Originally published June 20, 2010
A psychotic gunman made Andy Brown into a hero.
He became a legend, the guy who made “the shot” that stopped Dean Mellberg’s murderous rampage through the Fairchild Air Force Base hospital complex on June 20, 1994. Brown got a medal and a move to Hawaii.
But the mantle of hero never sat comfortably on Brown, who was a 24-year-old Air Force security policeman on bike patrol that day. It gnawed at him that Mellberg was able to kill and maim people on his watch. Months later, Brown found himself struggling with so much anxiety that his hands would shake when making a routine traffic stop.
He knew he needed help, but he found himself in the Catch-22 that military police officers face: He could have counseling for post-traumatic stress symptoms only if he turned in his badge and gun.
“I stopped seeking counseling. I pretty much stuffed down any feelings I was starting to have.”
They didn’t stay stuffed down, and eventually Brown, who’d hoped to have a career in military law enforcement, left the Air Force with a medical disability. Now he’s trying to help other law enforcement officers avoid the same fate, keep connected with some of the other survivors and understand what caused Mellberg to snap.
He’s started a website, fairchildhospitalshooting.com, to memorialize the victims and give them a forum; and he wrote a book about the tragedy, “Warnings Unheeded,” which includes Mellberg’s troubled history.
June 20, 1994, started as a routine day for Senior Airman Andy Brown, a five-year veteran of the Air Force. He’d been at Fairchild about six months as a security policeman and just recently assigned to bike patrol. It was a sunny, cloudless Monday, he recalled: People were out washing their cars as he pedaled through base housing; radio traffic was light.
He was talking with a friend at a security gate when they heard a radio call about shooting at the hospital nearby. He got on his bike and pedaled hard toward the medical complex; as he approached people and cars were streaming the other way. “Where is he, where is he?” Brown asked.
And then he saw a man holding a rifle in the street in front of the hospital entrance. Brown parked his bike about 80 yards away and walked forward about 10 yards, drawing his Beretta M9 and dropping to his right knee. He steadied his handgun and told the gunman to drop his weapon. The man turned and pointed the rifle at him.
“Witnesses said he fired in my direction. I don’t remember that, but some part of me believes he was shooting in my direction,” Brown said.
Brown took careful aim and fired four shots in controlled succession. On the fourth, the man kicked his legs, spun around and fell on his back. Brown stood up and went toward a pickup truck for cover. The radio traffic had reported a second gunman, a sniper on the hospital annex roof. He waited for backup, watching the still figure on the ground.
But the reports proved wrong. Mellberg, a mentally unstable 20-year-old who’d been forced out of the Air Force two months earlier, acted alone. His shooting spree was his attempt at revenge on the psychologist and psychiatrist he blamed for ending his Air Force career. He killed Drs. Tom Brigham and Alan London, then killed two more people and seriously injured another 22 before Brown stopped him. One of those injured was a pregnant woman who later lost her unborn child.
A Beretta M9 is the Air Force’s standard issue for security police, and all officers must prove their proficiency with their sidearms. Andy Brown practiced regularly and usually shot well enough to be rated expert, but no one practices shooting that handgun at targets 70 yards away.
“He seemed closer,” Brown said. “I didn’t think it was out of range.”
When Mellberg didn’t fall after the first two rounds, Brown wondered if the gun was misfiring. The round that killed Mellberg – Brown’s fourth; the third hit him in the shoulder and went through – became known as “the shot.”
Brown became a hero, a label that made him uncomfortable because he felt so many people performed heroically that day, getting hospital patients to safety or saving the lives of injured victims. The news media were calling for interviews, which he was reluctant to do while victims were recovering in hospitals or being buried by their loved ones.
“I didn’t want to keep the incident alive in the media. It was naïve at the time, because it wasn’t going to go away.”
He also thought too much attention and praise was being lavished on him, while some of the medical staff who braved Mellberg’s gunfire to help the wounded got short shrift.
Brown was given a chance for counseling with Spokane Police Department psychologist Deanette Palmer and attended a few sessions. But when he returned to duty, he was told he’d have to stop counseling or turn in his weapon. He quit counseling.
Hoping to get the tragedy behind them, Fairchild officials held a memorial for the victims and an award ceremony for some security and hospital staff. Brown received the Air Force Medal and was told to pick any base where he’d like to serve. He thought about asking for McChord in Tacoma, to be nearer his family in Port Orchard; friends at Fairchild, however, suggested Hawaii, a better spot for a young, single airman. He transferred to Hickam Air Force Base, where he “bought a Harley and drove in circles around the island.”
Brown discovered his reputation preceded him as “that dude from Fairchild that shot that guy.” It happened again when he was assigned to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
“I felt I had to live up to that,” he said. “It seems like it was going to happen anywhere I went.”
But Brown was wrestling with his feelings about the shooting, and it had nothing to do with being a hero. Before the shooting, he’d thought about having to shoot and possibly kill a dangerous person while on duty. The scenario he’d pictured was of a bad guy going down.
“I never really prepared myself for other people getting hurt or killed,” he said. Although he realizes now there was nothing he could have done, he was haunted by the number of people wounded or killed before he arrived.
At Kirtland, still unable to work and get counseling, Brown realized he was “burning out.” He requested and received a medical discharge: “I don’t want to sound like a whiner. I just wish things would have been handled differently.”
He returned to Western Washington where his family lived, but in 1999 came to Spokane to visit an Air Force buddy who lived in Mead. The buddy introduced Brown to his niece, Rhonda Strong, and Brown never left Spokane; Brown and Strong married in 2002 and have two children.
He worked at factories, went to school for electrical maintenance, but always felt drawn back to law enforcement, even though he knew he didn’t want to be a cop on a beat. In 2006, he was hired by the Border Patrol.
Sometimes a new acquaintance or co-worker will hear that Brown was at Fairchild in the ’90s and ask if he was there when the shootings occurred or mention the amazing shot that stopped Mellberg.
“Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I was there,’ and not go into detail,” he said. “Other times I’ll say ‘That was me.’ I don’t mind if people know about it anymore.”
As a veteran, Brown was able to get the counseling he couldn’t get in the Air Force. He’s tried about every kind of therapy available and believes he’s reached the limit of what psychologists can do for him; he has to work out the rest for himself.
“The whole thing is just tragically sad. I know it had to be done. I just wish it was only (Mellberg) who died.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day's top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter