Fort Hood survivor on Navy Yard shootings: Don't let tragedy define you

In this Aug. 3, 2013 photo, retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Shawn Manning holds a memorial bracelet for members of his military unit who were killed in the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas.

Last week’s Washington Navy Yard shootings stunned the entire nation, but they were especially chilling for survivors of the 2009 shooting rampage at an Army processing center in Fort Hood, Texas. One Fort Hood survivor, Shawn Manning, was shot six times at close range and watched a number of his friends die. Here, Manning reflects on what happened and shares words of encouragement for Navy Yard survivors.

As I watched the tragedy unfold at the Washington Navy Yard, I knew all too well what the survivors were going through. Nearly four years ago I had been in nearly the same situation when Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and wounded more than 30 others at the Fort Hood Army base.

Hasan shot me six times that day and left me for dead as he proceeded to gun down my friends and fellow soldiers. Having dealt with my own pain and grief over the past four years, I’ve been thinking about what advice I would have for the survivors of the most recent horrific attack.

Before the shooting in 2009, I had worked for almost a decade as a mental-health counselor, helping soldiers cope with the aftermath of combat both in the United States and in Iraq. This still left me ill-equipped to deal with a mass murder within the safety of a military installation far outside a combat zone.

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The aftermath of something like this can be overwhelming. People you have not heard from in years suddenly want to talk to you to get your perspective or to find out if you are OK. This is when the temptation to withdraw completely can be at its greatest, but it is important to keep your social support system and the people who were closest to you in place.

Trust me when I say that most people will forget what happened long before you do. You also will hear again and again how lucky you are to have survived. At times, though, you might not feel that lucky.

Shawn Manning holds a photograph from the memorial for victims of the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas. Manning, who still carries two bullets in his body from the shooting that killed 13 people, says it's important not to become completely consumed by a tragedy of this nature.

After the shock wears off, reality will begin to set in. You’ll start to see other people going back to normal — but for you, things will continue to feel far from normal. This is the time when it is most important to ask for help. Understand that things will never be exactly the same, but that does not mean that they can’t be better. Don’t be afraid to talk to family members or friends about what you are going through, even if they don’t understand. Allow yourself to seek out the help of a professional.

You may find yourself replaying the events of the tragedy over and over again in your mind, wondering, “What if I had done_____?” or thinking, “I should have_____ .” Recognize that you can never go back and change the past. Wishing that you can only makes it easier to blame yourself.

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As time goes on, a tragedy like this can begin to define and consume you. You have to remember that this is something that happened to you — it is not who you are. The more you become consumed, the more you will drive the people around you away from you, and eventually you will no longer be a survivor. You will be a victim.

This point cannot be overstated: You can be a victim of a tragedy like this, or you can be a survivor. You must choose to be a survivor.

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Do the best you can to maintain balance in your life. Realize how detrimental it can be to throw yourself into your work or to avoid thinking about the shootings altogether. You will never really forget about it. No matter how hard you try, it will always be there. The person you used to be is gone. Something like this changes you, often in good and bad ways. Embrace the positive changes, and keep reminding yourself that if you can survive this, you can survive anything.

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They say time heals all wounds. While that is true, the amount of time depends on you and the choices you make in the months and years to come. Making the wrong choice and learning from it can be as important as making the right one, so don’t be discouraged when you have a setback or something goes wrong. No one has all the right answers. Just keep trying until you find what works for you.

Shawn Manning, 37, is a civilian mental-health counselor at Madigan Army Medical Center near Tacoma, Wash.