For Andy Brown, the road to recovery includes an onramp to the Internet.
When the former Air Force security police officer set up a website this year to commemorate the victims of one of the most violent days in Spokane history, it was partly an exercise in personal therapy. But he also hoped to reach others still suffering any lingering effects of former Airman Dean Mellberg’s rampage at the Fairchild Air Force Base hospital in 1994.
Brown didn’t know what to expect. The website could revive memories people wanted to keep buried, or it could just be ignored. Instead, he’s been contacted by relatives of some people Mellberg killed and by people who were at the hospital that day as patients or staff who are grateful for the chance to share their feelings, too.
“It’s been a good experience,” he said recently of the site that has had more than 8,800 visitors.
To some, Brown may seem like an unlikely candidate for someone who needs healing from the Mellberg shootings.
He was, after all, the hero of the day, the man who stopped Mellberg with a long-distance shot from his 9 mm automatic service weapon. But as The Spokesman-Review reported in June, Brown was never comfortable being singled out that day. He believed the people who braved gunfire to pull others to safety or treat the wounded, those who rushed the casualties to hospitals or the medical teams that saved lives were heroes who got short shrift.
He was haunted by the number of people who died “on his watch” before he reached the hospital. But he was unable to keep his Air Force law enforcement job if he sought counseling, so he quit therapy and tried to bury the stress and anxiety as he served at new posts in Hawaii and New Mexico. Those emotions wouldn’t stay buried, and he eventually gave up his dream of a career in military law enforcement, left the Air Force in 1999 and returned to Western Washington, where his family lives. On a trip to Mead to visit an old Air Force buddy, he met Rhonda Strong, his future wife, and settled in Spokane for good.
Brown happily traded the public role of hero for the private life of husband and father of two. He returned to law enforcement in 2006 as a dispatcher for the Border Patrol; now his efforts to get the military to change policies that take officers off duty because they seek counseling are receiving support and attention.
Earlier this year he was asked to speak to the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association about the Fairchild incident. From that appearance, he’s received invitations to speak at Air Force bases around the country including Fairchild, to Border Patrol groups, and most recently, to a group of school resource officers.
“They’re receptive to what I have to say. Apparently there are still lessons to be learned,” Brown said.
He emphasizes the importance of getting help for people with mental health issues, and has returned to therapy himself, getting counseling at the Spokane Veterans Affairs Center: “Many of the PTSD symptoms have diminished with time and perseverance. I continue to seek help with the persistent few.”
He’s writing a book about Mellberg, who managed to join and stay in the Air Force despite a series of warnings about psychological problems, the June 20 shootings and the aftermath. That may take another year or longer, but it’s worth the effort, Brown said.
“It’s forcing me to almost re-experience things (from the shooting) – anything that might still be bothering me,” he said.
He chronicles some of that on the website and offers forums for survivors and first responders, a space for memorials for those who died, and a chance to light an online “candle” with messages of remembrance. Only one lengthy memorial has been submitted so far, but Brown isn’t concerned.
“I’m wondering if just having the website is enough of a memorial,” he said.
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