of a commander whose unit is preparing to deploy downrange from Fort Hood in the next few weeks.
"I'm trying to help them look ahead, but at the same time, recognize that each Soldier is going to process it differently," Burgess said. One way Unit Ministry Teams support the healing process is by engaging in critical stress debriefings with Soldiers.
The trauma is difficult for Soldiers at every level, including leaders who want to lead their Soldiers through the tragedy while they themselves are grieving. Grief hits people with a predictable response of shock -- a numb and overwhelmed feeling. Even unit leaders feel this normal challenge while attempting to bring order to the chaos in their unit.
Fort Hood's chapels saw increased numbers at worship services in the days following the tragedy, and the community came together to show love, concern, and support.
The hardest part for Burgess has been working with two Soldiers whom he also knew previously from his congregation in California. They were present in one of the conference rooms where the shootings took place. When they saw Burgess in the gym after the attack, they gave him a huge hug. A few days later, he found them in his office waiting for him. Like many, they are looking for answers.
"They want to hear it from you," Burgess said about the way people may seek answers from chaplains in the wake of grief. "But they have to ask God for help. It has to come from within. Chaplains walk with them and help them talk to God."
Lt. Gen. Mark A. Milley, III Corps commander, gave brigade command teams clear guidance after the shooting, that the community will get through this with 100 percent support to victims and anyone else who needs help. In addition to Chaplain pastoral care and counseling, Fort Hood's network of behavioral health, Army Community Service, Legal / JAG, and Combat Stress experts have all stepped up to provide comprehensive care to Soldiers and Families.
"We don't have all the answers," Chaplain Burgess said. "We can provide care but also must be willing to refer. We are not a one station shop -- we're in it together as part of a community. We can refer and follow up."
But chaplains provide a unique resource for Soldiers and families -- always, but especially in the aftermath of tragedy.
"Lots of prayer. Lots of prayer," Burgess said. "Lots of assurance. A listening ear. And the assurance that we walk with you through these dark valleys."
While coordinating Unit Ministry Team coverage in the aftermath of a tragedy, the Fort Hood Chaplain's office identified the following best practices:
• Add an exercise to quarterly Unit Ministry Team training to walk through scenarios and determine point person/lead in emergency situations.
• Outline process to allow authorized chaplains to move more efficiently across the installation during a lockdown/emergency situation (this would include communication and coordination of procedures between Chaplain's Office, unit commanders, and Military Police).
• Identify a reporting standard for level and type of information that senior leaders need to know during an emergency scenario.
• Improve efficiency of the emergency personnel accountability process by maintaining consistent awareness of team member whereabouts.
• Capture and share recommended expectations (do's and don't's) for chaplains on notification duty who may remain with families for an extended period of time.