An Interview with Andy Brown
Interview by Gila Hayes
When I first met Andy Brown in 2009 at a class taught by Massad Ayoob, he modestly spoke about experiences leading up to and following his nearly 70-yard shooting, which stopped a mass murderer who was killing people at the Fairchild Air Force Base hospital on June 20, 1994.
I was pleased recently to learn that Brown has written a book, Warnings Unheeded, in which he details the events preceding the shooting, as well as another deadly incident at Fairchild Air Force Base in June of 1994. Both stories emphasize how dangerous it is to delay resolving known dangers. This book is reviewed later in this journal, and for those unfamiliar with the Fairchild AFB hospital shooting, reading the book review first may help to set the context for this interview.
Brown kindly provided a pre-release copy of Warnings Unheeded, an impressive analysis not only of the many warnings that predicted tragedy, but also details of the incidents as well as candid observations about the aftermath. Unfortunately, Brown’s heroic act created a lot of private suffering for him. In hopes of helping others avoid some of what befell him, Brown agreed to an interview focusing on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) difficulties after a critical incident.
Let’s switch now to our Q & A format, to learn from Andy Brown, in his own words.
eJournal: Before we delve into specific questions about the aftermath of your critical incident, could you give a brief overview of what happened to you on June 20, 1994 to put our discussion into context?
Brown: I was 24, I had been in the Air Force for five years and Fairchild was my third assignment. I was a patrolman. I normally rode in a patrol car, but I was on bike patrol, which was a new program. That was only my second day on bike patrol. I was about an hour into our swing shift that started at 2 p.m. I had patrolled through some housing areas and stopped at a gate shack to visit with a friend of mine. I was planning on riding out of that gate into an area we leased from the county. It was still part of the base, but wasn’t fenced in. There were two housing areas and the base hospital was between the two housing areas I was going to patrol.
eJournal: So the hospital and that housing were not inside the area controlled by the gate guards?
Brown: It was outside the base perimeter, but it was still considered base property, so it was something that we patrolled. It was concurrent jurisdiction–the county sheriff also had jurisdiction in that area–but we considered it part of the base even though it wasn’t fenced in.
As I was inside the gate shack talking to the gate guard, a call came over the radio, “Fairchild Police to all posts and patrols, we have an alarm at the ER. Informational, we have an individual in the hospital running around with a shotgun.” So I started riding toward the area, about three tenths of mile away, down a two-lane road that led straight to the hospital. There were a lot of cars driving away from the hospital area toward me. Some had windows rolled down and people were yelling and trying to communicate with me, but I couldn’t hear them. Their urgency made me realize that something serious was going on at the hospital.
There was a long, narrow three-story annex building that used to be an old dormitory that had been converted into doctor’s offices and administrative offices for the hospital. As I approached and that building started to come into view, I saw a crowd of people wearing civilian clothes, Air Force uniforms and hospital whites, all urgently running away from that area. I scanned the crowd to see if any of them were a threat, because at that time I did not have a description of the man with the gun. I didn’t see any threats, so as I rode through the crowd, I was asking, “Where is he?”
As they continued moving away from the area, they all pointed behind them, “There is a man with a gun and he is shooting people. He is over there.” I continued towards the hospital campus and as I got closer, I saw a man dressed in dark clothing holding a long gun at his hip, firing to his left and his right. I veered to the right and rode up on to a sidewalk in front of the annex and took a kneeling position. I drew my pistol and identified myself as police and yelled at him to drop the weapon. He continued to fire to one side and the other. I saw movement and I knew there were people in the area, in my line of sight, so I was hesitant to fire.
I yelled at him again. As I was challenging him, I noticed people hiding behind vehicles on either side of him, in front of him and behind him. I think he either heard or saw me and he focused his attention and his rifle on me. When he started to fire toward me I knew the risk he posed outweighed the danger of me firing in the vicinity of others. That is when I made the decision to fire.
