Newtown shooting: A message to first responders


If you made the scene in Newtown, then you’ve been injured. All normal, feeling human beings who responded to the Sandy Hook school will be affected on some level. 

What you are feeling, your injury, is a normal response to an abnormal event.

Most importantly, treat, don’t ignore, your injury.

1.) Acknowledge your injury and be kind to yourself so that you can heal.

2.) Keep to your normal routine as much as possible. You will find solace in normalcy and so will your family.

3.) Discharge the injury. Cry. Talk to someone close to you, another first responder, a loved one, your clergy, a friend. You don’t have to tell them what you saw, but do share with them how you feel. Write down your feelings in the form of a letter, journal, poem, or email. Take advantage of the psychological counseling resources your agency makes available to you.

4.) You are hurting, injured. If you were bleeding, you would seek treatment, get stitches. Your psyche and soul need those stitches.

5.) Keep busy with productive activities. Do chores, exercise, wrap gifts, vacuum, prepare your house for the holidays, cook, rake the yard, watch comedies.

6.) Avoid excesses of anything: food, booze, gambling, sex, spending, etc.

7.) Limit your time on the Internet and watching or reading the news. You lived it. You don’t need to hear or read or watch and re-experience the trauma over and over again.

8.) If you have children the same age as the victims in this shooting incident, your reaction may be more personal and intense. This is normal.

If your children are grown, your reaction may be milder and less severe. This is also normal. Be aware of this phenomenon and provide increased tolerance and compassion for officers more personally impacted. 

9.) Educate yourself about the symptoms of post traumatic stress because you may experience one or more of the following:

• Hypervigilance
• Anger and rage
• Emotional numbness
• Irritability
• Guilt
• Depression
• Flashbacks
• Nightmares and/or trouble sleeping; panic attacks
• Avoiding thoughts of the incident
• Physical sensations such as upset stomachs, joint or headaches, sweating, breathing difficulties, chest pains, trembling, or chills
• Memory lapses or trouble concentrating
• Jumpiness or being easily startled
• Social withdrawal or isolation

All normal reactions following an abnormal event. You are not crazy if you experience symptoms. It’s perfectly okay to have them in moderation. If any of these symptoms overtake your life, become uncontrollable, or you cut yourself off from those you love or who love you, seek help.

10.) Control how and when and to whom you recount your ordeal. You don’t owe other people a play-by-play. Recounting the memories over and over will drag you through it again and again and open the healing scab. Don’t pull out those much needed stitches.

11.) Avoid “what-if” thinking such as “What if I was closer, got there faster, was on-site at the time, didn’t make that traffic stop across town minutes before the shooting. What if I could have prevented it?”

Don’t do that to yourself. What if thinking isn’t productive unless it’s used to improve future tactics, training, or procedures.

12.) Feeling helpless is normal. Feeling vulnerable is normal. As much as you would like to think otherwise, you are not Superman or Wonder Woman. You are human, mortal, and an emotional being. Allow yourself to be that.

13.) Reach out to others who are also injured, mourning, and grieving. Peer support heals everyone including you.

14.) Hug people, family, spouses, kids, friends, pets. Let your own children console you. Share the pain, don’t hide it, hoping to protect those you love from the trauma. In doing so, you will only hurt them more.

15.) Use pet therapy. Bring a pet to work or school. Share your pet with a grieving or traumatized adult or child. Pets are great to talk to. They don’t judge or advise. They listen with unconditional love.

16.) Don’t forget the teachers. They were the initial first responders at Sandy Hook.

17.) Suicide rates escalate in the wake of a traumatic incident. Monitor yourself and those around you. Signs may be evident or hidden. Don’t let the death toll rise.

This Hurts All of Us
Every first responder, whether actually on site in Newtown or not, feels the pain of this shooting. As police officers, we are the caretakers of society and most importantly of those most innocent — our children.

This hurts. All of us.

Tend to your invisible wound. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Having this invisible wound doesn’t make you weak or less of an officer. It makes you human. Makes you everything that the evil that perpetrated this crime was not.

Wounds can heal if you tend to them appropriately.

You are a first responder, a police officer, a warrior because of who you are and what you believe in. You took an oath to serve and protect and that also means you accepted the risk, the possibility of being killed, injured, or disabled in the line of duty. In taking that oath to serve and protect society, you also accepted the possibility and responsibility of the invisible injury of trauma. 

Warriors embrace trauma as part of the task and allow themselves time to lick their wounds and heal.

Acknowledging trauma is heroic, not weak. Treat your wounds. Seek those stitches. Honor your trauma.

If you need someone to talk to, please reach out to me via email.

If I can’t assist you, I know someone who can and will.

About the author

Barbara A. Schwartz retired after 30 years with NASA in Houston where she worked in Mission Control and Astronaut Training. She is a former reserve officer serving in patrol and investigations. She has been writing about law enforcement officers since 1972 and has been a contributing feature writer for American Police Beat for the past 10 years. Her articles and book reviews have also appeared in Command, The Tactical Edge, Crisis Negotiator Journal, The Badge & Gun, The Harris County Star, The Blues, and The Police News.

Schwartz earned a degree in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering from Purdue University with electives in Criminal Justice and Criminology. She helped fund her education by working for the campus police department.

Contact Barbara A. Schwartz

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  2. Health - Physical and Mental Fitness
  3. Mass Emergency Response

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