Jake, age 30, an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician), is struggling mightily several weeks after he responded to a shooting at the Anderson County AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church’s Wednesday night Bible study, where a White Supremacist murdered nine people and injured three before the police were able to take him down.
The citizens were left reeling; they had no idea that such hatred existed in their midst, or at least they didn’t allow themselves to know it. In the aftermath, what has sadly come to be the “the usual” response to mass shootings took place: candlelight vigils, revelations about the gunman’s motives, and declarations of a newfound awareness of the need for all in the community to come together to combat racism. Eventually, in order to move on, citizens retreated into everyday routine. It’s back to business as usual. The news cycle changed. Life went on.
But not for Jake.
The Bible Study Massacre, as the newspapers call it, took place three months ago, but for him, the nightmare does not end.
The son of a minister, people who have known him since boyhood revered Jake as the model of a “godly” man. It was not unusual for him to lead others in prayer, and that’s just what he did from the moment he arrived on-scene. He prayed ceaselessly from behind police barricades for the people inside the church, imploring God to provide a quick ending to the negotiations with the gunman so that he and his team could get in and save lives—but it took what felt like hours.
Negotiations ended when the shooter exited the building, waving his gun and hoping for suicide-by-cop. He was shot in the abdomen but still managed to mutter racial slurs at Jake’s partner, Roger. The shooter also implied that the building would explode. Thus, more time was lost to help victims, because the church was swept for bombs.
When Jake and other rescuers were finally allowed to go into the meeting room just off the pastor’s office, he didn’t even know where to start. Three victims were clinging to life, but it was hard to focus on assessing their injuries because he was surrounded by the bodies of the dead, and all that blood: the smell—like copper pennies filling his nose and mouth—imprinted on his senses permanently.
Of the three victims still living when help arrived, only one survived: a sixty-five-year-old man who was shot in the spine and played dead.
The shooter lived, thanks to Roger’s life-saving measures.
Jake never took time off following the shooting. “Part of the job,” he told himself.
Telling oneself that trauma is no big deal is much different than making that wish a reality. For weeks after the church was attacked, Jake’s emotions ping-ponged from absolute numbness to overwhelming anger. He blamed Roger for helping the gunman survive and was so repelled by his presence that he quit the Second Saturday poker game at his partner’s home. Jake knew that if he had to listen even one more time to Roger’s account of the conversation he had with the gunman, he’d lose his shit. Roger’s morbid sense of humor, which Jake used to like about him, now got on his last nerve. Roger’s attempts to make Jake laugh were met with a stony gaze, and once, he lunged for Roger and tried to choke him. Jake would have done it, too, if two firemen hadn’t held him back.
While Jake’s temper was an unpredictable geyser at work, his wife, Holly, lived with a stoic, silently seething version of him. Prior to that fateful Wednesday night, they communicated well. Married just nine months, they rarely fought, and when they did, the “fights” quickly resolved, mostly because of Jake’s ability to stay calm in spite of Holly’s tendency to blow up when confronted: the way she witnessed her parents’ arguments as a child.
Jake’s willingness to talk out problems was one of the things Holly loved most about him, but in spite of her efforts to get him to open up about what was bothering him, he would not speak at all. In fact, he accused Holly of seeing problems that were not there: of manufacturing drama. It’s not an act: Jake’s feelings were so overwhelming that when Holly pressured him to let down his guard and confide in her, he added another brick to the wall.
It’s possible that he does not even have the words to talk about what he experienced. Jake is bewildered: he wonders what happened to the self he knew before the shooting. He’s never been the type to get angry and stay that way. Holly’s refusal to drop the subject of the shooting feels unreasonable. He digs in his heels, and rage masked as stubbornness takes over where stability once was.
Members of his church hailed him as a hero, which sickened him. The first month after the shooting, Jake occupied his usual space on the third pew from the front—his every-Sunday-seat since boyhood—but the lightness and joy of worship had vanished, replaced with the coldness of copper. Within weeks, he resigned as a sponsor of the youth group and adjusted his work schedule so that he was unable to attend church.
