Press-Republican

September 30, 2013

Local man providing mental-health support at shooting site

Rouses Point man in DC to help with Navy Yard trauma

FELICIA KRIEG
Press-Republican

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the few days Rouses Pointer Bob Fitzgerald has spent at the Washington Navy Yard, he has spoken with dozens about their experience in the Sept. 16 shooting.

That day, Aaron Alexis, 34, a computer technician and former member of the Navy who had been doing computer work for the military, smuggled a shotgun in a backpack into building 197.

Alexis killed 12, wounded eight and has left many others emotionally and psychologically damaged.

‘LIKE A TORNADO’

On Wednesday, Fitzgerald, a nurse with experience working in the mental-health field, traveled by plane to the American Red Cross National Headquarters in Washington, D.C., to serve as a disaster mental-health supervisor in the Navy Yard.

Fitzgerald is a volunteer with the North Country Chapter of the American Red Cross and also serves on the local board.

He previously worked with victims of hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Irene.

“This is my first man-made disaster,” he said. “It’s amazing to me how much damage one mentally ill man can do ... It’s like tornado hit and killed some people in some community except there was intent and hate and all that involved in it.”

Fitzgerald and other health-care professionals from around the Northeast have made themselves available to servicemen and civilian workers in food courts and other common areas in the Navy Yard.

They have also employed the comforting presence of a therapy dog named Oscar, Fitzgerald said.

“People come over and talk about what happened and kind of sort it out a little bit. I would call it psychological first aid,” he said. “Most of it is just listening ... to what they went through.”

NOT KNOWING

It is difficult for some to seek out help in a military setting, he said, but his team has made an effort to reach as many people as possible.

Among the many Fitzgerald spoke with was a friend of a security guard whose weapon was taken from him before he was killed. Another was a secretary at one of the Naval offices who has friends that work in building 197.

That was the toughest part, the woman told him. Not knowing whether they were safe.

Luckily, none of the woman’s friends were injured in the attack, he said.

‘SECOND TRAUMA WAVE’

To someone ignorant of the shootings, Navy Yard operations may appear normal.

“I think they’ve gone through this week, and they’ve gotten back into their routine, although they’re not totally there,” Fitzgerald said. 

Once the initial shock has subsided, there is a “second wave of trauma-related issues,” when the true magnitude of the tragedy registers with the victims, he said.

Military officers have appointed those not affected by the shooting to remove belongings and other items from building 197 so those who were there that day don’t have to relive the terror.

“You see people walking through with paper bags.”

SENSE OF DISBELIEF

Each person will return to normalcy at a different rate, Fitzgerald said.

“A lot of it depends on what previous trauma they’ve had and personality types,” he said. “I’m sure there’s going to be some folks that are going to have a hard time with this in the time to come.”

In his experience, grief resulting from a man-made disaster is different from grief brought on by natural forces, Fitzgerald said.

“There’s an anger factor (in those affected) that lasts longer.”

For anyone impacted by a tragedy created by man, there is a sense of disbelief that accompanies the grief, Fitzgerald said.

“For the longest time, I think we thought we were entitled to safety as Americans.

“The rest of the world has been experiencing this for awhile.”

Despite the grim reason Fitzgerald is in Washington, those he has met there have made an impression on him.

“I think I appreciate these guys in uniform a lot more. It’s not an easy lifestyle,” he said. 

“If it weren’t for them, it would be a lot worse, I think.”

‘GREAT PEOPLE’

Fitzgerald spoke highly of the men and women who work in the Navy Yard.

“These military folks are just top shelf.”

Officials at the facility have been grateful to Fitzgerald and the other Red Cross members.

“It kind of blows me away when the captains and admirals come and shake your hands.”

Early on in his four-day trip, Fitzgerald had already seen positive developments in the Navy Yard employees and servicemen.

“If anything, they’ve gotten closer over the past week. I’m very proud of them. They’re just great people.”

Fitzgerald flew back home Saturday night.

He said the effort would continue the week of Sept. 30 with help from the Washington, D.C. Chapter of the American Red Cross, the military and D.C.’s local Department of Mental Health.

Email Felicia Krieg: fkrieg@pressrepublican.comTwitter: @FeliciaKrieg