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A new investigation by Amnesty International published today exposes how the Thai military routinely subject new conscripts to a barrage of beating, humiliation and sexual abuse that often amounts to torture.
The organization’s new report, “We were just toys to them”, documents a widespread and long-standing pattern of abuse of new conscripts, including several incidents of rape.
“Abuses of new conscripts in the Thai military have long been an open secret. What our research shows is that such maltreatment is not the exception but the rule, and deliberately hushed within the military,” said Clare Algar, Amnesty International’s Senior Director for Research, Advocacy & Policy.
Abuses of new conscripts in the Thai military have long been an open secret. What our research shows is that such maltreatment is not the exception but the rule
Clare Algar, Senior Director for Research, Advocacy & Policy
“Recruits described how sergeants and trainers brutally beat them with sticks and the butts of guns, sexually abused them and forced them to exercise until they fainted.”
“The full chain of command bears responsibility for this culture of violence and degradation. The Thai authorities must take immediate steps to stop these abusive and degrading practices before the upcoming annual military draft, as well as launch a commission of inquiry to investigate these crimes.”
Amnesty International conducted 26 interviews with former and serving conscripted soldiers and commanders, including officers. As well as physical punishments, current and former conscripts described a range of practices designed to humiliate, including being made to jump into septic tanks and forced to eat “like dogs” using only their mouths.
Reports of sexual abuse and humiliation were rampant. Interviewees described being forced by their commanders to masturbate and ejaculate in front of each other, and several described being sexually attacked or witnessing such attacks. Gay conscripts and those perceived to be gay described how they were routinely singled out for acts of sexual violence, harassment and discrimination.
Punishments by beatings, harmful exercises and humiliation
Conscripts described how they were often punished by being smacked, kicked and subjected to other types of beatings, with commanders using their hands, sticks, combat boots, helmets and, at times, the butts of their guns.
Every time the trainers have an excuse to punish you: you’re not chanting loud enough, you’re too slow in the shower, you failed to follow orders strictly, you smoked.
An interviewee speaking to Amnesty International
“Not a single day passed by without punishment,” one interviewee told Amnesty International. “Every time the trainers have an excuse to punish you: you’re not chanting loud enough, you’re too slow in the shower, you failed to follow orders strictly, you smoked.”
Another said: “A conscript […] was once caught drinking [alcohol]. He was hit hard and I saw blood coming out of his mouth.”
Conscripts also described being made to perform physical exercises far beyond their endurance as a form of punishment. This included being forced to stand in positions which often led to fainting or injury.
According to one person, “three to four people would faint every day. They have a clinic where these people would be sent.” Another told Amnesty International: “People who usually fainted would be treated, then return, then have to exercise again and faint again.”
Sexual abuse, especially of gay conscripts
New recruits suffer rampant and routine sexual abuse by their commanders. A clear majority of conscripts told Amnesty that they had experienced or witnessed sexual abuse, or heard from its victims. Only two said they had not.
A form of collective sexual abuse called “the train” was cited by nine conscripts who trained in nine different provinces during five different training cycles. Normally taking place in the bathing area, the practice involves forcing conscripts, while naked, to hold each other’s penises and stand or walk in a column or a circle.
Eight conscripts, trained in four different cycles in camps located in eight different provinces, told Amnesty International that they and dozens of fellow conscripts were collectively forced by commanders to masturbate and ejaculate in public.
These young conscripts are exposed to commanders who inflict sexual abuse, including rape and other forms of torture. These are serious crimes under Thai and international law and those responsible should face justice.
Conscripts who either identified or were perceived as gay are often targeted for sexual abuse because of their sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, including being forced to entertain and massage commanders, in situations that sometimes involve further sexual abuse.
Amnesty International documented three cases of rape, one case of attempted rape, one of simulated rape, and two other cases in which conscripts were coerced into providing “sexual favours” to commanders, which likely amounted to rape. Most – though not all – of the rape survivors self-identified or were described as gay.
“These young conscripts are exposed to commanders who inflict sexual abuse, including rape and other forms of torture,” said Clare Algar.
“These are serious crimes under Thai and international law and those responsible should face justice.”
