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Virginia State Police officers stand guard outside of Norris Hall on the Virginia Tech campus. [AP/Charles Dharapak]

Commentary

I’m a Police Chaplain Who Had to Tell Virginia Tech Families Their Children Were Dead

In the 10 years since the massacre, I’ve made it my mission to help law enforcement cope with the trauma of repeated exposure to brutal killings.

Alex Evans was pastor of the Blacksburg Presbyterian Church and a chaplain for the city’s police department when, on April 16, 2007, a gunman shot and killed 32 people on Virginia Tech’s campus. For many hours after the attack, he worked with law enforcement to notify families that their loved ones had been killed. The experience moved him so deeply that he helped found a nonprofit organization, Virginia Law Enforcement Assistance Program, VALEAP, to care for police officers dealing with trauma.

Pastor Evans talked to The Trace about the mass shooting at Virginia Tech and how it shaped his life.

It was 10 a.m. that Monday. I was in my car, about 45 minutes from Blacksburg. I’d been scheduled to leave town for the week. The police chief’s secretary called me after the second shooting and said, “You need to turn around. It’s real, real bad.” I did, right in the middle of the interstate.

Courtesy of Alex Evans

I ended up going to Norris Hall, where most of the casualties were. When I arrived, the police were taking out bodies. One lieutenant, Bruce Bradbury, started dragging students out and taking them to the hospital in his car because the ambulances were full. The interior of his car was destroyed after that because of the blood. He wouldn’t let me into the building. He said, “You’re not going in there. You don’t need to see this.” Thinking back on that, I’m really grateful for his care.

I stayed in the command post, a police trailer in a parking lot behind Norris Hall, sitting with officers who were traumatized. The campus was eerily quiet. Everyone was still on high alert because they weren’t sure if there was more than one shooter. The police were in shock. And it was snowing. It was a gray, dark day in every way.

Mostly I hung out with the cops and talked about what happened. I knew most of these guys; I’d been a chaplain in the police department for several years and we’d been through some hard stuff already. The year before, a local policeman had been shot by a prisoner. That horrific shooting of one of their colleagues totally ramped up my role, and that of the other chaplain, Tommy McDearis.

The first cops I talked to were the SWAT team guys who shot off the chains on the doors [put there by the gunman] to get into the building. Some of them had bloodstains on their clothes from dragging out the wounded. Many of these guys were Iraq veterans — a tough, well-trained group. And yet, you could see in their eyes the shock of the day. You can’t prepare for finding classrooms full of college kids dead and wounded. Nobody deals with that normally. That was totally reflected in their eyes, and in their posture.

We had pulled together a worship service at my church that night with the help of the associate pastor. About 200 people were there. We sang hymns, we prayed. Everybody in Blacksburg was affected by this. Every single person. I had church members who were teaching in that building, students who were running from another building. People were saying so-and-so got shot. It was just terrible. Nobody wanted to leave the worship service because they were sick of watching TV.

At the end of that service, the police called me back — along with Tommy, my fellow chaplain — to start dealing with the death notifications. We wound up going to the Inn at Virginia Tech, which had become the hub of the crisis. If you hadn’t heard from loved ones, you were told to go to the there and wait.

No one believes their loved one is dead until somebody tells them.”

The confirmations came from the morgue, usually by a telephone call. Then, usually a police officer and a chaplain would get the families and tell them. We’d try to get the family members and go to a private place, usually a conference room or a private hallway. It was complicated because there were so many people; some groups were as large as 100 because friends and family had come to wait. No one believes their loved one is dead until somebody tells them.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the wailing. The desperation. The inability to stand up when you hear this kind of news. I really hate that building. I’ve been back, but it’s hard to go in because of the echoes.

I spent hours with a couple of families that night, just trying to sit with them until other family members arrived. I was literally laying with them on the floor, because that’s where they end up when you tell them.

The morgue closed that night around 1 a.m. because they were overwhelmed, and they said they’d do more in the morning. The final notification I did with a family was around 2:30 p.m. the next day. It was pictures from the morgue saying, “We think this is your child but we’re not sure, we couldn’t find any ID. Can you verify the dead by this picture?” It was terrible.