I didn’t know how far away he was at the time, but I had trouble finding him in my sights because he was so far away that his body was obscured by the front sight of my pistol. I could hardly see him behind it. I managed to get a sight picture and continued the trigger press and started to fire at him. I fired three rounds, which didn’t seem to have any effect on him. On the fourth round, he jumped up in the air, spun around and landed flat on his back. (An investigation later determined the final shot was made at a distance of between 68 and 71 yards.) At that time, I stood up and started moving toward the last position of cover between me and him–a silver pick-up truck parked perpendicular to the road. I leaned over the hood of that truck and yelled at him to not move. But he was motionless, out of the fight at that time.
eJournal: In Warnings Unheeded, you indicate that the final round entered at the bridge of his nose, but before that, didn’t your second round hit him in the shoulder?
Brown: One of my first three rounds did hit him in the shoulder. At the time, we were only allowed to carry 9mm NATO ball ammo. That has since changed, thankfully. From what I understand the security forces are now issued hollow point ammo. But, the autopsy report showed that the round that hit him in the shoulder, passed superficially through flesh only and went through and through with no effect.
There was a witness, and reading his statement, it sounded as if the first shot was what hit him in the shoulder. That was the only witness I could find that wrote a statement regarding seeing him react to a shoulder hit. It sounded like it was the first round, but I really couldn’t say that with any certainty because eyewitnesses are not totally reliable.
eJournal: Well, the important point is that from 70 yards away, you hit with two of the four rounds you fired and stopped him from killing more people. Let’s also remember that investigators later found 19 more cartridges in his rifle magazine, so that certainly equates to lives saved and suffering that you stopped.
eJournal: You’d been an Air Force Security Police patrolman for about five years before the shooting and in those years you were refining not only your shooting skill, but perhaps more importantly you took seriously your mental preparation for a critical incident while on duty as a patrolman. Can you assess how your preparation strengthened you for your encounter with Mellberg?
Brown: I had always worked with the assumption that it “could happen to me” and did all I could to prepare accordingly. I had gotten into a daily habit of mentally rehearsing lethal force scenarios and visualizing how I would effectively respond. Our only official pistol training was to qualify on the M9 twice a year, so I bought a clone of the Beretta M9, a Taurus PT-92, so I could practice on my own time. My friends and I would go out into the woods and practice long range, precision shooting, which for the most part was really just shooting at pinecones and pop cans. I also did a lot of dry fire work to be able to pull the trigger without disturbing the sight picture.
When I responded to the shooting, those preparations allowed me to react right away instead of wasting time in denial. When I encountered the gunman, my mind wasn’t overwhelmed by the novelty of the situation. Although I had never imagined an incident of that magnitude, I had faced men with guns trying to kill me, hundreds of times before in my mental rehearsals so I was able to remain calm. Because of the muscle memory I developed during practice, once I made the decision to fire, operating the pistol was automatic.
eJournal: In Warnings Unheeded, a compelling report of what you experienced, you wrote that as you were driven by the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) officer from the perimeter to help search the hospital, you stopped a medic and asked “There’s a woman out there on the road. I’m sure my background was clear, but I’m worried one of my bullets might have–” and he assured you that the only rounds that struck her had been fired by the gunman and she had died before you arrived on the scene. Was that relief lost in your self-doubt about lives lost (what you describe feeling the night of the shooting as a “faint sense of failed duty”)?
Brown: The only concern I was aware of while I was on the scene was my fear that one of my rounds had somehow struck an innocent person. I was emotionally numb afterward and it took a while for me to realize I felt guilty about not saving more lives. The guilt was there, and it was affecting me, I just didn’t realize it right away.
eJournal: Well, that is even more understandable in light of the difficulty you had obtaining counseling later. I’ve been lucky to hear you speak and read the advance copy of Warnings Unheeded, but this will be your first introduction to many readers. Can you explain the timing and what caused you to first reach out for counseling and why you stopped receiving that help?
Brown: It must have been three months after the shooting, because the investigation took about three months before I got to go back to working armed, in patrol. People kept asking me if I felt guilty about killing somebody, and I didn’t. A lot of them were ignorant, and one said don’t you feel guilty for murdering somebody, to which I took offense and corrected him and let him know it was justified homicide, not murder. At least that’s how I felt about it. So I was thinking that maybe something was wrong with me, for not feeling any guilt for killing the killer. I decided to go see a counselor just to make sure I was dealing with it properly.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have gotten treatment a lot sooner. I think I was still suppressing any emotions that I had about it and was still emotionally numb. I didn’t realize that I was bothered by it as much as I was or I might have done it differently. I was affected by it a lot more than I realized and I was suppressing it, trying to be like John Wayne from the movies where nobody’s bothered by having to shoot somebody or seeing so much trauma and violence.