Jake avoided his minister father, Bill, until the man surprised his son at the end of a shift. Bill put his hand on Jake’s shoulder and narrowly avoided getting decked when Jake did a 180, led by his fist.
Bill gasped, “Who are you, son? I barely recognize my boy anymore. Talk to me, please. We’re all so worried about you. Come sit with me; we can pray together and seek God’s healing hands upon your heart. He has a plan for you.”
Jake slammed his locker door and stomped to the parking lot. Bill followed him, praying aloud for his middle son, but Jake stopped abruptly and whipped around, his face contorted in rage. “Shut up! Stop it! I don’t want to hear it!”
Bill only prayed louder, and Jake threw himself face down on the hood of his truck. Thinking that Jake was weeping, Bill gently touched his shoulder. “That’s it, son; let it out.”
Jake sprang up and away from his father. “What sort of… of plan could a mighty loving God have for me? Did He plan for those people to die?”
Bill pulled his tiny New Testament from his back pocket and paged through it, seeking an answer. Jake stepped forward, knocked it from his dad’s hands, and blasted, “What sort of fucked-up deity allows a crazy person to enter a church and murder everybody?” He crossed his arms and leaned against his truck. “What’s to keep the same sort of person from entering our—I mean your—church and killing everyone?”
“It’s about faith, Ja—”
“Bye, Dad.” Jake got into his truck and left his father gaping in a cloud of dust.
Even though Jake seemed to have lost his faith, he still had a habit of reading his Bible at bedtime. However, even if he could slow his mind enough to comprehend the words on the page, the unforgettable sight of ripped-apart, blood-soaked Bibles invaded his thoughts. Jake remembered the way one victim still sat upright, apparently poised to read aloud, but the man would have had to reassemble his head to do so.
Then there was the cat: every night, that damned cat at the end of his bed, grooming herself, producing a sound similar to the squish his shoes made as he tracked through puddles of sticky blood. Jake curled his pillow tightly over his head, but his mind echoed squish, sounds of dying bodies, and his own voice: “We’ve got another one over here.”
The images streaming through his mind were merciless. He let go a gut-wrenching scream and lunged forward, grabbed the cat, and hurled her into the wall, nearly killing her.
Holly hadn’t slept in their bed for weeks because Jake hit her when she startled him one night by placing her hand on his shoulder. “Terrified” is not too strong a word to describe the way this new version of her husband made her feel; his outbursts reminded her of her violent father. That final night, she cradled the dazed cat in her arms as she packed a bag to stay with a friend.
In spite of Jake’s determination to accept the trauma he experienced as “part of the job,” cracks appeared in the wall he’d erected between that Wednesday and his life going forward. The cracks coalesced at once, and he burst open at the scene of a fatal car accident.
Jake thought he could keep it together as he approached the driver’s side. Although the teenager appeared deceased, the EMT knew that he had to assess the vital signs to be sure.
When asked later to recount what happened before he “burst open,” Jake could not recall.
In that moment, when he saw the pooling blood and the unforgettable smell of copper slammed, tsunami-like, into his face, he forgot where he was.
In that moment, with his right-hand index and third fingers resting on the driver’s neck and his left hand holding a death grip on the door handle, he had no awareness that he was standing, knees locked, in the street, surrounded by flashing lights and the sound of sirens.
In that moment, Jake encountered a killer’s carnage before him, and he was battered and repelled by the sights, sounds, and smells of the wounded, dying, and already dead.
That afternoon, Jake fell to his knees in the street beside the body in the mangled car and sobbed like a broken-hearted child. His supervisor suggested that he get counseling but didn’t give him a choice about taking time off. Jake didn’t take seriously the nudge toward therapy until Holly told him flat-out that if he did not get help, she was divorcing him.