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Sandy Hook Reflections: First Responders and the Aftermath Born of Chaos

“Like an archangel supplying wings upon which victims shed tears and derive any measure of solitude, cops serve beyond Hollywood portrayals. Police academies teach police-work, not humanitarian traits.”

Today is five years since the inexplicable toll on many lives was waged at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. For any cop whose duty pulled him/her to bizarre, graphically-surreal scenes of utter destruction…indelible factors persist. It is a chronic dynamic among first responders such as police officers, military members, firefighters and paramedics. Adding nurses and ER docs to that batch is relative.

Whether diagnosed PTSD or occasional scenes visit a first responder’s psyche…answers never come easy, if at all.

I corresponded with a battle-experienced, service-oriented confidante earlier today…right after seeing the five-year mark of Sandy Hook trending in social media sites. As usual among first responders, the topic of “experiences” and the aftershock of addressing a continuum of crazy stuff is mentioned. Scant moments thereafter, something ironic transpired.

Whether diagnosed PTSD or occasional scenes visit a first responder’s psyche…answers never come easy, if at all.

Over morning coffee, I rifled through some old paperwork when an antiquated photo dropped from between slices of documents. The picture was me in police-blue uniform at the head of an elementary school class of about one dozen children…reading a book. The children donned their school-pride uniform. The image depicted tons of kid-constructed cut-outs, artwork, alphabet cards, color wheels, a chalked-up board…enveloping tiny desks with tiny chairs. I always knew those students taught me more than I could ever deposit on their young, developing brains. I’m always okay with that.

“Book-read” was one of the duties as a cop I adored, serving not only the students and teachers but also the reader. It surely helped that police administration supported such community contributions.

Now that the scene is painted for you, the fascinating feature is the red LED date stamp at the bottom-right corner of the photo archive. It reads “11-14-‘01” and conjures the fresh wounds and aftermath from the downing of the Twin Towers while also emphasizing human resilience and every child’s innocence.

For the public safety professionals who responded to Sandy Hook Elementary, there is no erasing the carnage their eyes and minds were exposed to. Respecting privacy and dignity, I find it fair to say each first responder attending the Newtown, CT school debacle on December 14, 2012 is forever burdened by morose images compelled evil.

Conversely, the surviving parents and loved ones of the children slain in the school environs met cops and paramedics galore that sad day.

On the one-year commemoration, Law Enforcement Today published the following: The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School is a game changer in how law enforcement addresses an Active Shooter Incident (ASI). Sandy Hook was the first ASI implemented against elementary school students in this county. Sandy Hook stands alone because the thought of a 20-year-old male slaying 20 first-graders is gut wrenching, as are the deaths of 6 staff members who died in the defense of these children. How many lives did these heroes save?”

Indeed, how many lives first responders save is the flip-side of a life-coin killers find valueless.

Although nowhere near the level of unspeakable destruction and unfathomable heartbreak Sandy Hook parents were burdened with, moms and dads of deceased children become pseudo-family with the law enforcement personnel whose duty it is to sort through the myriad pieces and convey the stark reality of it all. Like an archangel supplying wings upon which victims shed tears and derive any measure of solitude, cops serve beyond Hollywood portrayals. Police academies teach police-work, not humanitarian traits. It is my belief the innate senses with which we are born are reserved for application such as Sandy Hook loved ones.

My first call as a brand-new police recruit was the death of a child. I never concretely knew what was deep down within me…until that dinner-time call came across the police frequency. It started my law enforcement career while it also changed my entire life. Every time I drive by the apartment where a young lad perished, I hear the sirens in my head, I feel the velocity of my police cruiser slicing through the night, I smell the aroma of dinner in the apartment, I see the cloud-white linen-sheet covering the boy’s lifeless body.

I never felt so inert in all my life as when I stood over that boy’s small, unmoving form on the family couch. My field training officer had to nudge me from some other planet, a momentary escape from reality which the human brain does not easily compute.

I suspect Newtown, CT cops have similar harbors docked by heartfelt circumstances. Likely, some first responders on-duty during December 14, 2012 retired soon thereafter, and the courage to do so is a unquestionably tremendous strength.

To this day, I silently hug the two surviving parents of that little boy who didn’t make it. As fate would have it, the dad works at the cancer center where I receive treatments and care. The mom works at the supermarket where I shop. Their only surviving child battles autism, like my daughter.

Whether I am spot-on or relatively in the ballpark…I like to think that some relations were born of the exponential death at Sandy Hook Elementary…joining hearts and hands not only every December 14th but during other calendar options as well.

While “teaching” those school-age children on 11-14-01, I knew I was right where I needed to be. That may be difficult for others to digest, especially those whose loved ones were slain at Sandy Hook Elementary. The six school teachers also murdered at Sandy Hook  —often referred to as “Sheroes”— were doing what they loved: Teaching.

There is no easy answer. “How do you grieve for 26 people at the same time?” —excerpted from the PBS documentary Newtown.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Stephen Owsinski

Stephen Owsinski is an OpsLens Content Manager and Contributor. Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a researcher and writer. Follow Stephen on Twitter @uniformblue.

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