When I did finally seek counseling, I’d had my weapon returned to me and I was working patrol. It was good to talk to somebody and I was planning on continuing the counseling but then I was relieved of duty and couldn’t work patrol any more. [The Air Force removed him from armed duty for the duration of the counseling.]
At my next appointment with the counselor, I told her what was going on. I wanted her to write a letter to my command and let them know that there was nothing wrong with me and that I could continue to work armed duty, which she did. She seemed to be angry that I’d been relieved of duty just for seeking counseling, but she wrote the letter and I went back to patrol and I never saw her again.
eJournal: Your choice between working armed and getting counseling echoes current concerns about gun rights restrictions enacted against people who seek counseling, especially veterans. If you’d known then what you know today, might you have taken a different course of action? What options do you think an armed citizen should consider to avoid the prolonged effects of inadequately treated post-traumatic stress disorder?
Brown: I have since learned that the longer trauma-related symptoms go untreated, the worse they can become and the harder they are to treat, but it is never too late to get help. If I had it to do over again, I would have stuck it out and pursued counseling even though it meant I would be relieved of weapon handling duty. My advice to others who experience trauma is to seek counseling immediately regardless of the obstacles or consequences, and if one type of treatment doesn’t work, seek out another.
More importantly, employers and governments should be working to remove obstacles and negative consequences that may deter people from seeking help. I eventually developed severe PTSD symptoms, but I never felt suicidal or homicidal. I am sure there are many people who continue to struggle as I did and would benefit from therapy. The arbitrary threat of
denying those persons their right to bear arms is definitely a negative consequence and an obstacle to their effective treatment.
eJournal: Before the shooting, you were an avid student of Chuck Remsberg’s Street Survival series. Did those books discuss the psychological aftermath or was the focus more on winning the fight? What mental aspects of post-incident survival would it have helped you to know about in advance?
Brown: As a young patrolman, I didn’t own Remsberg’s books; they weren’t cheap and I had to read copies that were kept in our training room when I could find the time. I have since acquired a set of the books and believe they do cover post-shooting trauma, but I must not have been interested in the subject at the time because I don’t recall ever reading about it.
I think it would have been helpful to know in advance that I may experience guilt, second guess my response, and develop post trauma symptoms. If I knew how to recognize the symptoms and knew they likely wouldn’t go away on their own and would probably only get worse, I would have known I needed to get help before they began to jeopardize my career and affect my quality of life.
eJournal: After the shooting, your duty gun was taken as evidence, and when you returned to the squadron building and told you couldn’t finish your shift, you sat alone in the interview room, and couldn’t even phone your family. Would prior knowledge of such procedures have changed your reactions?
Brown: I would have considered the taking of my duty gun to be a negative consequence even if I had known it was going to happen in advance. I understood I had to surrender it as evidence, but would have felt better about it if I had been able to exchange it for one that was not needed as evidence.
The isolation I experienced immediately after the incident was rough; knowing about it in advance would not have made it any easier. I don’t believe it was done intentionally, at the time there were no procedures in place for officer-involved shootings so no one knew what to do with me. I hope the military has developed a plan since then, if not, I hope they read the book and realize they need to develop procedures or revise their existing policies.
eJournal: How could you have avoided that isolation? Can armed citizens establish resources in advance to help? What might one do to prepare?
Brown: My situation can be used as the example of what not to do after you are involved in a shooting or other traumatic incident. I was a single airman and lived alone, but I had several friends I associated with and family members who were only half a day’s drive away. Not long after the shooting, I accepted orders to Hawaii and moved away from family and friends who knew me. I made new friends, but they didn’t know me well enough to notice changes in my behavior. My advice to members of the Network is don’t isolate yourself from family and friends, find someone who will listen when you need to talk, and listen to them if they tell you they are concerned.
eJournal: You wrote how the intrusive memories of June 20, 1994 followed you after you left Fairchild. What were you up against?
