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Will Thomas was gunned down in a Cincinnati street and paralyzed from the waist down. [Phil Didion for the Enquirer]

Aftermath

Introducing Aftermath, a New Podcast About Gun Violence Survivors

Ever imagine what it's like to be shot? Reporters Amber Hunt of the Cincinnati Enquirer and Elizabeth Van Brocklin of The Trace traveled the country talking to people who know too well.

A 14-year-old boy in Kentucky shot in a prayer circle at school. 

A 17-year-old girl in Washington, D.C., shot while chatting outside with a group of friends. 

A 23-year-old woman, working her first job in Seattle, shot by an intruder upset about tensions in the Middle East.

The circumstances and backgrounds vary, but these people all share one defining characteristic: They survived.

Aftermath, a new podcast, examines these survival stories to explore the long-term effects — both physical and mental — of gun violence in the United States. The project is the work of USA Today Network journalists, in collaboration with the nonprofit newsroom The Trace, and debuts Tuesday.

“If I tell my story, or people that are survivors tell their story, it can be useful to the younger generation of people that’s up-coming in life,” said Michael Green, 19, who nearly lost his arm when he was shot six years ago while playing basketball down the street from his lifelong home in Detroit. 

Project

Aftermath

We hear all too often about the casualties of gun violence in America. But what about the survivors? A new podcast from The Trace and the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Every day on average in America, roughly 96 people are shot and killed by firearms. Vastly more survive. Of the nearly 85,000 people estimated to have survived gun injuries in 2015, close to three-fourths were victims of assault; 17,300 suffered unintentional shootings; 3,800 survived suicide attempts; and about 900 were shot by law-enforcement officers, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hollan Holm, 35, was shot in the head in 1997 when a classmate opened fire at Heath High School in West Paducah, Kentucky. Even he tried to downplay his suffering from the shooting that left three classmates dead.

“I tried to remove myself from a lot of the ‘victim’ title and that sort of thing because there were people that died,” Holm said.

Still, Holm had nightmares and suffered spells of depression. One day, a balloon popped while he was shopping with his mother at Wal-Mart. “I felt all the color drain from my face,” he remembered. “It was really bad for the first year or so, but as time has gone, it’s kind of lessened.”

Triggers remain. Even today, when he sees news footage of students practicing active-shooter drills, he’s thrown back to that December day when he was a 14-year-old high school freshman. 

“I’m back, feeling the same kind of feelings I had that day,” he said. “It’s definitely a panic. You’re scared and it’s like you’re present but not present. You’re somehow straddling present time and past time, sort of a bridge between those two.”

Aftermath’s creators also produced Accused, a hit true-crime podcast exploring unsolved murder cases in the Cincinnati region. That podcast, which debuted in September 2016 and spans two seasons so far, has more than 15 million listens to date. 

Accused’s first season, focusing on the slaying of 23-year-old Elizabeth Andes, won several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for outstanding achievement in electronic journalism.

Aftermath takes a different approach to crime reporting. Instead of the season focusing on one local case, each episode examines the lingering aftereffects of gun violence all over the country. The goal is to shed light on the struggles of the understudied-yet-growing population of shooting survivors.  

“In any situation like this, there’s a person who’s injured, and then everyone around them also suffers in different ways,” said Layla Bush, 35, who was shot in the abdomen and shoulder during a mass shoo

ting at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle in 2006. 

Nine survivors are to be featured in Aftermath. Most were innocent bystanders caught in gunfire, but not all. In some of the cases, the people shot had themselves gunned down others at various points in their lives — decisions that, at times, seem to show that violence and trauma are cyclical. 

“I heard people scream before I shot and I heard, ‘Ahhh!’, running away,” said Javier Arango, a Colombian emigrant who recalls seeing his first dead body at age 4. “It could be those moments that I was living back then that I actually enjoyed that feeling.”

Arango moved to Oakland, California, to flee conflict-riddled Colombia, only to be shot in the spine after a high school dance in December 2006. After the shooting, he joined a gang for protection — and to get revenge on the people who’d shot him. 

He wreaked havoc on Oakland until about seven years ago, after he had buried several of his friends. He hopes that, by sharing his story through Aftermath, he’ll persuade other young men to make different choices than he made.

“Every time I see a gun, it’s a reminder,” he said. “Every time I see a bullet, it’s a reminder.”

While reporting for Aftermath started more than a year ago, the topic of gun violence has been thrust more to the national forefront in recent months. The podcast doesn’t take a political stand, but some of the survivors share their views on guns and proposed legislation.

Ra’Shauna Brown — who was 17 when shot while talking with friends in Washington, D.C., in 2010 — bought guns after she was shot as a way to overcome her fear of them. 

Clai Lasher-Sommers — who was 13 when her alcoholic stepfather nearly killed her with a bullet to her back — has become an advocate for background checks and executive director of GunSense Vermont.

Lasher-Sommers, 61, said the damage inflicted by a single bullet is in no way limited by its caliber. 

“I will always have to live with, never get rid of, what happened to me,” Lasher-Sommers said. “You never overcome it … but you learn to walk beside it, and you learn to acknowledge what it does to you and how it affects you.”

Aftermath is available on Apple Podcasts and other podcast host sites. The eight episodes are released Tuesdays from May 22 through July 10.