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Chaplain hopes to never repeat ‘critical incident’

Milltown Police Chaplain Bob Stewart left for Washington, D.C., last Sept. 11, to help officers and emergency personnel cope with the horrific scenes they witnessed during the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon.
A year later, Stewart hopes he made a difference for those workers and is concerned about how their experiences have affected them.
Stewart, 62, Elizabeth, has been a minister for more than 40 years and has pastored the First Baptist Church at Elizabeth for 10 years. He and his wife, Linda, run The Potter’s House retreat center for ministers outside Elizabeth. They have lived in Southern Indiana for about 20 years.
The Stewarts’ son-in-law is a police officer. Stewart said he first became interested in being a police chaplain because of his concern for how officers deal with the stresses that comes with the job.
“I got interested in the needs of the police officer and the emergency worker,” he said.
Stewart began learning about “critical incident” stress debriefing for police and emergency personnel, and went on to participate in chaplain programs with the Harrison County Sheriff’s Dept. and the Lanesville and Milltown police departments. A “critical incident” is defined as a traumatic event, like a plane crash, automobile accident or shooting, Stewart said.
He is a member of the International Conference of Police Chaplains, which led to his being called to Washington to assist officers and rescue workers.
“I was called to go there as part of the critical incident team,” Stewart said. “I primarily was there to deal with the impact of the event on the emotions of the rescue workers.”
Because his department is a branch of U.S. Homeland Security, he carries a Pentagon picture ID, which allowed him to go directly into Washington after the attacks. Once there, he spent much of his time working with the Fairfax County, Va., Urban Search and Rescue Team, locating survivors and recovering bodies. The Fairfax group also helped with the rescue effort after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
Stewart also spent time working with young soldiers who had been assigned to help stabilize the building, to make it safe for the rescue effort. Many of the young men had never experienced such a horrendous situation, and he tried to help them identify their emotions.
“I guess my job was to let them talk,” he said. “I tried to let them know that their feelings were not unusual.”
One hundred and eighty-nine people were killed at the Pentagon and made for a grim scene the week he was there.
“I had some pretty tough things to deal with,” he said. “It was still very difficult to even comprehend that it could happen.”
Stewart said he was able to get a real picture of the rescuers’ heroic work simply by spending time, drinking coffee and listening to their stories in the Red Cross tents.
“The rescue workers are the real heroes in this thing,” Stewart said. “We’re glad that we could help them.”
He noticed the workers were more apt to talk about their personal problems rather than the incident. He found that odd but theorizes that the attack caused a sense of urgency for the workers and signaled to them that life is too short and they needed to make the most of their time on earth.
As the rescue effort continued throughout the week, Army chaplains were brought in to help the soldiers and rescue workers, Stewart said. He stayed until all the survivors had been rescued and the bodies removed.
“I was just glad that I could be there,” he said.
Although it hurts to witness such a tragedy, Stewart said, it’s important that people are able to put the pieces back together as best they can. He said he thinks it will help the healing efforts of rescue workers, police and firefighters to see the Pentagon and World Trade Center back in one piece and thriving again.
He also believes the 9/11 commemoration services will help bring some amount of closure for those who lost a loved one or were involved in the rescue effort.
He was invited to attend a 9/11 commemoration service at Washington, D.C., but declined because he thought he might not be here. He does a lot of mission work outside this country.
Stewart keeps up with the Pentagon rebuilding effort and has kept in touch with the Fairfax Rescue Squad.
Stewart said the threat of additional terrorist attacks is a possibility, one that cannot be taken lightly by the U.S.
“I would hope to never have to be a part of something like that again,” he said. “I hope that nothing like that happens again.”