Urgent action needed ahead of the annual draft
The military draft takes place at the start of April at local recruitment centres throughout Thailand. Young men are required to undergo physical and psychological fitness tests ahead of enlistment. Women are not subject to conscription.
In 2018, 104,734 young men were enlisted out of the 356,978 who were initially summoned. Most conscripts are recruited into the army, and start their service in two cycles annually, in April to May and October to November. On 13 March, the authorities announced that the military draft due to begin in early April has been delayed by several weeks as a response to the Covid-19 outbreak.
All initially undergo 10 weeks to three months of general basic training before joining specific units, which may or may not require additional training.
Need for immediate steps and a commission of inquiry
In a written response to Amnesty International during this research, Deputy Chief of Staff Air Chief Marshal Chalermchai Sri-saiyud stated that the military follow a policy of “treating new conscripts as family members and friends.”
Not only are these statements hard to reconcile with the report’s findings, previous public outcry over reports of abused conscripts – including suspicious deaths – have never led to effective remedial actions from the authorities.
In the immediate term, Amnesty International strongly recommends that the military take a number of preventive measures, including issuing orders to explicitly prohibit all types of abuse detailed in the report, ensuring that trainers are under constant supervision from higher-ranking commanders and instituting night inspections by officers.
To guarantee a full and transparent examination of the root causes of prevalent abuses, Amnesty International also urges the National Assembly of Thailand to establish a commission of inquiry (COI) to investigate and report on the treatment of conscripts in the Thai military, as well as propose measures necessary to end all abuse of conscripts and end the culture of dehumanisation of conscripts within the Thai military.
This COI should be independent, professional and well-resourced and have powers to interview whomever it deems necessary – including former and serving conscripts and commanders – and obtain relevant documents.
“Following the tragic mass shooting in Korat last month, commander-in-chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong conceded that the army needs to open up grievance channels for junior officers. To give meaning to these pledges, the Thai military would need to create a new unit that is authorised, trained and equipped to deal with soldiers’ complaints and act upon them,” said Clare Algar.
“It’s equally important that conscripts and other soldiers are allowed to complain safely and confidentially to the National Human Rights Commission. The authorities must encourage a culture that respects everyone’s dignity, irrespective of seniority, rank, sexual orientation and gender identity.”
The Hunt isn’t the first violent film to see its release delayed in the wake of a mass shooting, but that, coupled with an indirect but very pointed public condemning from Donald Trump gave the film an infamy its creators couldn’t have imagined. It’s easy to see why though, given the premise. Directed by Craig Zobel from a script by Damon Lindelof and his frequent collaborator Nick Cuse, The Hunt is a B-movie-inspired thriller featuring yet a fresh spin on “The Most Dangerous Game”—you know, humans hunting humans for sport—only in this instance the hunters are elitist liberals and their prey are a group of conservative, right-wing archetypes. Feel provoked yet?
To hear Zobel tell it, that was hardly the intention, despite Trump’s August 2019 tweets condemning “Liberal Hollywood” as “[r]acist at the highest level,” and claiming “The movie coming out is made in order to inflame and cause chaos.” With a new theatrical release date set for March 13, Zobel was eager to finally set the record straight—then days later the movie theaters closed amid coronavirus quarantine measures. Fast forward a week later, and audiences can watch The Hunt from the comfort of their socially-distanced abode—the film and a few others were swiftly repositioned as VOD releases with movies like Ben Affleck’s comeback vehicle The Way Back set to follow.
It’s highly unorthodox, but these are unorthodox times with the future of Hollywood’s box office and theater-going up in the air. Complex hopped on the phone with Zobel—who also helmed 2015’s Z for Zachariah, numerous episodes of The Leftovers, and the Shogun World episode of Westworld—to talk about being among the first wave of films to react to the pandemic, the release contingencies the industry will have to employ, and the real intent behind his bloody tale of Repbulicans versus Liberals.
So I was lucky enough to screen the movie in a theater before this all went down. So let me first say, congrats on pulling it off, and you, Damon and Nick are maniacs.
Well, thanks. Yeah, I appreciate that. I’m glad that some people got to see it that way. That’s great.
