Monday, August 03, 2009

An Inconvenient Tale

After the tragic events in Montrose a little over a week ago, I happened upon a link to a police mug shot of Dennis Gurney, the man that killed Sgt. David Kinterknecht and wounded two other Montrose officers before taking his own life.

After the initial shock, I was struck with questions about the kind of tortured soul that resided inside what was literally a mask of scar tissue. What limited information that was available indicated that he had several recent run-ins with local law enforcement, with a history of alcohol-fueled violence against his wife. The circumstances surrounding Mr. Gurney's disfigurement were usually limited to one sentence, that he had been burned in an oil rig fire in the 1980's.

With our deserving final respects paid and Sgt. Kinterknecht laid to rest, I was surprised that any segment of the media would choose to focus so soon on the life and times of Dennis Gurney. But there it was, on the front page of Sunday's Denver Post.

West slope-based reporter Nancy Lofholm detailed the very things I was looking for. The circumstances surrounding the drill rig mishap in 1980 that left Mr. Gurney burned over 3/4 of his body. His family's relocation to Montrose, and his assimilation into that community. The dark cloud of depression, band-aided with medications and alcohol, and his tragic end a week ago Saturday.

The comments on the story understandably ran the gamut; from a desire to understand, to the extent that we can, how trauma shaped Dennis Gurney, to those all too quick to judge him, his wife, and the Post, unable to see past the "psycho cop killer" label. Add a little flame war to muck it up all the more, and you have a pretty classic example of Internet discourse in this country.
Fortunately, a diamond in the rough stood out:
While there can never be a valid justification for anyone taking another person's life, the Post was right in presenting another side to Dennis Gurney's sad and painful life rather than just allowing him to be remembered as another psycho abuser and cop killer. There is a story behind every single person who eventually ends up as an alcoholic, drug addict, abuser or cop killer. Unfortunately, most of them are never told. It takes a willingness to be subjected to criticism such as the kind we are seeing in this discussion to present another side to a "cop killer's" personality and I commend the Post for having the courage to do so on this occasion.
As it happens, there was another, much more comprehensive report about a group of citizens who engaged in substance abuse and violent behavior after being involved in a lengthy traumatic experience.

The Colorado Springs Gazette is getting national attention for a two-part series published last week titled Casualties of War. The series focuses on the alarming number of violent crimes committed in the Colorado Springs area by military personnel, with emphasis on a single Army infantry battalion based at Fort Carson.

The two stories are filled with graphic descriptions of battle, atrocities alleged to have been committed on innocent Iraqis by American soldiers, and numerous random violent acts stateside. It's worth a complete read.

Now the Army, for the first time, will be watching the soldiers at Fort Carson for signs of PTSD.

A recurrent statement during soldier interviews for the Gazette story is how there is a "stigma" or "culture" in the Army that views asking for help in coping with the rigors of war as a sign of weakness. There's a common thread here to what I've seen among public safety personnel who I assisted during my time as a Peer Debriefer for a CISM team in Pittsburgh.

The mantra for me was, "Hey, you're a human being, complete with strengths, weaknesses, with unique experiences that help to shape how you react to bad things when they happen. Get this; somewhere, someone has dealt with the things you're dealing with. You're not alone."

Coupled with a greater social and cultural acceptance (particularly among men) of the need to communicate with professionals about emotional problems, is the need for readily available mental health services, more robust than trying to mask a problem with something like Zoloft or Xanax.

Yes, Dennis Gurney did a horrible thing. He is receiving an eternal judgment far greater than any of us could impose. Some of the soldiers returning from multiple deployments to Iraq or Afghanistan did terrible things, too. We as a society need to remember and understand; it will be a victory for responsible, well-rounded journalism if these stories help to begin that process.

Have a good week.

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