First-responders who tend to soul and spirit

In November, parents, teachers and others associated with Whittier Christian High School in Yorba Linda were in emotional shambles following the heart-rending death of one of its students.

In November, parents, teachers and others associated with Whittier Christian High School in Yorba Linda were in emotional shambles following the heart-rending death of one of its students.

Ethan Hawks, a 17-year-old junior, was declared dead on Thanksgiving, days after a bizarre incident in which he was struck by metal debris while riding in a car with his mother on the 57 Freeway.

So many in the close-knit school community found themselves asking the inevitable question that follows such senseless events: Why?

This is where Anaheim police chaplain Nathan Zug stepped in.

Zug, 53, was dispatched along with other spiritual leaders to the school — as part of a crisis response team put together by the Orange County Department of Education — to offer comfort and help the community begin to navigate through its grief.

Through tear-soaked eyes, students asked Zug why a young boy was killed in such a seemingly random way.

Zug said even chaplains don't have the answers, but they can help people establish what he calls the "new normal," where they learn to accept the cold realities of life.

This is the emotional work of a police chaplain: to walk with people through their darkest times.

These responders — who can be religiously affiliated or not but must pass certain requirements — are summoned to the scenes of fatal accidents, shootings and other criminal acts. While the police focus on containing the scene and emergency medical services treat the wounded, chaplains tend to the traumatized — whether families of the victim, witnesses or others involved.

Chaplains also have a responsibility to the officers, acting as spiritual psychologists. And in these key yet part-time roles, they generally receive no pay.

When children die

Bob Barnett, 63, has been a chaplain for the Santa Ana Police Department for about 25 years, assisting in officer-involved shootings, catastrophic fires and even a plane crash.

"You name it, we've worked it over the years," he said.

But the worst moments in his career have been the deaths of children.

He recalls Halloween 2015, when three little girls were struck by a vehicle at a Santa Ana crosswalk and killed. He spent time with the parents that night and found that there wasn't much he could do except "be present."

"Many times people want us to pray with them and to just give them a sense of comfort, that though there is no understanding of these things, it gives them a sense of peace," Barnett said.

"If you've been a parent, you relate to the pain of it," he added. "It's very difficult to see a young teenager lose their life who had a whole future ahead of them. Those things are painful because there are no easy answers."

Huntington Beach police chaplain Roger Wing, 71, agrees that the most difficult calls are when children are involved.

He still remembers the time when a mother was pushing a carriage across a street and her baby was struck and killed by a car.

"Nothing affects us more than child deaths," he said at his office at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, where he works as a pastor, revealing the distant countenance of someone caught in a painful memory.

Robert Benoun, 54, who has worked for 20 years with Westminster police, believes suicides are the other "horror call."

"What is always tragic for me is notifying of a suicide," Benoun said. "It's the worst thing because we understand that those individuals thought that was the best thing for their family and their friends. And we know through many experiences that it's never that. There is always hope that tomorrow will be better, but that person for various reasons loses touch with the reality."

The mission

Most if not all of the police and fire departments in Orange County have access to a chaplain. The 13 cities and unincorporated areas in the county that are served by the Orange County Sheriff's Deparment can call upon that agency's 21 chaplains as needed.

Kenneth Milhander, treasurer of the Southern California Chaplains' Assn., said chaplain programs arose nationally in the 1970s as departments gradually realized that their employees needed emotional support.

"First responders have a very difficult job," Milhander said. "They are exposed to terrible things on a regular basis, and they have to cope with those things. They are not robots. They are human beings."

From there, the responsibility extended into the community, with chaplains tending to people affected by traumatic events.

Milhander said most of the Orange County chaplain programs are 15 to 25 years old.

There are no national guidelines for chaplain programs, so departments set their own rules, Milhander said. That includes how long chaplains work, what their job consists of and who is capable of becoming a chaplain.

Working as a chaplain is generally a part-time volunteer job; most chaplains also have full-time jobs as pastors.

Police departments that have a chaplaincy program usually employ a team of chaplains who rotate being on 24-hour call. Generally, departments set an hourly requirement that each chaplain is supposed to serve each month.

As an example, Santa Ana police chaplains are expected to serve about 12 hours of ride-along time per month, and Westminster police ask their chaplains to serve eight to 16 hours a month.

Ride-alongs provide a way for chaplains to get to know their officers better and what their jobs entail.

Milhander said some departments require that their chaplains be ordained, while others are open to any volunteer who is qualified to serve in a quasi-counseling position.

The Sheriff's Department has a rigorous hiring process. It requires that chaplains be ordained or licensed by their faith organization to ensure that their conversations with officers are "privileged communcations" and that they have at least a year's counseling experience, sheriff's Lt. Mark Stichter said.

Chaplains come in all faiths and denominations, including Muslims, Christians and Jews, said Milhander, a rabbi.