How did you arrive at the decision to go with this VOD release? Was it a tough decision to make?
Honestly, it was, up until the last few days—well let me go back quick. During the last week of the release, things were moving so fast that, I don’t think on Monday it didn’t seem—it seemed like, oh [the pandemic] might affect business, but not that all of the theaters would be shut down by Friday. You know what I mean? Everything was really fast. So when it became a possibility, I mean we were just kind of, everybody was encouraging like “well that’d be great if people could see it that way; that would be an amazing thing to do.”
You guys are among the first films to do so. Is this a tactic that you think your peers are going to embrace if Hollywood is going to survive this?
It’s great for my film that was coming out the week that all of this stuff happened. For it to be able to have a different life like that. I certainly believe in movie theaters and believe in going to movies. I enjoy going to movies. In fact, I initially made this film to be seen in a movie theater. It’s supposed to be a fun midnight movie that you can go watch with other people. So I don’t want that experience to go away. However, I think that these are new and uncertain times and my hope is that we can return to that as soon as possible.
For sure. Walk me through the path to the release for the whole movie from it getting pushed back last year to finally setting up the March date, to now.
I mean, it has, you know, and the film did get released in theaters. We certainly were supposed to come out in September of last year. Due to a whole, long scenario of a lot of things, that didn’t happen. We were excited for everybody to get to see it last week when it was first released in the theaters. And then who would have ever predicted that that would be the weekend that basically [we’d] truly be facing this global pandemic?
So it’s certainly not something that…you know, one part of me is like everyone needs to obey the rules and stay in, stay home and mostly focus on being safe. I really think that that’s what all of our primary intentions should be at the moment. I’m excited as people do find themselves bored at home to get to watch this movie. I certainly made it for right now. And I made it for, as truly, like dumb fun, as a thing for people to enjoy. So hopefully some people can.
Now that the movie’s out and more people are going to get to see it, what is it that you don’t want misconstrued about the movie, or you Damon and Nick’s intentions with it?
I think there’s possibly some—because of all of the things that happened around the movie—there’s possibly some people that might go into the film thinking that it’s going to be a high-minded kind of dissection of polarization in America. But it is not that movie. It was not actually ever made to be that movie. I don’t want to watch that movie right now. I certainly would not have enough of an opinion to like know what the cures to what ails us right now.
I wanted to make something that was fun, that made me laugh at myself about sort of how polarized things were. And hopefully made everyone kind of reflect on polarization simply in the way that it’s like, well, maybe we’re taking everything a little too seriously and we should all just chill out a bit. That was kind of the intention of the film. I would hate for people to go in with an assumption that the film is some specific like intellectual dissection of polarization in America. That’s not the movie. It’s supposed to be a midnight movie that makes you laugh and jump and have a good time.
For what it’s worth, the screening that I attended yielded that reaction.
That’s great to hear. I was able to go last weekend on Saturday to the movie theaters before they all shutdown. Got to sneak in and watch the movie with some people, which was really my goal and dream. Because it was made as like a group exercise, you know? And even though the theater was really not filled, the people that were there all seemed to be having fun which made me happy.
Had it been scheduled for release like one week later, it might not even be out at all.
Right. Yeah. It’d be again delayed or something. So it’s great that it’s coming out now because I feel like it’s of the moment and that it’s a good time for it.
[Ed. note: Spoiler for The Hunt follow.]
Image via Blumhouse Productions
What was the most fun sequence to film and which was the most challenging?
That’s kind of both the same answer. I would say that there’s a fight scene at the end of the film that was both the most fun thing that I filmed in a really, really, really long time, and certainly the most challenging in a lot of different ways. It was fun. It was one of those rare times where you can feel all of the departments of a film. And there’s so many people that make up making a film, so many different types of technicians that it takes to make a movie. Not only the cameraman and the actor, but like the person that makes the breakaway glasses that shatter and the stunt player, and the wardrobe people trying to make sure that the blood is in the right place from the last scene. And you could just tell how focused everyone was on getting that scene right and how much fun everyone was having every day on set while making that part of the film.
There’s certainly a lot of glass breaking in that scene.
