The morning after the STEM Highlands Ranch shooting, our home began in a daze like many other homes in our suburban community. Our son was a Junior, our daughter in 8th grade at the time of the STEM School Shooting on May 7, 2019, that amongst other things, took the life of a brave, kind, and gentle young Kendrick Castillo.
We are all reeling in disbelief that this happened to our community. Again.
That this happened to us.
We are shaken and as parents, Kelly and I are scared.
Our stoic son is angry, rightly so. And we give him space.
Our daughter curls up on the couch and begins, “We were all huddled down against one another, scared and trying to get as low as possible. I was praying, holding one students hand and rubbing the back of another. Then, the bullets ripped through the wall in front of us and we could all feel it…like the energy of it. A pungent smell and something burning filled our noses and that’s when someone pointed in shock at a classmate, red ringing a hole on her clothing…”
Walking over to the couch, I sit next to my sweet baby girl. She is fourteen years old, the morning after the STEM Highlands Ranch shooting, much older today than any parent hopes for their child.
Where do I begin?
Our family has been walking with war veterans and traumatized children for nearly 20 years, so we begin with all we can offer in moments such as these: love, empathy and vulnerability. Compassion.
“My heart hurts for you, kiddo. I remember the first time I was shot at in Afghanistan.” I take her hand in mine and smile meekly. Her freckles highlight the tears welling up in her soft, brown eyes. “I remember rocks on the ground and being exposed, out in the open. We got so low it felt like I was trying to become a part of the rocks.”
“Yes!” Her eyes flash, “exactly! We were all squished together and I had students’ arms and legs all over me.”
She is talking; this is good.
“I remember at first, the guys and I looked at each other and someone said, ‘I think we’re getting shot at?’” Bullets cracked overhead and we all agreed. “We’re getting shot at. Take cover!”
It was surreal. You recognize what’s happening and can see yourself in the moment. You know you’re supposed to be scared, but you don’t feel scared. You cannot allow this. There’s work to do, actions to take, people to protect. So you execute. Your training takes over and you do what you know is right in the moment. The emotions come later.
Later, you feel the fear. Later we feel everything.
“Dad, that’s exactly what it felt like! We trained for this so many times and it was like...is this happening? This is happening!”
We cry together and hold her close. Kelly and I are angry. So angry. And saddened.
Though we feel the aftermath of trauma together, it is not the same. I was trained to go to war. Hours, days, months, years, I trained with men who were prepared to experience savagery. Inhumanity. To harness and direct extreme brutality and control their fears. To strike first with speed, surprise and violence of action and when hit to hit back harder. So hard the enemy would never get back up. But our children should never be prepared for this.
As Soldiers, we expect the aftermath of war may include the effects of experiencing trauma. As students, our children shouldn’t have to face the same prospect from going to class.
I went to war to get PTSD, my children went to math class.
We live in a world now where our kids are the routine targets of mass murder, often times by their very peers. And they know it.
It’s the knowing that hurts so much. My children will never be able to unknow what they now know. They will never be able to unsee the evil in this world because they have now experienced it up close and personal. Smells and sounds. Lights and noises. Blood and carbon.
They will also never be able to unsee the light.
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5
As bullets ripped through walls, flesh and the veneer of our affluent, suburban life, they also shredded the veil that separates us from the darkness in this world.
The new reality for our children is one in which the world around us can go hidden no longer. But a choice emerges in that reality. Those who have lived through trauma must make a choice everyday: light or darkness, life or death, anguish or healing. For as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “what fellowship can light have with darkness?” 2 Corinthians 6:14
We have all now experienced the darkness up close and personal in our home and it’s the very thing that keeps Kelly and me up at night. We all now must choose everyday to take another step on the healing journey, or remain in the muck of the pain.
Kelly will have to choose to live in that dark moment as an ER Nurse, receiving casualties from our children’s school, not knowing if one of our kids is on the next ambulance. Or the light of the evenings when she can walk down the hall and hear our kids breathing as they sleep. Our son will have to choose to live in the engineering lab, covered by machines and noise, or the moment when he saw his baby sister at the rally point after the shooting stopped and held her as she cried.
I can choose to live in the rocks and dust of an Afghan Valley or walk in the light of a day where I get to hold my daughter and cry with her when she hurts.
From here on out, she will have to choose to live in the darkness of classroom 106, huddled against a mesh of children and floor, praying to Jesus, or walk in the light of the rainy Colorado day that awaited when the shooting stopped.
We choose life.
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