Monday, November 9, 2009

The Children of Fort Hood

As everyone knows by now, 13 people died and 30 were injured in a mass shooting at Fort Hood last Thursday. There has been a lot of focus, quite appropriately, on the people who died and on their families. There has also been some given to those who were wounded, some quite critically. And of course there has been an inordinate amount of speculation about the alleged shooter, who, reports say, is now awake and talking in the hospital.

It is impossible to predict how any individual person will be affected by Thursday's events. Some who you might expect to be very emotionally impacted will bounce back quickly, and some who seem to be on the periphery of the incident may be profoundly affected. As the CISM personnel work to triage those traumatized by the shooting -- those who lost a loved one, those who were shot, those who knew the shooter, those who witnessed the shooting, etc. -- there is one group that is probably giving them a little pause: the children.

To my knowledge there were no children present when the shooting started on Thursday. That means no children saw the scenes of violence first hand. But that in no way means that the children at Fort Hood aren't impacted, and they are going to need a lot of support. But we all know intuitively that helping children through these moments is different than helping adults, and few early crisis interventionists have any training at all in working with kids.

CNN reports that officials at Fort Hood have called in child psychologists as well as disaster management experts. That means the impact here is big -- bigger than what their town of 60,000 can handle on their own. It is a disaster, just as surely as a building collapse in a large-ish town that killed 13 and injured 30 would be, only probably worse, or at least different, for the families.

So why are the children impacted? There are numerous factors. First, these kids were on lockdown for several hours on Thursday. During that time, they did not know what was going on, where their parents were, if anyone in their family had been injured, or when they would see them again. If they looked out the window they saw what amounted to a live military operation going on outside of their schools, and for all they knew the "bad guy" was coming for them next.

Some of these children, of course, lost a parent in the shooting or have a parent who was injured. If not, they almost certainly have a neighbor or friend who was impacted. They went to school on Thursday morning believing that they were OK in school and their parents were OK at work, and came home knowing that very well might not be true at any given moment.

I've often said that trauma violates our world view. For these kids, that is doubly true. All of us need to believe that the world is generally a safe place, and this incident took away that belief from these children. But it also took away something else. It took away their visceral understanding that soldiers -- parents -- who are stateside are safe, and that danger lies in the war zone. A big part of how they can cope with having parents who put themselves in harm's way for a living is by telling themselves that the fact that they come home means they are OK. Now, 13 people who were stateside, who were home, are not coming home any more.

So what do we do for these kids? That depends, of course, on what they need. I suspect the days, weeks and months ahead will hold a lot of crayons and paper, a lot of tissues, and a lot of nightmares for some of these kids. Watching parents ship out is going to be really hard. Watching them come home is going to be surreal. So while we're honoring the dead and thanking our troops, particularly during Wednesday's Veteran's Day celebration, let's take a moment to remember their kids, and to thank them for all they give up in service to our country, too.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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