Survivors of earlier mass shootings join to help Dayton heal

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Kody Robertson coaches Hilliard Davidson High School soccer, and he had player interviews last Sunday. But he couldn’t quite focus because his mind was someplace else: with the brokenhearted of Dayton.

Robertson understands their pain in a way few others can. A survivor of the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting in Las Vegas in 2017 that left 58 dead, he still deals with the effects of all that he witnessed, still grieves for the loss of his friend who died, still copes with the aftermath of trying to save so many lives that night. So when he heard of the shooting in the Oregon District of Dayton, less than a 90-minute drive from his home, he knew he had to head over to help.

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He called Chris Williford, another Route 91 survivor with whom he’d connected as part of a survivors’ Facebook group, and asked her if she would go with him.

“I said, ‘We have to be there. We have to do something,'” Robertson said. “Surviving a mass shooting isn’t like having a heart attack. There’s no plan for recovery. There’s no manual, no book to tell you how to cope.”

So Robertson and his girlfriend joined Williford and her wife at the candlelight vigil in Dayton, where a gunman had killed nine and wounded 27 on Aug. 4 before police killed him outside a crowded bar. They stood right in front of the shooting scene and held a sign that read “Vegas Route 91 Survivors. Here for support. Free hugs.” Many people took them up on the latter, though few said even a word. Sometimes speaking simply isn’t necessary.

“It’s comforting just to know other people who’ve been where you are care and are there to help,” said the 34-year-old Robertson, a Hilliard resident and the brother of Dispatch photographer Kyle Robertson. “You want to spread hope.”

Williford, a 47-year-old nurse who helped save others at Route 91 and rode to a hospital in Las Vegas cradling a stranger on her lap as she staunched the blood from his stomach wound, said going to Dayton was far from easy.

“It did bring back memories, and I knew I was going to have flashbacks,” she said. “Kody and I have an unbreakable bond … because now we belong to this club that nobody wants to be a part of. But going to Dayton helped us heal, too, even after all this time. None of us want to be alone in this.”

Experts say that for survivors of mass shootings, whether they witnessed the event, were wounded or lost a loved one, support from others in the same situation is an important step in healing. Last year, the American Psychological Association wrote that most survivors of mass shootings are resilient, but some deal with anxiety and depression and often mask the lingering effects of what they’ve been through with substance abuse. As many as 28% of those who witness a mass shooting develop post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the National Center for PTSD.

No one needs to show such statistics to Lonnie and Sandy Phillips. The couple’s daughter, 24-year-old Jessica Redfield Ghawi, was one of 12 people killed in the shooting at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in July 2012. Five months later, the Phillipses found themselves in Newtown, Connecticut, offering help to others in their shoes after the Sandy Hook school shooting.

They’ve never really stopped that work, now traveling the country with their Survivors Empowered nonprofit group. On Friday, they were en route to lay the groundwork for ongoing support in El Paso, Texas, the site of a mass shooting that killed 22 people at a Walmart on Aug. 3. Talking by phone to The Dispatch, Lonnie Phillips said it could be weeks, months or even years before the survivors realize they need someone.

“When you have a huge loss, you have a hole in your body and your mind. You can fill that with good and with wanting to reach out and make a change, or you can fill it with hatred and anger and helping out,” he said.

For both Robertson and Williford, who lives in Miamisburg near Dayton, this was their first time at such a scene since their own loss.

“It was brutal,” said Robertson, whose friend, Michelle Vo, was next to him in Las Vegas when she was shot twice and fell. He threw himself on top of her as a shield, and then he and others carried her out for help. He found out only hours later that she had died.

The psychological wounds still haunt him. He knew they would. Friends in the military who have lost buddies, and survivors of other tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing, all reached out to warn him.

“They said, ‘It’s going to be with you for the rest of your life,'” Robertson said. The survivors’ groups that he belongs to help, and his girlfriend has been a rock. But being kind has been the best medicine. He started a #keepgoodgoing movement not long after the Las Vegas shootings, where he and others would do such things as pay restaurant tabs for others and hand out gift cards.

“You do as much as you can every day for others,” he said, looking down at his forearm tattoo in remembrance of Vo and the others lost at Route 91. “It’s a reminder that life is short. So live it up with no regrets.”

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