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Navy Yard employees get counseling after shooting

Sep. 26, 2013 - 07:41PM   |  

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A Navy medical corpsman tracks names of people in need of counseling in the SPRINT command and control center at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 26. (Cliff Owen / AP)

WASHINGTON — Andy Wood is accustomed to responding to a hazardous materials spill or ferocious natural disaster from his post at the Washington Navy Yard’s emergency operations center.

A panicked call of shots fired that reached his radio on the morning of Sept. 16 presented a chilling new challenge.

“It was terrifying,” Wood, a 35-year-old Navy electronics technician who runs the center, recalled in an interview Thursday about the shooting of 12 people inside Building 197.

Ten days later, Wood remains haunted by that morning.

When a base-wide announcement system was tested in the days after the shooting — the same system he had used to declare the base on lockdown — he said he “got a little freaked out.” When he leaves work at the end of his shift, or when he goes to pick up his children, he panics that a similar disaster will strike the base and he won’t be there — or maybe no one will — to respond.

“I worry about not being there to receive the call when it happens, he said.

Wood has received both group and one-on-one counseling since the shooting, and he’s hardly alone. Navy officials say counselors have so far interacted with more than 6,000 employees at the Navy Yard, many of whom were inside Building 197 when former Navy sailor Aaron Alexis — who worked there as an IT contractor — opened fire with a shotgun. He was killed by a police officer more than an hour after the shooting began.

A specialized team that responds to industrial accidents, death on bases and other traumatic events deployed from Virginia to Washington, with counselors checking in with workers at the water cooler or on smoke break. Some employees have attended large group counseling sessions or scheduled one-on-one appointments.

“We’re hearing the wide range of normal. People are scared, they’re angry, they’re sad. Some have lost co-workers. Everyone on the base has been impacted one way or another,” said Navy Commander Ingrid Pauli, a leader of the Special Psychiatric Rapid Intervention Team, or SPRINT, in Portsmouth, Va., adding, “We try to get out and touch as many people as we can.”

The counselors stress to workers that they’re experiencing normal reactions to an abnormal event, a message Wood said he especially appreciates as he revisits memories of the “shocked” faces of the first responders and the laundry list of responsibilities he performed that day — from alerting his chain of command, processing messages from Building 197 and spreading word that the base was on lockdown.

“Every duty day, every shift I’ve ever been on, we’ve always prepared for events like this. And you train and you train and you train, and however much training you do, you always hope that nothing will ever happen. It happened, though, and thankfully I had that training to rely on.”

The aid is a way to offer support to stressed-out workers but also to help the base regain a semblance of normalcy. Building 197 remains closed and is still considered a crime scene, its workers displaced.

And signs of the shooting, both subtle and overt, are present through the Navy Yard: bouquets of flowers left at the base of a public art sculpture near an entrance gate, a large police communications vehicle parked outside, Red Cross workers handing out food and therapy dogs strolling the grounds with their handlers.

Alexis was suffering from delusions in the month leading up to the shooting, leaving a note that he was driven to kill because of bombardment by extremely low frequency radio waves, the FBI said. The FBI also released surveillance footage Wednesday showing Alexis hunting victims with a shotgun, a decision that angered defense officials who worried that the disturbing video would re-ignite panic and stress for workers at the Navy Yard. The FBI defended that decision Thursday, citing the tremendous public interest in the shooting.

Meanwhile, the Navy on Thursday ordered an in-depth investigation into the shooting and the events that led up to it, including a detailed look at the shooter, his mental health background and whether any adverse information was ever reported to the service about him.

The SPRINT team expects to be on the base through the end of next week as demand for services — which was high early this week — starts to wane. Most won’t require long-term mental health care.

“What we hope and what we expect is that most people will return to normal,” Pauli said.

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