The first hours of last Monday’s shooting spree at Washington Navy Yard were wracked by reporting errors. One of the most blaring miscues, though one taken very gravely in the unfolding violence, was a quick report that there had been another shooting incident at Joint Base Anacostia Bolling, an installation across the river from where Navy Yard contractor Aaron Alexis was gunning down his coworkers.
Nothing like that happened at Bolling. The Navy and Air Force base, which is also home to the Defense Intelligence Agency, had its own brief period of lockdown, but it was not long before the staff at Bolling started preparing for the aftermath of the shootings at the Navy Yard.
“My leadership from the Navy Yard contacted me and said, ‘Hey, this is going to have some significant impact both short- and long-term and we’re going to need to start planning for that now’,” Navy Capt. Anthony Calandra, Bolling’s commander, tells Washingtonian. By one o’clock that afternoon, Calandra was talking with the Navy about an EFAC—an Emergency Family Assistance Center, a collection of human services where victims’ relatives and survivors can get help in one location.
Virginia Figgins, the EFAC’s director, says it happened quicker than that. By early afternoon, mental-health workers and Red Cross volunteers had marshaled themselves at a parking lot outside Nationals Park down the street from Navy Yard where waves of evacuating employees were arriving from the locked-down base.
Meanwhile, back at Bolling, phone calls started flooding the lines of the social workers dispatched to the EFAC. Navy Yard workers who witnessed Alexis’s rampage or even heard about it from across the base had had their senses of workplace security shattered.
“You could hear the anxiety,” Ava Imhof, Bolling’s supervising clinical social worker, recalls. “How am I going to handle this? How am I going to cope?” There were more phone calls on Tuesday, another batch on Wednesday, but the busiest day was probably Thursday, says Imhof. That’s when all Navy Yard employees finally went back to work after two days of essential-personnel-only orders.
But the cluster of rooms on the ground floor of Enterprise Hall, a stately, red-brick Colonial Revival compound that sticks out from Bolling’s boxy modern structures, is still busy. There are stations manned by the judge advocate general, the FBI victims’ assistance program, the DC Crime Victims Compensation Fund, chaplains, and numerous social workers. Volunteers from the American Red Cross supplement the base’s staff and provide snacks and refreshments. But the whole operation was launched within a few hours of the first shots being fired, says Calandra.
Not surprisingly, the bulk of the phone calls are coming from people who work at Navy Yard’s Building 197, where Alexis carried out his spree that claimed the lives of 12 other civilian contractors. Now, the 3,000 people who work in that building, along with many of the 13,000 other people who work on the base, are trying to get back to normal, even though what counts for “normal” has shifted.
From President Obama’s remarks at a memorial service Sunday night, last Monday’s events at Navy Yard reinforce a twisted new normal in which mass shootings almost seem routine. “Part of what wears on us, what troubles us so deeply as we gather here today, is how this senseless violence that took place in the Navy Yard echoes other recent tragedies,” Obama said.
Calandra says he’s witnessing a “renewed sense of anxiety,” similar to what he felt after 9/11. But there’s a tangible difference between the circumstances faced by active-duty military during wartime and the civilian workers who work on domestic military bases, even if many of the Navy Yard victims were veterans.
“Some day I’m going to take this uniform off and I’m going to put on a coat and tie,” says Calandra, who has been in the Navy for 25 years. “I’m sure my family is going to say to themselves, ‘Okay, that time in our lives is over now. We can take a step back and relax a little bit.’”
That sense of ease has been shattered for the families of victims like Martin Bodrog, a 22-year Navy man who left active duty in 2003, or Gerald Read, who spent 29 years in the Army.
There could still be a difficult path ahead for the victims’ coworkers, too, whether they were in Building 197 fleeing Alexis’s shots or evacuating other buildings on the Navy Yard, Figgins and Imhof say. While much of Bolling’s EFAC help is aimed directly to the families of the deceased, the biggest job is to help the Navy Yard’s full workforce—uniformed and civilian alike—cope with what they endured.
“Some people are going to feel it right away,” Imhof says. “Some people will feel it later on. Some of them may be very numb, just like when someone close to you dies, you may go numb for a while and then when it’s safe or you’re ready that’s when you start crying.”
To the soldiers and civilians staffing the EFAC, the most important thing is that resources are available around the clock after an incident with the potential to leave witnesses with post-traumatic stress disorder. Navy Yard workers might encounter the same mental symptoms as troops wounded in combat in a distant theater, and the EFAC is assembled to provide a rapid response.
In some ways, it’s an improvement over what is offered to active-duty troops, says Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Richard J. Simonsen Jr., Bolling’s senior enlisted leader.
“Many days are a struggle for me just to begin with,” Simonsen, who suffered a traumatic brain injury during an 11-month deployment in Afghanistan, says. “I didn’t get a chance to get any type of social services the entire time. When I got back I immediately knew I needed to get assistance and mental health. But for me, too much time had gone by to build resiliency when I really needed to do it.”
Simonsen, who is accompanied by an energetic black lab named Yoko, says the distress of last Monday was mitigated because he had a mission to carry out, in making sure Bolling was secure. Since then, he has worked to ensure that people at Navy Yard are aware of the services being provided across the Anacostia River.
Getting to them early makes a crucial difference. “With the EFAC we have and our proactively going out there and reaching these people, I have a good feeling these people won’t have to suffer like a lot of folks who have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan have,” Simonsen says.
The 700 or so people who had called the EFAC through Friday morning are just a fraction of the thousands who work at Navy Yard, and even though the center was quieting down headed into the weekend, the operation is not ending any time soon. The EFAC lasts “as long as it takes,” Calandra says.
And it will take a toll on the people offering aid and guidance to the survivors and witnesses. Imhof says that while it’s an affirming thing to help people cope through a traumatic experience, listening to so many stories takes a toll.
Calandra felt it early on in the process when he was ordered to head to Nationals Park to help with the Navy Yard workers being evacuated last Monday night.
“I was getting our EFAC numbers out to people, and then one of the families of the victims showed up, and that’s when it hit me,” Calandra recalls, his voice clenching and eyes tightening. “That’s when it got hard. That’s when I had to take a little bit of time to go compose myself, because that’s when it came back to roost.”
The military drills its people for emergencies like these and Calandra is proud to know how quickly his team organized last week. But he notes grimly that their response, to the 20th such incident since 2009 to claim at least four lives, has become almost routine.
“It’s almost sad to note we’re getting better and better at handling this,” Calandra says.