For military veterans in Uvalde, the school shooting has rekindled battlefield memories
As dozens of first responders and government agencies converged upon Uvalde, Texas after the May 24 school shooting, the Department of Veterans Affairs brought an RV equipped as a mobile counseling center.
“We came straight up here, tried to find a location, and get connected with the community,” said Steven Roland, an outreach program specialist with the VA in San Antonio.
Those who sought counseling at the RV expressed different needs and feelings in response to the shooting.
“It was shock, sadness, grief, a whole host of emotions," said Erin Lowe, director of the Northwest San Antonio Vet Center, who helped facilitate the sessions. "Mainly people trying to come to terms with what had just happened.”
Jack Clark was among the VA counselors, who led about 20 one-on-one sessions in Uvalde with both veterans and non-veterans.
“On occasion, veterans will identify this event and the trauma of it, and they'll recall their experiences on a deployment - maybe seeing civilians injured or killed," Clark said, "and they'll kind of reflect and process that."
Roland said the VA has a fleet of about 90 mobile vet centers, which deploy to disaster zones and outreach events. Units were dispatched to Sutherland Springs, Texas in 2017 after a church shooting claimed the lives of 26 people, as well as to the Houston area after Hurricane Harvey.
Like in a lot of rural towns, the nearest VA hospital to Uvalde is more than an hour away. But even before the shooting, VA therapists made regular visits here. One small support group has been meeting at Uvalde's workforce development building for years.
At their meeting a week after the shooting, the violence dominated the discussion. Army veteran Joe Villareal had helped plan funerals for two children killed in the shooting. They were related to his wife.
“It’s a different kind of anger,” Villareal said. “I don’t think it’s a ‘hate’ anger. It’s just an anger that you lost someone. And there’s no action to that. That’s where the anger comes about.”
Others in the group said they weren’t directly affected by the tragedy, but felt the pain of those involved. James Wood, another Army veteran and a former teacher, was concerned about his fellow Uvalde residents, whom he worries aren’t going to be able to work through their trauma.
“Just seeing kids being injured and stuff like that. I saw some in Vietnam. I saw dead kids and women," Wood told the group. "It stays with you for a long time. So it's hard to process.”
Juan Rodriguez, an Army combat veteran and former Chicago police officer, had a different reaction. He was frustrated about the criticism of the Uvalde police, who waited for roughly an hour before entering the classroom.
He said the public is too quick to judge others in chaotic, dangerous situations.
“It doesn't matter how much training you give," Rodriguez said. "When you get in a situation like this, it's completely different from the last one. It’s completely different from what you trained. The first few shots change everything.”
After the session, group leader Eloy Medina said he was pleased with how the veterans were working through the tragedy together.
“They could relate well with the people that are grieving, and that's a positive thing. They didn't display any hostility," he said. "So I thought all that was well-placed.”
The VA's mobile counseling RV has already moved on from Uvalde, though the agency may bring it back.
But while the VA plans to continue supporting veterans in Uvalde, the general public may not have that same level of access. Uvalde has just one primary mental health clinic and a tiny hospital. In the wake of the elementary shooting, groups like the Red Cross, the Children’s Bereavement Center of San Antonio, the Ecumenical Center, and others came to offer mental health support and chaplaincy services.
Clark, the VA counselor, said he worries about what will happen when those outside groups leave.
“There's probably going to be a lot of numbness, a lot of anger," Clark said. "We hope that the city and the state — those in authority — are aware of the long term implications of this incredible trauma, and that they provide that support going forward.”
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.