Thursday, November 5, 2009

Fort Hood: The Waiting is the Hardest Part

At least 12 people are dead and at least 31 injured in a shooting or shootings at Fort Hood, Texas this afternoon.  One gunman, a soldier, is dead.  Two others are in custody.  By the time you read this -- indeed, by the time I finish writing it -- all of that information may turn out to be wrong.  As the press says, this is a "breaking news story."

The shooting occurred almost two hours ago, but we still don't know what happened.  Fort Hood, is on lockdown, or at least it was within the last half hour.  So are the neighboring schools.  Reports differ on how many gunmen there were and whether they are all accounted for.  News like this, where the details are coming out piecemeal and the information is changing, are both extremely scary and also extremely hard to tear oneself away from. 

This story is compelling for lots of reasons -- a lot of people are dead, the possibility of terrorism is on our minds, the dead are possibly servicemen and women who we presume to be safe before they are stateside.  The fact that it's changing means that we don't want to turn off the news, because we want to know what happened and we aren't sure that we do.  We have one set of facts now, and we might miss the next change if we break away.  We want to understand.

The constantly changing nature of the story also adds to what is so traumatizing about an incident like this.  Instead of hearing the news and reacting to it, we go through a seemingly infinite series of exposures.  We hear the story, we experience the trauma or secondary trauma of it, and then new facts are announced and we experience it again. 

This phenomenon was painfully obvious to me this afternoon as I drove with my daughter.  When we got in the car I explained to her that there had been a shooting at a military base and a lot of people were dead, and that the news would be talking about it.  At that time, the number of known dead was 7 with 20 injured, but I didn't tell her that.  When the headlines came on, they announced that 12 people were dead and 31 injured, and I involuntarily winced.  My daughter, on the other hand, was completely unphased.  I was reacting to the new information, but for her the information hadn't really changed.  I was traumatized again -- she wasn't.

Aside from that increase in the numbers, the most poignant and compelling part of this story thus far for me came in an offhand sentence in coverage by USA Today:
A spokeswoman for the City of Killeen, where the base is located, tells USA TODAY's Donna Leinwand the Army is "asking for EMTs because it's a mass casualty event."
The term "mass casualty event" isn't one you hear in the newspaper a lot.  If you work in emergency services or in crisis response, on the other hand, it is a term that has a lot of emotional charge.  We talk about car accidents as having "multiple fatalities."  Mass casualty events are huge.  9-11 was a mass casualty event, and even though this clearly has none of that scope, the seriousness of that kind of incident is invoked by using that term. 

Another way to look at it is this:  There are roughly 60,000 people at Fort Hood, and they have their own police, fire and ambulance service.  Imagine what would have to happen in a town of 60,000 -- roughly the size of St. Cloud, Minnesota -- to completely overwhelm their ambulance service.  It's bad.

This event will actually become less traumatic for everyone -- people there and people hearing about it on the news -- the minute the information stops changing.  It may even feel anticlimactic.  And then the real work begins.


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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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