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Virginia Tech tragedy motivates onlookers to create positive changes
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Virginia Tech tragedy motivates onlookers to create positive changes

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Andrew Goddard watched his son’s blood flowing freely from the four gunshot wounds he suffered after a student at Virginia Tech opened fire on campus 10 years ago.

Soon, the white hospital bedsheet was soaked red.

“I sat there thinking, ‘What is this going to make me do?’” said Goddard, who lives in Henrico County. “I want to offer something in exchange for asking for him to live.”

Colin Goddard survived. Thirty-two other victims did not.

“I’m paying that now,” Andrew Goddard said. “If I just sat back and said, ‘Oh, we were lucky. We’ve still got our kid, and let’s get on,’ I would feel like I wasn’t being fair to someone in the future.”

Andrew Goddard is now the legislative director for the Virginia Center for Public Safety and spends much of his time urging the General Assembly to enact gun restrictions.

He is one of many who were motivated to pursue change after the violence and sorrow of April 16, 2007.

“It’s human nature, when something awful happens, you want to try and stop it from happening again,” Goddard said.

“The people you’re working for aren’t the ones who have been shot; they’re the ones who haven’t yet been shot.”

Colin, his son, was a senior policy advocate for Everytown for Gun Safety before returning to school at the University of Maryland to seek an MBA.

The Rev. Alexander Evans, who at the time was the pastor of Blacksburg Presbyterian Church and was chaplain to the Blacksburg Police Department, found his calling helping law enforcement cope with trauma.

“Cops needed more care than they were getting,” he said he realized after the Tech shootings.

Andrew Goddard first visited the General Assembly not to lobby for limitations on guns but to see if lawmakers would enact any of the recommendations from a panel that then-Gov. Tim Kaine convened to investigate the shootings.

“In 2008, I went to the General Assembly because of Virginia Tech,” he said. “In 2009, 10, 11 and years on, I went because of what I heard at the assembly.”

Three major issues rose out of the recommendations: breakdowns in the mental health system, school policy and accessibility of guns.

The mental health issues seemed to stem from finances. He tried to help there; he was appointed to the board for the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

But the “overstressed, overworked, chronically underfunded system” continued to be all those things, Goddard said.

Several families of the 32 who were killed at Virginia Tech latched onto issues with the school’s policy. Joe Samaha, father of shooting victim Reema Samaha, led efforts to increase school safety as board president of the VTV Family Outreach Foundation.

Goddard and some of the families of the 17 who were wounded — including Lori Haas, whose daughter Emily was injured — worked toward gun safety.

They lobby for mandatory background checks for all gun purchases, harsher penalties for straw purchases and mandatory reporting of stolen firearms, among other measures.

But with little success advancing gun restrictions, Goddard said he does not think the state has learned from the tragedy.

“We didn’t learn anything,” he said. “The lessons were out there to be learned, but you can’t say that we did. Unless you do something with that — demonstrate that we learned it — we haven’t learned.”

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Alex Evans was the chaplain for Blacksburg police 10 years ago. He accompanied the police chief as he notified the 32 families that their loved ones, mostly students at Virginia Tech, had been killed.

“The role with police put me in the middle of it and has led to continuing ministry since then,” said Evans, who now preaches at Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond.

“They see the worst of it. They have images of the smoke in the room. The blood. The scene. These are tough guys, but this is immediately terrible. This whole building is just filled with wounded and deceased, and they’re kids.

“That’s going to keep you up at night. That’s going to make you question whether you should be a cop.”

So he started a nonprofit, the Virginia Law Enforcement Assistance Program, which holds three-day seminars for officers who have been through trauma.

The program has held 13 seminars so far and reached about 400 officers, including about 100 who worked April 16, 2007, in Blacksburg.

“We spend three days with them trying to get them back to normalcy, back to work, back to wholeness,” he said.

“A whole lot of them were greatly helped by being able to come to a table with only police, many of whom were also touched by the shootings at Tech, and say, ‘Yeah, I’m glad I’m not the only one struggling’ and ‘How do you get through this?’”

Some officers suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and nightmares, much like members of the military who have returned from war.

Evans left Blacksburg for Richmond in December 2008. It wasn’t an easy decision, he said, but he has continued his outreach with law enforcement and has expanded it statewide.

“I can’t believe it’s 10 years. It’s still really fresh in many ways. Obviously, a lot has changed in 10 years. I’m not there anymore, and yet my heart is there in a lot of ways,” he said.

“You don’t want to forget. We’re all shaped by this. You can’t change it, but we hope to keep moving toward wholeness and goodness.

“As bad as it was, we want to find good ways to respond.”

arockett@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6527

Twitter: @AliRockettRTD

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