But while religion can be a motivating aspect for people who choose this path, many chaplains don't emphasize religion while on the job. They try to be sensitive to Orange County's diversity of beliefs and faiths and offer a more spiritual approach, those familiar with the job say.

"Religion plays a role on a broad scale," Zug said. "It informs you in being the person you need to be. Then you bring that person to the role of chaplaincy. The Bible informs me on how to live and how to be, and I bring that as a person, internally. Then when I am on scene or in the department, I don't bring my religion. I bring my 'person.' "

A variety of faiths are represented in the Sheriff's Department program, sheriff's Lt. Mark Stichter said.

But, he added: "When they act as an OCSD chaplain, they must be interfaith, regardless of their own faith choice."

Benoun echoed this philosophy. He said the faith of the people he is helping is of more importance than his own faith at these critical moments.

"I know some people look at a chaplain as one thing or another, but I always tell our chaplains: When we respond to a call, we are not representing our faith. We are representing theirs," Benoun said. "We are not there to tell them what we believe but help them in their belief as a chaplain. When we put on that uniform, we don't represent our faith but the person's faith."

And in the midst of a chaotic incident, he said, it doesn't even matter to a chaplain what role anyone played in the matter. Pain is pain, and need is need.

"It's not our primary concern who's the suspect or who's the victim," Benoun said. "We are there to notify someone of a tragic event and to be a shoulder to cry on, quietly sitting with them and letting them unload their emotion."

Relieving stress, maintaining sound mind

To be pillars of support for others, chaplains must be emotionally and physically healthy themselves.

"There are things in life that are bigger than any human can handle," said Barnett, recognizing the vulnerabilies of all people.

Mike Decker, 54, who has worked with Costa Mesa police for 21 years, likened the need for chaplains to maintain emotional and mental health to when flight attendants instruct people in case of emergency to put their oxygen mask on first before placing masks on others.

Decker said, like police officers, chaplains learn to compartmentalize the images and experiences entombed in their minds, but "it's like keeping ping pong balls underwater. Eventually they surface."

Like others who work in high-stress jobs, chaplains lean on family and friends — and each other.

Zug said chaplains will have meetings with other chaplains if they feel a need to unload in a process called "debriefing the debriefer." He said he has counseled fellow chaplains after they have gone through a stressful incident.

Physical activity is another important part of maintaining a sound mind.

Zug said he enjoys gardening to clear his mind, and Decker likes to play basketball and ride his motorcycle. In May, he took a motorcycle trip with a friend up to Santa Cruz to see the redwoods.

Decker, who recently purchased Disneyland passes, said he likes to go to the theme park with his family. He joked that Disneyland caramel apples are "proven to reduce stress."

Some chaplains believe they are better able to handle grief because of their religious beliefs.

"Because of my faith, I am able to process things in a way that I never recall images unless called to," Benoun said. "I don't dwell on things."

Barnett said, "If I wasn't a person of faith, it would be very difficult, but because I believe there is a different thing going on that we don't see, I don't think I need to understand it."

Barnett said he is always reminded of his favorite passage, in Romans 8:28: "God causes all things to work together for the good."

"It reminds me that [God] can take the worst incident, and if you give him time with it, he will make something wonderful out of it," Barnett said.

Yet, Decker finds that despite the best stress-relieving efforts, "that stuff never leaves you."

The memories

Wing said his first, most vivid memory in his storied 17-year career as a chaplain was when he had to tell a mother that her 17-year-old daughter wasn't coming home because she had been struck and killed by a car.

"Her mother still brings flowers to the memorial site," he said.

Wing insists the dozens of searing memories he's collected over the last 17 years haven't affected him.

"A lot of those things stay with you," he said. "Because I am a pastor, the Lord prepares me for it." 

Benoun volunteered to serve as a chaplain in the wake of both Hurricane Katrina and the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

From his time in New Orleans, the images of people processing the loss of their homes and neighborhoods still are embedded in his psyche.

He also went on three different trips to Ground Zero to work with New York City's police and fire departments. First responders would come into the church where he was stationed, and Benoun would listen to their stories and pray with them.

Not all memories are bad, though.

Barnett remembers when he was working the catastrophic Laguna Beach wildfire of 1993. He was accompanying a retired military officer who had served in World War II back to his home following the massive inferno.

"His whole house was gone, and the heat was so intense that it melted the girders," Barnett said. "There was nothing but ash."

Barnett said the man ran into the ashen heap, and he chased after him.

He found the man on his knees clutching a porcelain statue of Mary Magdalene holding a baby Jesus.

"He was weeping," Barnett said. "He looked at me and said, 'I'm going to be fine. When I was a boy we had a house fire, and this was the only thing that survived that fire. I'll be fine."

Barnett said he walked away shaking his head.

"He preached the sermon to me," Barnett said.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

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