When the siege between Branch Davidian cultists and the FBI ends, it will close the book on much more than an ill-fated federal raid.
It could mean an end to the trauma faced by some federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents involved in the Feb. 28 incident, which left four agents dead and 16 wounded.
Cult leader Vernon Howell, also known as David Koresh, has been holed up inside the Mount Carmel compound with 94 followers for 51 days now. He claims six cult members died in the raid.
Rick Cook, special agent in charge of Kansas City ATF field division and national coordinator of the Peer Support Program, said the agency’s support team is still working with about 200 people affected by the crisis.
Cook said the program has helped agents wounded in the raid, as well as families and friends, deal with the mental and emotional aftermath.
The 5-year-old program works by matching agents who previously have shot someone or been shot themselves in the line of duty to agents involved in a critical incident. Peers who already have dealt with the emotional aspect of an incident get special training, which helps them reinforce the idea that the emotions and feelings caused by the incident are normal.
Cook said the incident has been a very different experience in terms of its magnitude.
“I know of other incidents where police officers have been killed, but there has never been anything quite like this in terms of gunfire and the number of people involved and the number of people injured in law enforcement,” he said.
Cook does not believe closure, an important element in dealing with a traumatic event, has occurred for any of those involved.
That won’t happen until the siege is over and the facts are known, he said.
“I think the best way to describe it is…there’s like this thorn in your side, and it’s festering and your hands are tied and you can’t pull it out,” Cook said.
Peer Support psychiatrist Roger Solomon, who trains agents for the group, agrees that closure hasn’t occurred, though he says most are doing better.
Any situation beyond a person’s usual experience that overwhelms his sense of vulnerability and/or lack of control over a situation is a traumatic incident, Solomon said.
Shock and denial come first, he said. Within three days the emotional impact of one’s vulnerability, mortality and lack of control over tragedy usually hits, Solomon said.
Reactions vary. Many have nightmares, feel a heightened sense of danger, anxiety, fear, depression, guilt and anger, he said. Physical symptoms include difficulty in sleeping, headaches, stomach aches, indigestion and lower sex drive — all of which are common stress reactions.
The reactions are considered a normal response to an abnormal situation, Solomon said.
A coping phase follows the initial stage, where people begin to understand the emotions they are feeling.
“Part of this phase is soul-searching,” Solomon said.
What if? Will this happen in the future? How will I deal with it? These are questions people ask themselves in an effort to understand what happened. They keep going over the situation until they master it, he said.
“At some point…hopefully a person will reach that final stage — acceptance,” Solomon said.
The positive side is that people can come out of a traumatic experience stronger, he said. Sometimes it leads them to reshuffle priorities in their lives.
“Maybe we do stop and smell the roses, and we spend more time with what’s important to us,” he said.
Solomon said the situation is still stressful because it is not over yet, but there is a lot of support within ATF.
“The pulling together and strength of the ATF family is remarkable, he said. “People, generally speaking, are coping rather well.”
Cook said the scope of the crisis wasn’t immediately known on Feb. 28. It was only after he and a small group of Peer Support volunteers arrived in Dallas that day that they understood the magnitude of the ATF casualties.
“So when I arrived on the scene, it was already kind of overwhelming,” he said.
“I came down there to work strictly on the Peer Support and coordinate it and when I got there, they put me into an operational role.”
The Peer Support team set up at a Waco hospital, and agents involved in the incident met with Solomon, he said. Cook said he eventually was able to return to his Peer Support duties. Agents in Peer Support stayed in Waco about two weeks.
Cook said this is the largest group that Peer Support has ever dealt with concerning one incident.
And it was unusual also in that agents involved didn’t have time to deal with the situation immediately, he said.
“The people still had to go back to work,” he said. “See, normally when you’re involved in an incident, we pull you away from the job…and you have time to sit down and think about it. In this case it was on-going when we arrived there, so people had to go back out and work.”
“Nobody knew exactly what had happened,” he said. “They didn’t know how to feel.”
Some agents were sent back to their divisions in New Orleans, Dallas and Houston before Peer Support could reach them, he said, meaning the team had to travel to them.
“And we’re still going out, and we’ll continue to go out for a while,” he said.