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.
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.
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.
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