America’s Chaplain to the Fallen Reflects on the Valentine Day Parkland School Shooting
by Chaplain Bob Ossler
Valentine’s Day represents romance and love for couples—or lack thereof—for anxious, lonely singles. However, for parents, family, and friends of the 17 shooting victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting, Valentine’s Day represents the loneliness, loss, and horrible trauma of the first anniversary of those they loved and lost.
The day of the shooting, a firefighter buddy called and told me the news. “There’s been a shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Are you going?”
“I’m on my way,” I replied.
I tossed my Bible, my 9-11 Ground Zero crosses, and some clothes into the backseat of my car, then headed to Parkland, a town of just over 31,000 people. When I arrived, I drove to Walmart to buy a backpack to hold my things, since I didn’t know how long I’d be staying. At checkout, I explained to the manager why I’d come. “I’m here to show support, to bring comfort and love, to share a hug and a prayer, or just be there to listen, to be a shoulder to lean on. It’s so important to listen to those who grieve.”
Grateful for my desire to help his community, he slashed the price of the quality backpack to a reasonable amount.
I met a couple at the door and asked, “Can you give me the directions to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School?”
They replied, “Our child goes there.” They talked about their uneasiness about the situation and the terrible loss of young lives. “How can we send our child back to that school. It has been violated in the worst possible way. It will always be a crime scene for us. It will never be the same. The students will fear going to school.”
I agreed with their sentiments and said, “I’m a chaplain. Can I pray with you?” They nodded and leaned toward me. We huddled, arms around each other, as I prayed and asked God to comfort them and the families and students of Parkland.
After I prayed with them, they thanked me and hugged me like I a was a long-lost friend. I drove to the school, humbled by this couple’s pain, anticipating the grief that would be written on the face of each person I’d meet.
At the high school, I showed my credentials (not just anyone can show up at a crime scene), walked on site, and talked with officers. They, too, were overwhelmed with sorrow over the senseless shooting and the tragic loss of life. This hit too close to home for them. “These were our sons and daughters.”
Now when I think back to Parkland, a couple of things stand out in my heart and mind. School buses ringed the crime scene. In my childhood, school buses were symbols of safety. A yellow bus picked me up from the safety of my home and transported me to a safe school. The bus driver was kind and students talked and laughed with friends with no worries in the world.
But it was different at Parkland. School buses formed a tight circle to block the view of an awful, dastardly crime scene, keeping the anxious public at a distance. The big yellow symbol no longer represented safety. How things have changed since the innocence of my childhood.
In the school yard, I witnessed the trauma in people’s lives: Students and families could not be comforted. Dozens of news reporters clamored for interviews. People made political statements to the press. Down the street a short distance from the school, I hung 17 crosses for the murder victims on a fence. The media lined up to interview me at the fence. They shoved microphones into my face, as reporters hollered, “Can I be next?” “Can I be next?” Not many of the reporters could believe that I drove across the state of Florida and that I’d traveled so far—only a 3½ hour drive—to offer support to members of Parkland’s traumatized community and the first responders. The media wanted to hear my reaction to the pain and suffering I saw at Parkland.
Since Parkland, I regret to say that I’ve gone to three more shooting events to serve the traumatized—survivors, civilians, first responders, and reporters. Far too often, emergency workers find themselves on assignment after assignment covering shootings, mass murder, and those left behind. They do their best to manage the strain and put aside their memories, but some do suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome. Their memories haunt them for years.
Our lives are different now. We feel the pain of those who experience loss at these shootings. We wonder, “When will it end?” And in the end, we can only turn to our faith for comfort.
Air Force veteran, Bob Ossler, author of Triumph Over Terror, is no stranger to offering comfort in the midst of tragedy. Dubbed “America’s Chaplain,” Chaplain Ossler served five tours of duty at Ground Zero after 9/11; responded after Hurricane Katrina by serving as a triage paramedic and chaplain in the Superdome in 2005; offered comfort to first responders, and the families of those traumatized by the back-to-back ambush killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge in 2016, and also to the Hotshot firefighters team who lost 19 firefighters in the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013, and most recently at Philadelphia in the aftermath of the deadly synagogue 2018 shooting in Pittsburgh.