Oklahoma City observesbombing anniversary

April 19 marked the eighth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | OKLAHOMA CITY | April 23, 2003



"You've got to take a traumatic event and integrate it into your life or you'll get addicted to hate."

—Rev. Dr. Jack Poe


April 19 marked the eighth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. For many observers, the explosion that killed 168 people is a distant memory, but for those who were there when it happened, the psychological wounds of that day have still not completely healed.

The Rev. Dr. Jack Poe, a chaplain of 20 years for the Oklahoma City Police Department, has been intimately involved in counseling people traumatized by the bombing since the very beginning. Poe was on the scene 15 minutes after the blast, and he worked for the next 21 days straight.

Poe understands what normally happens on the anniversary: all the bad feelings return. Poe has seen this happen before, and not just on the anniversary of the bombing the tornado that struck Oklahoma City in 1999 also triggered these feelings for many people.

This year, however, seems to be worse than most.

One reason for this is the recent court appearances of Terry Nichols, Timothy McVeigh's alleged partner in the bombing.

"I've got calls from people saying, 'This has got us all tied up in knots,' " Poe said. "It just brings a lot of stuff back up. Several of them are really struggling this anniversary."

Poe has counseled nearly every type of person emotionally wounded by the bombing: he started out by doing his job, providing pastoral care to cops on the scene. Soon he was helping health care workers, funeral directors, morgue volunteers, blast survivors and national guardsmen.

Many faith-based groups, including specially trained teams from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, offered and some are still offering spiritual care for Oklahoma City bombing survivors. And there is still, unquestionably, emotional fallout.

A national guardsman called Poe to talk about the resurgence of nasty emotions triggered by the anniversary.

"Those people will always have those memories," Poe said. "They're going to run across things that will bring them back to a time and place in history that wasn't very pleasant for them."

Even after eight years, some people may experience the same problems they felt shortly after the bombing: depression, mood swings, invasive thoughts as well as physical symptoms, such as stomach cramps, sleeping disturbances and muscular tension.

"We just try to tell them, 'You're not going crazy. This is just what people experience,' " Poe said. "This is not a behavioral problem. These are not bipolar people, these are not schizophrenic people, these are not crazy people."

Getting these people to deal with the trauma is not accomplished over night, he said. Even if they have come to grips with the experience, that doesn't mean they have erased it from their memories.

Talk therapy is one of the most helpful tools, Poe said, especially when people "talk it out" with other people who have had the same experiences.

This method doesn't work, however, if people don't want to talk about it, or, worse, refuse to admit that they were affected by the experience.

The most resistant to treatment, Poe thinks, are health care workers, the very people who wouldn't hesitate to help a person afflicted with physical injury, or to get treatment if they themselves were suffering physically.

Then there is also the tough-guy mentality that may prevent many cops and rescue workers from purging themselves of psychological sludge.

"Some of them think it's a sign of weakness," he said.

Denying these emotions, however, is a guarantee that bigger problems are in the works.

"It's like a guy drinking 15 cups of coffee and saying he's not going to pee," Poe said.

While this may be a crude example, he said, it illustrates the basic psychological principles at work: whatever bad stuff goes in is certainly going to come out.

And if it doesn't come out in words, Poe said, then it's going to manifest itself in destructive behavior. Addictive behavior is the most common form Poe has observed.

"I have seen just about every type of addictive behavior you can name," he said.

Survivors and rescue workers need to learn that they cannot alter the past, and moreover, that they need to learn to accept the unpleasant facts of the past, in order to prevent their futures from being controlled and consumed by the violence which shattered their lives.

"You've got to take a traumatic event and integrate it into your life or you'll get addicted to hate," he said. "If we spent all our time trying to get even, we'd never get ahead. We've got to move on, because we're not going to allow (the bombers) to have any more control over our lives."


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