The counselors at Naval Air Station Patuxent River Fleet and Family Support Center heard about the horror unfolding at the Washington Navy Yard the same as the rest of us — through breaking news reports or word of mouth from co-workers talking, tweeting and texting.
But, unlike the rest of us, they would be called upon later to play a vital role in the Sept. 16 incident whose aftermath would leave some first responders, families and employees reeling.
"We were contacted that same day and put on notice that [Naval District Washington] might ask for counselors and they needed the names of who would be available to respond," said Vicki Majors, counseling and advocacy supervisor at FFSC Patuxent River.
Along with Majors herself, those names were Michelle Adams and Sara Urich.
All licensed clinical social workers, the three women learned that night that they would be reporting to an Emergency Family Assistance Center (EFAC) set up at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling (JBAB), located across the river from the Navy Yard.
"Discussion of an EFAC began at the Regional level as the Navy Yard event started to unfold," said Linda Hautzenroder-Roberts, regional counseling, advocacy and prevention coordinator and acting director at FFSC Pax River. "We started to stand up the EFAC at approximately 11 the morning of the event and my supervisor, Robert Klebahn, gave the heads-up to directors and COs at each site [in the Region] to request assistance."
The EFAC is a resource for disaster response in situations where the anticipated needs are beyond the capability of the agencies primarily tasked to provide immediate crisis intervention, Hautzenroder-Roberts explained. The primary mission is to assess and handle the practical and emotional needs of individuals and groups impacted by an event.
In addition to the FFSC counseling staff from Pax River and the Region's other five naval bases, the EFAC comprised the Navy's Special Psychiatric Rapid Intervention Team from Portsmouth, Va.; Walter Reed National Military Center clinicians and Federal Occupational Health. Other support groups included agencies such as Red Cross, Social Security, the FBI and JAG.
The three Pax River counselors arrived Sept. 17.
"Tuesday morning, everyone was gathering resources and trying to figure out what was going to come," Adams said. "It almost seemed like too many counselors, but it soon all evened out."
It wasn't long before the women were busy taking calls and meeting with people one on one.
"In crisis situations like this, the concerns people could have might include being scared to return to work or being angry that something like that could even happen," Urich said. "Complaints might involve difficulty eating or sleeping or having difficulty making decisions or concentrating. Or, people may just want to know that what they're feeling is a normal reaction."
Even if the myriad of emotions people might experience were normal reactions to a stressful situation, those reactions could still be debilitating. If that occurred, the counselors were able to refer them immediately to long term counseling.
"There might also be people who just want someone else to listen to their story, to help them process it all," Adams said," and, in that situation, we would be able to give them follow-up resources, just in case, because it's not uncommon that people might have a delayed reaction to things."
Many briefings by counselors took place across the Navy Yard, including one on Sept. 18, by Majors and Adams, for a command which had a number of Sailors outside, in the vicinity of Bldg. 197, when the shooting began.
"During those briefings, many commands had their ombudsman, chaplain and commanding officer speak," Adams said. "The message was not to hesitate to ask for help, if needed."
Hautzenroder-Roberts said the EFAC at JBAB is expected to be set up for another couple weeks. Initially, it was open around the clock, but the current hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and calls received after those hours are routed to a cell phone carried by a clinician.
"We continuously evaluate the need and make adjustments to the hours of operation," she said. "After the EFAC closes, staff will still be able to accommodate requests and make referrals as appropriate; and we'll continue to enlist the support of our other sites as needed."
While Hautzenroder-Roberts was part of an EFAC after the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon, none of the Pax River counselors had ever experienced it before.
"We've had lots of training, but nothing practical until this event," Adams said. "We just felt like we were doing our job. We're counselors and we were asked to respond in a time of need. None of us thinks of it as anything above and beyond our normal duty."