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Oklahoma City bombing still wreaking havoc 6 years later

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–The one good thing Wyatt Burks remembers about April 19 and the days following was aiding in the rescue of a U.S. Customs worker — the only one Burks brought out alive.

The rest he’d just as soon forget.

Burks, like many emergency personnel and those closely affected by the Murrah Federal Building bombing six years ago, has struggled at times with “issues” related to the tragedy, he said.

But for him, unlike many others, the experience has made him more able to talk intimately with his wife and — though his list of church activities has shortened — his faith is stronger than ever, said Burks, a member of Southern Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.

“After 28 years of marriage, I talk to her about things I never talked to her about before. I guess it’s just ignorance, but you wake up to certain things. As long as I’m with my wife and family, I’m happy.”

Burks added, “I’m sorry to say in some cases it didn’t work that way.”

Among emergency personnel who worked the bombing, divorce statistics are up by most accounts, as are substance abuse cases, suicides and other similar problems.

Ted Wilson, Oklahoma City Fire Department chaplain and a member of Henderson Hills Baptist Church in Edmond, said department statistics recorded since 1995 show about 30 divorces per year. No records were kept prior to that, but Wilson guesses the rate was probably around 10 annually — a threefold rise if correct.

“The last 12 months have seen about 16 divorces, so we’re improving a little. Part of that might be the increasing distance of the event. People are accessing the systems that are there for help and are building trust” with trained counselors, Wilson said.

Burks said he believes many pastors and church staff members have unwittingly left some of his colleagues and others affected by the bombing without adequate follow-up care.

“A lot of guys would have stayed more involved in church had there been someone there to talk to when they were ready or needed to talk,” Wilson said. Many clergy members are trained in grief management, he said, but not the traumatic stress suffered in something of the bombing’s magnitude.

“These [emergency personnel] are self-motivated, highly competent professionals. They are used to dealing with trauma … . They try to apply the same coping techniques to their emotional injuries. They admit there’s a problem only when their spouse walks out or their job performance deteriorates. Unfortunately, that’s an inherent danger,” Wilson said.

Joe Williams, head of the Crisis Intervention Institute in Oklahoma City and chaplain for the FBI at the time of the bombing, said churches historically have been poor at follow-up.

Years ago as a pastor, Williams said he preached the funeral of a young murder victim and recalled telling the family shortly after, “If you all need anything, you call me.”

“Those calls never come,” Williams said, “because often, they don’t know what they need. I should have gone back and said to them, ‘I’ll go with you to the scene of the crime if you want,’ walk with them through the valley, been there with them at the trial … .

“Now that’s follow-up.”

Unfortunately, Williams said, many pastors and Christian counselors are suffering from what he terms “compassion fatigue” from years of sharing grief with their church family during the ordinary course of ministry. Williams said such fatigue, combined with a lack of awareness, might have contributed to some churches not following through in helping those hurt by the tragedy.

“Pastors have to be tough so they can help everybody else — that’s part of the problem,” he said.

Whatever coping mechanisms people use before a crisis tend to be used in greater amounts during and after a crisis, Williams said. For instance, if one drinks socially to ease pain, after a crisis that person might develop a more serious drinking problem, or someone who gambles to relax might develop a gambling addiction.

Williams noted that some people might experience some emotional setbacks in the weeks to come, as events such as the scheduled execution May 16 of Timothy McVeigh occur.

One woman who lost a husband in the blast, for example, relapsed into depression after visiting the memorial museum, Williams recounted. She had been out of therapy for a year and was making progress.

“It set her back significantly to the point that she is back in therapy.”

Job supervisors and even acquaintances of those affected by the bombing sometimes urge them to “just get over it,” Williams remarked.

“When they say that to me, it just releases adrenaline in me. If they weren’t here at the time it’s hard to explain to them,” he said.

“The devil makes sure that you get hammered,” the fire department’s Wilson added. “That’s why it’s important for pastors to be as prepared as they can to deal with this population of people in their churches. We need to be ready to take care of those people.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: STRENGTHENED.

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  • Jerry Pierce