Brown: The intrusive thoughts were more like constant anxiety-causing memories of the incident that were triggered by common everyday situations. Some were caused by subconscious reminders of the shooting. There were obvious things like being in a crowd, going to a hospital or hearing a balloon pop, but also subtle things like warm, sunny days, the smell of fresh-cut grass or hearing the first name of the shooter, a victim or a survivor.
After the shooting, I was initially able to perform well at work and would occasionally socialize with friends off duty, but as the anxiety increased I began to avoid people and public places. I tried to avoid thinking about the incident and tried to ignore the symptoms, hoping they would go away in time. I spent most of my off-duty time alone in my dorm room and drank beer to calm my nerves.
The isolation led to depression, which only made things worse. I think the intrusive thoughts were my mind’s way of attempting to process and make sense of the incident. Those unwanted memories went away after I finally found a therapy that forced me to discover what was troubling me and then worked to resolve it.
eJournal: Do you believe there is a place for prescription medication in PTSD treatment?
Brown: I didn’t like taking the many medications that had been prescribed to me over the years. The side effects were often worse than the symptoms they were supposed to address and I didn’t stick with any of them. I have a problem with the medical community throwing pills at things that can be corrected through lifestyle change or other means.
I think medications may have a place in PTSD treatment. If a person needs to suppress their symptoms in order to leave their home and attend therapy, medication might be the answer. I don’t want to say that nobody can benefit from it, because I don’t know what they are going through. In my experience, I did not think medication was something that was necessary for me in the long term. But I’m no doctor, so I don’t want to say that nobody needs it.
eJournal: In Warnings Unheeded you wrote, “Over the years, I read countless books on trauma, PTSD and finding peace as I searched for the secret–the quick and easy cure. I would eventually discover my path to recovery from PTSD consisted of a series of deliberate steps.” For you, of what did those deliberate steps consist? How individual do you think effective treatment is – or do most survivors follow similar steps toward recovery?
Brown: What I meant by a series of deliberate steps is that I didn’t find one therapy that resolved all of my symptoms quickly and easily.
I think the steps are going to be different for everyone, what works for some may not work well for others. I found something useful in most everything I tried. Some were more useful than others and I think some therapies work better depending on where you are in the healing process.
I have read some trauma recovery self-help books that I didn’t get anything out of, but when I read the same book at a later stage in my recovery I found them useful. I think a lot of it has to do with your attitude at the time. You have to want to get better; it isn’t easy.
Finding my wife was my first step toward healing. The risk of losing my family was a big motivator for me to keep searching for peace. Changing my attitude was another step, and removing the negativity from my life was another. Finding a way to calm my anxiety without using alcohol also helped. Finding a therapy that addressed the root cause of my symptoms instead of masking the symptoms with medication was a major step in the right direction. Finding a job that gave me a purpose was a big step.
eJournal: What is your current work? Have you been able to fulfill your life-long drive to help people through law enforcement?
Brown: At the time when I was going through the healing process, I was working a lot of industrial jobs, and they weren’t very fulfilling. It was difficult enough just transitioning from the military world to civilian life. I was applying for other jobs and found a position with the Border Patrol working in their radio room, like a desk sergeant, working with the agents in the field, calling out alarms, running records checks for the agents, and that’s what gave me some purpose in life. It was a big step, being in a law-enforcement related job again where I felt like I was doing some good.
Now, I’ve been moved from that radio position and I work as a seized property specialist, where I help process the property that the agents seize: firearms, currency, drugs and vehicles. That happens to be a badged position, and I work armed. It is good to be entrusted with a firearm and a badge again and to be able to continue to help the agents.
eJournal: From what we are learning about threats against our country, your support of Border Patrol agents is very important. I’m glad you’re back on duty.
Brown: Yeah, it is good to be there.
eJournal: You’ve written that a big step in your recovery came in 2008 when you were finally able to listen to law enforcement dispatch recordings of the Fairchild incident. Was any rationale given for why it took so long to get the dispatch recordings?
