Jan. 24, 2007 — U.S. Army crisis team counselors met Tuesday evening with family and friends of V.I. National Guard soldiers killed when their helicopter went down in Baghdad Saturday.
About 12 family members, friends and VING Family Support group members sat around a table at the Lionel A. Jackson Armory in Estate Bethlehem, some sharing stories of personal grief and anxiety. Some had nothing at all to say, just taking comfort from those who could understand their pain.
"My only son is in Afghanistan," one woman said. "When I heard the news I said, don't let this news come to me; God, save my son."
A local newspaper on Tuesday identified the dead as LTC David Canegata III of St. Croix and Sgt. Floyd James Lake of St. Thomas. However, according to V.I. National Guard officials, the deaths are still unconfirmed until they are released by the Department of Defense.
The crisis team is contracted by the Army through Management Health Network. It is comprised of private and military health professionals who stand ready to give support to people affected by military disasters. Their sessions are closed and confidential.
The woman, dressed in a light green shirt and jeans with her hair pulled back in a ponytail, said she has been walking around in a daze since the news broke Saturday. "I did not want to believe anything I heard or saw in the newspaper," she said. "My son is over there. I kept denying that anything happened."
When she heard the unconfirmed names of the dead, she said that her mood did not change because she knew her son was still in the danger zone.
Military chaplain Capt. Cecil Cornielle said these feeling are normal. "It takes time to accept, and after that we can deal with it." He said many people just feel "numb" after being faced with a tragedy like this. "The best thing you can do is give yourself time to begin the healing process."
Dr. Chester Copeman, a local clinical physiologist, agreed. "The constant anxiety and fear you live with every day doesn't go away when you find he is not the causalty; in fact, it may increase," he said. "It's a complex feeling to be relieved that it was not your child, but then sometime you experience guilt."
It was clear from the remarks shared at the session that the two soldiers had large families with branches on St. Croix and St. Thomas. Considering the soldiers' National Guard family, co-workers at their full-time jobs, families and friends on all three Virgin Islands, Cornielle was prompted to say the deaths have affected a large part of this community.
A member of the VING family support groups said many of the volunteers are "still in shock." "It's the days ahead and the weeks ahead and the months ahead when it's really going to sink in."
"Everyone reacts to grief differently," said crisis team physiologist Vanessa Villafane. "Some cry, some don't cry. Some get angry and some feel powerless; in the end we realize how fragile life is." She said people experiencing grief will have "highs and lows," adding that "the more you deny the pain, the more difficult it is to heal."
A few people told of nightmares they had and waking suddenly from their sleep. "You are linked mentally, physically and spiritually with this person and when the link is gone, you feel the gap," said one Hispanic woman. "Life doesn't end here; it goes on."
Cornielle said looking at the good things about the deceased person often helps people cope with their grief.
If the recent deaths are confirmed by the Defense Department, it would bring the number of V.I. soldiers killed in Operation Iraq Freedom to six.
Among the dead are U.S. Army Spc. Jose Rosario, Pfc. Jason Lynch, both of St. Croix; U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Shane Goldman, whose father lives on St. Croix, and Army Staff Sgt. Kendall Thomas of St. Thomas.
The counselors will be on St. Thomas Tuesday at the Sfc. Leonard B Francis Armory to meet with persons affected by the tragedy. For more information call 712-7721.
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