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Special agent adds ministry to post-Murrah bombing duties

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Jim Gunnels was living a fairly normal life 10 years ago — at least as normal as a government agent’s life gets.

A special agent with the Federal Protective Service, the married father of two daughters, ages 5 and 7, was working on an emergency preparedness project with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Marshall Service and the FBI, focusing mainly on natural disasters. The group of government officials met on Wednesday mornings, every other week in Oklahoma City or Austin.

On Wednesday, April 19, Gunnels and his boss were traveling from Fort Worth to a meeting of the group in Austin when, at 9:10 a.m., he was paged with an emergency code to call his dispatch center.

“I called back to the dispatch center, and the dispatcher said there had been an explosion in Oklahoma City, there was heavy building damage, two dead and multiple casualties. There was nothing mentioned about a bombing.”

Since Gunnels was one of the primary law enforcement managers with the Federal Protective Service, they did a U-turn on Interstate 35 and headed straight for Oklahoma.

When they arrived in Oklahoma City, they had not seen any TV coverage, had heard only radio reports and did not have any idea what kind of situation they were facing and the impact it would have.

Gunnels went to work immediately at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, which had been bombed at 9:02 that morning. During the next few days, he and about 40 of his colleagues from the Federal Protective Service were in charge of perimeter security. Since it was a federal building, and that was their primary jurisdiction, they were involved in facilitating rescue efforts and parts of the investigation.

Much of that week is surreal to Gunnels today.

“I can remember snapshots, like the place I was when I first saw the building,” he said. ‘We pretty much worked around the clock, and I had about 18 hours of sleep the whole week and was running on pure adrenaline.”

At the one week mark, at 9:02, there was a moment of silence for the victims. And that’s when Gunnels’ world caved in.

“I don’t know what caused it, but I guess all of the stimuli coming to a halt and everything stopping temporarily just rocked my world,” Gunnels said. “I was emotionally, physically and spiritually exhausted.”

A quick needs assessment was done on Gunnels, and it was determined he was starting to have an acute stress reaction. He was sent home to Fort Worth and met with the minister of counseling at his church. “I didn’t know him very well at the time,” Gunnels noted, “but he has since become my best friend.”

Although in need of professional care and starting to exhibit signs of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Gunnels added that he was not in tune with the Lord the way he should have been, having gone through a dry season in his spiritual walk.

“The enormity of the situation, and having two small girls, hit me hard,” Gunnels said.

Being clinically diagnosed with PTSD was frightening to his family.

“My wife, to this day, says the man who came home one week after the bombing was not her husband,” Gunnels said.

Gunnels said when his problem first surfaced a week after the bombing, he told his boss he wanted to speak to a police chaplain.

“None of our hierarchy [had] ever been through anything that huge, and not having experience in that area, told me they’d take care of that later….” Gunnels recalled. “Even though I insisted I wanted to speak to a chaplain … it didn’t happen.”

As a part of the Christian counseling he received, Gunnels and his counselor returned to the scene of the bombing about a week later to do some on-scene debriefing during his 30 days’ administrative leave. One night, Gunnels said, he awoke about 2 a.m. and decided to go back to the scene by himself.

“As I looked at the site, I was overwhelmed with grief, and sat down in the middle of Robinson Street sobbing,” Gunnels said.

As he was sitting there, a golf cart pulled up, and Richard Sale stepped out. He was wearing a jacket with “Chaplain” on it and there was a cross on his helmet.

“I looked up at him, and my first words were, ‘I’ve been looking for you,’” Gunnels said.

Sale, a chaplain from Florence, S.C., and Gunnels spent the rest of the night praying and working through some issues. “That was a breakthrough for me,” Gunnels said.

After returning home, Gunnels said he slowly got his life stabilized. “It took a while, because I was so overwhelmed with everything,” he said. “I took it harder than anyone else in the organization, for what reason, I don’t know.”

About five years later, in February 2000, Gunnels said he strongly sensed God was calling him to ministry, which he said tracks with desires he had growing up.

“As a youngster, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a Baptist minister … or a fireman, depending on which week you asked me,” Gunnels said. “I had some deep-seated desires as a young child to be both in public service and in ministry. But it wasn’t God’s time yet. In February 2000, it was.”

Gunnels surrendered to the call to ministry with a clear sense that police chaplaincy was where God wanted him to start.

Still a special agent with Federal Protective Service, now is a part of the Department of Homeland Security, Gunnels officially is designated as the agency’s chaplain and also as national crisis intervention coordinator.

“The agency has been very supportive of my ministry, allowing me to go to a ton of training,” Gunnels said. “I also have been asked to be adjunct instructor at our national training academy, and the two subjects I teach are crisis intervention and law enforcement ethics, both of which I have deep passions for.”

Gunnels said although he was not on the scene after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, he did go to New York a year later to counsel with some Federal Protective Service agents and their families who were impacted by the disaster.

“The New York agency is in a building known as 26 Federal Plaza, about four blocks from the World Trade Center,” Gunnels explained. “About a dozen of our support staff were glued to the windows. They watched plumes of smoke from the first plane and saw the second plane hit, then saw people jumping out of the buildings, and the towers collapse. They were pretty traumatized, so I was sent to do some counseling and be a source of encouragement.”

Gunnels said he is extremely thankful the outcome of his PTSD was positive.

“The experience was so personally horrible, it could have gone either way,” he said. “Some of the guys who came back from Vietnam and were diagnosed with PTSD have never recovered from it and are not productive members of society now. I have a real sense that could have happened to me.”

Gunnels said although he wasn’t involved in anything bad at the time, God wasn’t a priority in his life.

“It was almost as if God was saying to me, ‘Jim, if you don’t learn it this time, we are probably going to have to chat face to face,” he said. “I sense that everything could have been taken away from me.

“I know the bombing radically changed my life. It was a kind of Damascus Road experience for me. God had to hit me in the head with a two-by-four. That’s sometimes how I learn my life’s lessons the best.”
Dana Williamson is associate editor of the Baptist Messenger, newsjournal of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, on the Web at www.baptistmessenger.com.

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  • Dana Williamson