It’s like an erupting volcano – but instead of lava, ash, ember and fumes – it’s sadness, guilt, anger and hypervigilance. And you don’t always know when, why, how or where it’s going to erupt. I used the analogy of a volcano because it makes sense emotionally, but it’s also a geographic reference – to a place it all started for me. I once lived not far from Vesuvius. In April of this year, I wrote about a terrorist bombing that happened 30 years ago at the USO in Naples, Italy. Five people were murdered, including Petty Officer Angela Santos of the U.S. Navy. Angela had invited me to go with her that night. I didn’t go. The feelings of guilt have been with me since.
Fast forward 30 years to April of this year. After 30 years of not writing about the USO bombing, I finally did and an amazing thing happened. Because we now have the internet – something we didn’t have 30 years ago – people that were affected by the bombing in 1988 were finally connected. Some for the first time. Angela’s family members were connected to those that had been at the USO that night. I connected with Angela’s sister and members of the USS Capodanno crew. We shared stories. We finally shared stories many of us had never been able to share before. We realized, or at least I did, we were still (three decades later) deeply affected by what happened that night. It was cathartic for me to hear these stories, but it was also a rollercoaster of emotions. Many of us seemed to share some things in common and I’m not going to diagnose any of us – I’m a journalist, not a doctor. But maybe I can help friends now. Friends that experienced another horrifically tragic attack – not on foreign soil, not while serving in the military, but right here on American soil – while serving their local community at a newspaper –and one that I used to write for.
Five people at The Capital-Gazette were murdered on June 28, 2018. Five. When I finally came out of shock days later, I offered what I could to the survivors – my friends, former coworkers and their friends and current coworkers. I told them I had some experience with survivor guilt, with post traumatic stress – I suggested they get help. I sent some of them links to a Facebook page that has some great information. I donated money to the funds. I read their Tweets, their Facebook posts, their articles in The Capital, their blog posts. They’re hurting right now. They’re mad. They’re trying to process something that can’t be processed. Our brains, I think, need to try to make sense of things and when we can’t do that, when there’s no making sense, it adds to the frustrations, anger, distraught. There is no way to make sense of what happened. What there is a way to do is find the places you feel secure and the people you feel secure with. Speak up about which seat in the office or restaurant or event you feel comfortable taking and if you don’t want to be at a crowded place, that’s fine – if you don’t want to be a in quiet place, that’s fine too. To the survivors and their family members, you can use your talents – in writing, photography, painting, communicating or you name it, to work your way through the complex emotions you’re having. It will help you, but it also helps a community that continues to grieve with you.
I became a different person after the bombing. Volcanoes erupt. There are triggers and subsequent horrific events are very tough to deal with. Hypervigilance became a byproduct in me. As the years went by, that hypervigilance didn’t go away. It became heightened – even more so after 9/11. Not long after 9/11, I went into preterm later and had to be hospitalized to stop my baby from being born too early – what they did worked and she was born on my due date. Hypervigilance is with me everywhere and all the time. It’s my best friend and worst enemy. In August 2011, my daughter and I were at our local mall having lunch when an earthquake happened. My mind immediately went to Naples – the mall had just been bombed I thought. Even more concerning, I thought it odd no one else was thinking that. How could they not think that? On June 28, I went into protection mode, but not just for me. I lashed out at one person for posting unverified information on my Facebook feed and I got even more angry about people asking me for information or telling me what I should do in the hours after the attack at The Capital. As I mentioned, subsequent horrific events are very tough to deal with. I was at the U.S. Naval Academy the other day watching security doing an explosives sweep on the minivan in front of me. I was thinking the sweep wasn’t thorough enough. The Carabinieri’s sweeps were better. I wanted to tell him that. I didn’t. This kind of thing happens a lot. I’m not unique though.
To my friends at The Cap and their coworkers and all of those surrounding you, while there are a lot of people (including you sometimes) that won’t understand your feelings or actions or know why you’re having them, there are others that will. There are others that have felt similarly. On June 29, the day after Wendi, Rebecca, Rob, Gerald and John were murdered, a friend named Brian left a message for me on Facebook stating that he was sad that this was the second time he knew of that I had lost friends and coworkers to violence. He told me to hang in there. This meant so much to me. What you should know is this – Brian was at the USO the night it was bombed. Back in April, he wrote this – “I was the very last person to see Angela Santos alive. She walked out the door just as the bomb went off, killing her and four Italians outside instantly.” Brian gets it. There are people that know about this volcano and they understand it will erupt without warning. They understand the triggers. To the survivors and their loved ones at The Capital – the people that get it, the people that understand your anger, your guilt, your sadness and your hypervigilance – these people are your fellow survivors and their loved ones. There are plenty of others. Lean on each other and get help from professionals. And by the way, finding the right professionals – the ones that you feel comfortable with – it’s really important.