Brown: No credible rationale. People with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations Freedom of Information Act division repeatedly told me they did not possess the equipment necessary to make a copy of the reel-to-reel audiotape containing the police radio and telephone transmissions. After several years of repeated requests, someone dug deeper into the case file and found that one of the original investigating officers had already copied the audio onto a cassette so they sent me a copy. I was pissed off and elated at the same time.
eJournal: Of first hearing that recording, you wrote, “At that moment, I finally began to forgive myself.” I know it is impossible to turn back time, yet I have to wonder if a shroud of secrecy had not covered the mass shooting for all those years, how the truth would have encouraged your acceptance of what you were called upon to do and the extraordinary skill you demonstrated. Was worry that you somehow should have arrived on the scene sooner the pivotal point in your suffering?
Brown: I could see that I most likely saved lives that day and I was proud of my actions but at the same time I needed to find out how long it took me to arrive on scene. Due to the time distortion I experienced, it felt like it took forever to get there. I have never understood survivor guilt when I saw it in others and I know it doesn’t make sense that I felt responsible for the dead and wounded, but I did. Being a law enforcement officer and one of the few people who were allowed to carry firearms on the base may have added to that sense of responsibility. Discovering that my response time was remarkably fast did help quite a bit in my recovery, but it was just one of several steps. Thankfully, I no longer feel responsible for those I could not save.
eJournal: Have treatment strategies for PTSD advanced such that the relatively new programs you mention in Warnings Unheeded substantially differ from earlier therapies? Would you be comfortable explaining the prolonged exposure therapy and the cognitive processing therapy, and how it worked to alleviate your symptoms?
Brown: The previous therapies and counseling I received was just talk therapy, “Tell me what’s bothering you,” and “How does that make you feel?” It was good to be able to talk to someone, but it didn’t give me any long-term benefit.
Cognitive processing therapy involved working with a counselor over several sessions and using a process that forced me to dig deep into the incident to discover what about it was bothering me. It also taught me that the incident had changed the way I thought about the world around me and that those thoughts were affecting the way I felt. By uncovering and addressing the cause of the symptoms and changing the way I thought, I began to feel better. It helped me get unstuck from the negative cycle I was in.
The prolonged exposure therapy forced me to go to places I would normally avoid and use breathing techniques to control the anxiety that was caused by the environment I was in. In doing so, the environments that I usually avoided began to become more tolerable. The depression I was experiencing subsided when I stopped isolating and began to enjoy life again.
eJournal: In earlier conversations, you commented that there is much more to be learned from the Fairchild shootings beyond our conversation today. That’s something we would like to talk about later, but until then, what should we look for in your book, Warnings Unheeded, to help us pick up on those lessons?
Brown: The book provides an in-depth view into the life of a mass murderer in the making. Police trainer Lt. Dan Marcou developed a list of five phases that a mass public murderer typically goes through as he progresses toward his crime. Those phases are listed in the back of Warnings Unheeded. As you read the book, you can see the killer progress through each of those phases and you can see how the people who interacted with him, ignored or rationalized those warnings signs. The ones who saw what was happening and tried to warn people were ignored and dismissed.
I like to read nonfiction books about crime and criminals so that I might be better prepared to protect myself and my family from being victims. This book will help others to prevent or intervene in mass public murder. It is the book that I had always hoped someone would write, but I ended up doing it myself.
eJournal: I’m glad you wrote it and cannot thank you enough for sharing your experiences so openly with us. It is extremely valuable to learn from one who has gone before. I know that through your strong and positive influence our readers are now better prepared for what may befall them. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart!
Andy Brown grew up in Port Orchard, WA and joined the Air Force in 1989, shortly after graduating from South Kitsap High School. He served as a law enforcement specialist in the Security Police/Security Forces career field and was stationed in Greece, ID, WA, HI and NM. He now lives in the Spokane, WA area and works for the Department of Homeland Security.
After seven years of research he wrote Warnings Unheeded. The book is part of his ongoing effort to share the lessons learned from the mass public murder and fatal B-52 crash at Fairchild Air Force Base, as well as the heroic actions of those involved and his experience with the effects of trauma. Learn more about this story at http://fairchildhospitalshooting.com/ as well as this month’s book review of Warnings Unheeded.
Click here to return to our November 2016 Journal to read more.