20 Years Later, Oklahoma City Bombing Victims Fight Stigmas

Originally published on April 18, 2015 10:59 am
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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's been 20 years since a bomb destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. One hundred sixty-eight people died. Hundreds more were injured. Many of those touched by the bombing are still recovering from the psychological impact of that day. Kate Carlton Greer from member station KGOU reports.

KATE CARLTON GREER, BYLINE: At the Oklahoma City National Memorial grounds, people wander through the grassy lawn. There's a reflecting pool lined by trees. People walk through reading names engraved on 168 empty chairs. Bombing survivor Paul Heath is here a lot. He greets visitors and makes sure they know about a self-guided tour.

PAUL HEATH: Do you all have a pamphlet?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, we don't.

HEATH: Well, you must have one.

GREER: Heath's a retired psychologist for the Department of Veterans Affairs. His office was on the fifth floor of the Murrah Building. When the bomb exploded, the floor collapsed two feet in front of him.

HEATH: Here's what I actually thought - God, I don't want to die. I don't want to die today. If it's all right with you, I'll die later. Exact - that's exactly what I thought. And I was looking straight in the bomb pit.

GREER: Heath survived with minor injuries. The spry 80-year-old considers himself psychologically healthy except for the occasional nightmare. Not everyone is doing as well, says John Tassey, a psychologist at the VA Medical Center in Oklahoma City.

JOHN TASSEY: We saw a lot of the survivors and a lot of the family members first. And now, here we are 20 years later and we're opening new cases for post-traumatic stress disorder.

GREER: These new PTSD cases? First responders. Fire chaplain Teddy Wilson says there's such a stigma associated with counseling, some emergency personnel never got treatment.

TEDDY WILSON: Ninety percent of my battle is to get a firefighter to say, I need help. Once they do that, then they're compliant client, if you will. They're ready at that point to get fixed.

GREER: Of the 985 Oklahoma City firefighters who responded to the bombing, Wilson says two percent have retired citing PTSD. Just the other week, a firefighter sought counseling for the first time since the bombing.

WILSON: We've had zero suicides attributed to the Oklahoma City bombing. Doesn't mean we haven't had suicide interventions - we've had a bunch of those, but it's been successful.

GREER: A group of psychologists and psychiatrists just finished a study on the mental health of bombing survivors. They found nearly a quarter showed PTSD symptoms. The VA's John Tassey says it's important to share what they found.

TASSEY: We had good intentions and very little training. And people came in to help us. People came in from California, people came in from Washington, D.C. Now it's our turn. You know, we have that experience and there's people that don't, so we need to help them out.

GREER: Tassey says one of the biggest lessons he's learned in the past 20 years is the importance of identifying people most at risk of PTSD. But that may be the easy part.

TASSEY: We have better treatments now than we did in 1995. So, that's good. But we have to get people to be willing to participate in it because psychological treatment is - it's uncomfortable.

GREER: Chaplain Wilson insists his firefighters are doing so well in part because of the continued service his team provides that's not available to the average survivor.

WILSON: As far as I'm concerned, on disaster relief stuff, you've got to have people out there batting every day for them - day in, day out, for years to come, take care of people.

GREER: Back at the memorial, Paul Heath says he's mostly recovered because of what he's done since that day in 1995. For him, few things are more important than talking about what happened.

HEATH: To have been in the event and not be physically damaged that much was a real blessing because then it allowed me to be of much help to others.

GREER: Heath doesn't think he has survivor's guilt, but part of him wonders why he still comes here to reach out and support so many people who lived through and still struggle with the aftermath of the bombing. For NPR News I'm Kate Carlton Greer in Oklahoma City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.