Frank Russell

Boston victims aided by capital chaplain

Published: Friday, Apr. 19, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Apr. 22, 2013 - 6:41 am

Sacramento Law Enforcement Chaplain Frank Russell has been ministering to survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings.

A veteran chaplain, Russell, 62, helps supervise more than 100 citizen volunteers in the Sacramento region who respond with law enforcement to those touched by suicide, homicide, auto fatalities, the death of a child and other traumatic events. His wife, Senior Chaplain Mindi Russell, trained volunteer chaplains to respond to the survivors of the 9/11 attacks. He's certified through the International Critical Stress Foundation.

How did you wind up in Boston?

I was helping train 22 students at Regis College in Massachusetts to prepare them for disaster response. Four were church folks who had just shown up to help those who had responded to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. They wanted to help those magnificent warriors and champions – the firefighters, paramedics and law enforcement officers who first responded.

Our students said what those first responders had experienced was so powerful they needed people to talk to, to decompress, to unwind and lighten that load.

The four men who volunteered as chaplains were completely unprepared for that role. We got them ready for the next time. Little did they know the Boston Marathon would be their next time.

What can law enforcement chaplains do to help?

Our job is to be that person who promotes conversation and encourages a person to tell his story well. It's a catharsis, a cleansing.

Finding words that describe the way you feel helps the healing process take place, because it is a journey. You're trying to make peace with those memories. If we're there early in in the crisis and can develop a relationship of trust, we open the window of opportunity for them to release that stored energy, like a tightly wound rubber band. If they don't release it, there's a chance it could snap.

Some are not ready to talk, so we come back the next day after their sleep cycle, or two or three days later. Some responders take home the heartache and anguish of what they've seen and try to privately make sense of it. All five of their senses kick in, and a sight, sound or smell can trigger a traumatic memory.

How did you respond to the Boston Marathon bombings?

My teaching partner, Chaplain Mindy Albright of Michigan, and I got permission to go to the Park Plaza Hotel, where on the first floor there were hundreds of runners from all over the world. They told us that at the time of the explosion they saw doctors and nurses just materialize at the finish line, ready to help.

We have badges and vests that say Law Enforcement Chaplain, so people just started coming up to us. A young woman came up and said, 'I've got these cellphone pictures I took across the street moments before the explosion,' so I helped connect her to the command center.

We spoke to dozens of people from teenagers to wonderfully fit 60-year-old men and women still reeling from the terrifying event. They came up to us spontaneously, and asked, 'Can I tell you my story?' We'd talk to small groups of about five people for 20-30 minutes at a time.

Then we went to the family assistance center where people were in survival mode, needing to gather in a safe place. They were still very terrified, looking for some reassurance they would be safe.

What do you tell people whose loved one is injured, dead or missing, or those who have witnessed the carnage?

I say, 'How are things going for you after the crisis? What impact did it have on you?' For those who survived, we don't shy away from saying, 'It was a close call, thank God.'

When faced with those who have lost a loved one, I say, 'I'm so sorry for your loss, tell me about your son, tell me about your husband. … ' We are very quiet and patient, we stand there and truly listen.

People want to tell their story. We take away their pain, we share their burden, and let them know what happens next.

They are emotionally overwhelmed with the moment. It's not about religion, it's not about spiritual care; it's practical, professional information. We may have to let them know they'll need to work with the coroner and police investigators, but tonight we grieve, we hurt with them.

When we encounter folks who are injured we tend to spend a little more time with them, and defuse their fear of being on the edge.

Those who witness a horrible tragedy are gripped with absolute terror, memory lapses, doubts and confusion and think they're losing it as they keep reliving that event. We help them understand – 'You're not going crazy, you are a normal person having normal reactions to an abnormal event.'

This is just psychological first aid.

For those spectators close to the explosions, the walking wounded who were treated and released and relatives of the victims, it's my hope they pursue post-trauma counseling.

Small group discussions allow everyone to speak and be heard. People experience loss differently. We allow them to share the uniqueness of their loss and grief.

What do you teach your chaplains nationwide?

We look for people who have that mercy gift of hearing others. We teach people not to interrupt, rebut or get ahead of the speaker.

We're not there to preach – we're there to listen. We're so quick to share our own experience sometimes we don't listen.

We try to validate their fears, echoing, 'this must have been horrifying' so they know we're truly listening, and we help them focus on being survivors who still have hope and control at this point in their lives.

The Law Enforcement Chaplains Inc. Sacramento's crisis line is (916) 857-1801. For more information call (916) 993-7785 Monday - Friday, or see the website, www.sacchaplains.com.

Call The Bee's Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Follow him on Twitter @stevemagagnini.

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