By Friday, we were doing the first funeral. It was for a professor, at my church. The international press was there. Our sanctuary sits about 600, and it was jam-packed with an overflow into our fellowship hall. Many of the people trying to get in were press, so the police helped us create a sanctuary for family and loved ones who wanted to gather.

It was just nonstop for several weeks, mostly debriefings and funerals. In all that, you could tell, this is going to be something we’re going to have to deal with for a long time. One of the gifts in all this is my friend, Eric Skidmore, who started South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program (LEAP), was in town. The Blacksburg police chief had called him on the day of the funerals, because she knew of his work with officers and said, “We’re going to need help here.”

He spent the night in my house. He’s a seminary friend of mine. We were so busy that I didn’t even see him until he was on his way out of town. Basically, he said, “Alex, you need to get the most needy of these officers down to our program.”

We took six or seven officers who had been involved with the shooting down to South Carolina. The program is three days of fellowship and encouragement and healing and hope, held at a retreat center. Cops need to be with other cops, to share the details of what happened: the literal blood and guts and bullets and fear that they experience. That begins to move them from trauma to healing.

So that was the impetus for creating VALEAP in 2008, which we modeled after the South Carolina program. In 2009, we hosted our first retreat in Virginia, attended by about 40 people who were related to the shooting. Even then, cops were still saying, “A phone rings today, and it makes me remember the rings that were going off in Norris Hall, with people trying to call their kids.” These officers were still haunted by that. They had been to debriefings, but the expectation is: “Get back to work. Come on, this is part of the job.”

We offer lectures about trauma and how it affects your body, your psyche, and how you can cope. There are small, peer-led groups where people can interact with others who’ve done the program. It’s all geared toward healing, coping, and understanding trauma: This happened to me but this is not going to destroy me.

Even in 2009, cops were still saying, ‘A phone rings today, and it makes me remember the rings that were going off in Norris Hall, with people trying to call their kids.'”

There are only cops present at our program, and that’s by design. Cops trust other cops. It’s not chaplains and mental health people. I facilitate some lectures, but mostly I just make sure the retreats run smoothly.

I can’t take all the credit for VALEAP; it only worked out because some cops agreed to take positions of leadership and make this happen. In the beginning, we had a bunch of people related to the Virginia Tech shooting. Later, we had 10 people come down to Virginia from Sandy Hook. We’re getting ready to do our fourteenth retreat in Virginia, and we now average 40 to 50 cops at each one.

Although the impetus to start this was the Virginia Tech shootings, we realized once we got the program into place that it’s needed every day by cops. The trauma we encounter most? Shootings. Sometimes it’s car wrecks, sometimes it’s other tragedies, but a high percentage is related to our violent culture.

Many of those who come are dealing with the effects of having their partner shot, or, in some cases, accidentally shooting a partner, or getting struck themselves. In some ways, this is what cops sign up for, but dealing with violent trauma … it takes work. And so our program attempts to support cops who’ve been in critical incidents.

If you shot somebody, or your partner got shot, there are so many ramifications. It shows up in the form of nightmares or flashbacks. It can be PTSD. You can’t get certain things out of your mind. It can affect your perspective about your job, your calling, your effectiveness, your police work, your marriage.

Cops who’ve been through our program have said to us, “I’ve never really had a chance to talk about this with people who understand.” They say, “This saved my life. I can go back to work. I can be a happy person. My wife isn’t even going to recognize me.”

All that reaffirms how wearisome and burdensome our violent culture is on those who we expect to protect and serve.

One of my most gratifying memories of the past decade happened sometime in the summer in 2007. The Blacksburg Police Chief asked me if I would check on one of the SWAT team guys because she was worried about him. He was kind of shutting down. He’s huge, maybe 6’4” and could be an offensive lineman.

I met him really late one night; he worked the night shift. I got in his car around 10 o’clock and we just started riding around. We didn’t talk about hardly anything, just shot the breeze for several hours. And then, like, at 1 a.m., he says, “You know, preacher. I was dubious of the chaplain program in our department. I didn’t think it was needed. We’re tough cops and you guys aren’t cops. Then on April 16, I saw you at Norris Hall. I was in a very dark place. It was terrible. And you showed up. And it reminded me that God was present.” 

I’m not God, but my presence is a reminder that it’s not as dark as you think. That’s what he was saying: Thank you, preacher, for being there. I will always cherish that.