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Andy Brown

The Good and the Bad

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If you have lived through a life-threatening event you are probably familiar with the symptoms of post-trauma stress. Symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, and hyper-vigilance. The severity of these symptoms can vary over time but they tend to increase when the person is reminded of the traumatic incident they experienced. For example, if the person’s traumatic incident involved gunfire, the unexpected sound of a balloon popping could result in an anxiety causing burst of adrenaline. This reaction is the result of the person’s subconscious mind working to protect them from perceived danger. Symptoms also tend to increase as the anniversary date of the incident approaches or when similar incidents are reported in the news media.

As the anniversary of the 1994 shooting and plane crash at Fairchild Air Force Base approaches, I usually find myself to be a little more “on edge” than normal. For me, this annual feeling of unease has lessened over time as I work to diminish my symptoms, but it hasn’t gone away completely. This year, the 2017 anniversary has coincided with several similar incidents of tragedy around the world. These tragedies have been widely and repeatedly reported in the media. This over-coverage of violence and negativity has the potential to make this anniversary unusually distressing. I don’t consume a lot of news media anymore, but for the next week I will be distancing myself even further from the news. Instead, I will focus on the positive things in my life; my family, my friends and the beauty in the world around me. If you find that you are feeling particularly distressed, I encourage you to do the same.

In the book, Warnings Unheeded, I briefly covered the steps I took to recover from post-trauma stress. One of those steps was learning to look for the positive in all things. If you are unable to escape the media coverage of violence and tragedy, you might try to look for the positive among the negativity. Look for the story of the first-responder, whether they be uniformed or civilian, look for people helping others. As I wrote about the men and women who responded to the incidents at Fairchild AFB in June, 1994. “Their story is proof that behind the scenes of every tragedy, is a story of humanity, bravery and compassion. Their story is evidence of something we all need reminding of now and then. The number of good people in this world will always outnumber the bad.”
—Andy Brown

 

Learning To Live Again

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On 20 June 1994, a troubled airman took a rifle to the hospital of Fairchild Air Force Base. Four days later a reckless pilot crashed a B-52 bomber near Fairchild’s nuclear weapon storage area. The incidents resulted in several fatalities and multiple wounded. Friends and family will forever feel the loss of their loved ones. The tragedies will forever haunt the memories of those who were unfortunate enough to experience them. We will never forget those life-altering days but with time and effort we can learn to “live” again.

Fairchild Air Force Base Memorial


It was the shooting that bothered me the most as it was the incident in which I was most directly involved. I was a patrolman at Fairchild on that cloudless summer day and I, like many others, responded to the call for help.  I located the gunman outside of the hospital where he was pursuing patrons and medical staff. I confronted the shooter and engaged him in a rifle-versus-pistol gunfight which ended with a seventy yard shot from my Beretta M9.

Fairchild Security Police


Countless first-responders answered the call for help that day—law enforcement officers, firefighters and medical personnel. Additionally, several hospital patrons swiftly transitioned into the role of first-aid caregiver. It was a chaotic and traumatic scene. Nearly two dozen men, women and children had suffered gunshot wounds. The caregivers left positions of cover to render aid to the wounded. They located, triaged, treated and prepped the survivors for transport to local hospitals, some acted even as the bullets were still flying. Few, if any, of the people who were there that day would escape the effects of trauma. I have personally heard from several survivors and responders whose experiences with the effects of trauma have been remarkably similar to each other, and to my own. Including the fact that we are still affected by the tragedies, in varying degrees, more than twenty years later.

Senior Airman Brown


For several years after the shooting, it seemed as if everything I saw or heard caused an unwanted memory of the incident to flash in my mind. Those intrusive thoughts grew stronger and more frequent over time and eventually caused life-altering anxiety and irritability. As a patrolman, I had developed a habit of being aware of my surroundings and alert for criminal activity. After the shooting I became hyper-alert—jumping at every unexpected sound or sudden movement. I grew uncomfortable in public spaces and avoided crowded locations. I became reclusive and developed a negative, cynical attitude toward the outside world. That cynicism was fueled by television and radio news programs and their constant coverage of violence and crime. Over time, I developed a habit of finding the negative in every situation I encountered. Although I had married and had two beautiful children, I no longer recognized any of the good things in my life.
 
I could see that the way I was living was no way to live. I knew that I was unhappy but I could not find happiness on my own, and it seemed as if no one else was able to help me. For years I had unsuccessfully sought help from numerous doctors, most of whom seemed unable or unwilling to get to the root of my problem. Instead they attempted to mask my symptoms with ineffective medications. If it weren’t for the encouragement of my wife I would have given up. I eventually found help at the Spokane VA Hospital. A VA counselor helped me dissect the incident and uncover what was troubling me. She then taught me drug-free methods of diminishing many of my symptoms. I know that violence and crime still exist. I am aware of it, but I have chosen not to dwell on it. I have learned to interact in my community, be aware of my surroundings and appreciate the positive things in life. 
 
Shortly after the 1994 tragedies, Fairchild Air Force Base erected a memorial to the five lives lost at the hospital and the four aviators who were killed in the B-52 bomber crash. In 2014, I was asked to speak at the twentieth anniversary memorial of the hospital shooting which was held at Fairchild’s Memorial Park. As we near the twenty-third anniversary of the Fairchild tragedies I will share the last lines of the speech that I gave on 20 June 2014.
 
“I may never be the person I was before the shooting, but
in some ways I am stronger for it, and I have found peace.
I haven’t lost the habits I developed as a patrolman—I am
still vigilant for evil and ready to stand in its way when it
threatens innocents. There was a time when all I could see
was darkness, but today I practice a balanced awareness; I
see the beauty of the world while I am watching for danger.
Today—I can once again appreciate the simple wonder of
a cloudless summer day.
I will never forget the survivors and heroes of June
1994. And although I never met them, I will never forget
Christin McCarron, Anita Lindner, Thomas Brigham,
Alan London, and Taylor Sigman. Because I didn’t know
them I was hesitant to speak at this memorial ceremony. I
was worried that I wouldn’t pay them a fitting tribute. But
whether you knew the fallen or not, we can all honor them
today, with a greater appreciation of life.”
 
You can read more about the 1994 tragedies at Fairchild AFB, my experience and the heroic actions of others in the book, Warnings Unheeded: Twin Tragedies at Fairchild Air Force Base. Available here
 
Andy Brown

WARNINGS UNHEEDED

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