So much glass continuity.
The first 20 minutes are especially fun. You guys have a lot of fun killing off some of the more recognizable faces that people might be expecting to stay alive. Either on set or even writing it, what was the most fun kill to come up with and which actor had like the most fun doing that part out of Justin Hartley, Emma Roberts, Ike Barinholtz and the rest?
I’d like to say, my instincts would be to say that I think all of the actors had a blast dying. That was certainly like part of the fun of taking the role and figuring out how to kind of punctuate each of those differently. It certainly was quite fun working with Emma because she so kind of intuitively understood like what we were trying to do as far as making sure that she felt like the lead that we were going to follow, the protagonist of the movie. And we had a lot of discussions, the hair was her idea, which I thought was brilliant. Trying to dial in things to make her memorable and feeling like somebody that you’re definitely going to keep following in order to kind of dispense with her very fast. She was definitely one of the most fun parts for sure.
By the time we get to the end of the movie, you guys very pointedly don’t reveal Betty Gilpin’s character’s like party or political stance. What was the intention behind that?
Well, you know, most people don’t read politics every day or aren’t obsessed with that. I tried to remember that while making the movie, that 70% of Americans aren’t thinking about politics every day. It’s just the 30% of us sort of closer to the edges of it, of either side of political belief are the ones that are more and more concentrated on that stuff. And even though I have, certainly have political opinions. And I don’t think it’s possible to make a movie without like having some political opinions in your head, the kind of the fun of this movie was to be able to be in this sort of neutral space with the film.
And it was really important to me that we have a representative of that, and I feel like that’s really kind of what Betty’s role is, is being a representative of that neutral space in the middle, in a way. So it was important that you didn’t know what her belief system was. And that you got to know her as a character without that being something that colored your thoughts on her.
Right. Now, you’ve directed some great episodes of television, including one of my personal favorites, “International Assassin” from The Leftovers. Do you have any upcoming TV work?
I do have upcoming TV work, I’m directing the entirety of a miniseries for HBO, called Mayor of East Town, starring Kate Winslet as the police detective. It’s a murder mystery. And we’re in the middle of shooting it now, but we’re, we’ve taken a little break, as the world has. But yeah, it’s going to, I’m excited, it’s going to be good.
Zobel’s film The Hunt is out now via VOD.
To slow the spread of the pandemic in Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan has restricted gatherings to no more than 10 people, something the Centers for Disease Control also advises. Blanks said looking at the situation, it was apparent things will get worse before they get better, so they decided to get married immediately and livestreamed the event on Facebook.
His sister has called on local officials to make an exception to the cap on gatherings. The family wants to plan a celebration of his life, where family and friends will wear T-shirts from his favorite animated comedy, “Rick and Morty.”
Ms. Farmer, 23, also said she and his family needed closure and couldn’t wait months for a funeral. “Everybody wants to love on each other and be here for each other right now,” she said. But officials told the family that the soonest the funeral could be held was in May, she said.
Chief Paul F. Williams of the Springfield Police Department said the burial ceremony of Officer Walsh, one of the victims, would take place on Saturday, but would be closed to the public because of coronavirus concerns.
Mass shootings have often brought communities together to process grief and shock. At a public vigil for victims of the shooting last summer in Dayton, Ohio, the crowd drowned out Gov. Mike DeWine with shouts of “Do something!” Two days later, he announced proposals that he said could reduce shootings and limit gun access for people with mental health problems.
In the wake of the shooting in El Paso that happened hours before the Dayton shooting, hundreds of strangers showed up at the visitation and prayer service for one of the victims, Margie Reckard, in a show of solidarity.
Robert A. Neimeyer, director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, said community support was crucial for those who have lost loved ones in a violent attack. Instead of retreating, mourners should pick a collective time to light a candle or pray for victims from their homes.
“That sense of being part of something larger is especially important in a violent death,” he said.
If authorities do grant Ms. Hicks-Morris, 24, the right to organize a funeral of more than 10 people, she isn’t sure how she will find the $4,000 she needs to pay for it.
As Clarke slung a $7 bottle of Wycliff champagne from his hip to his stubbled lips, Gummerson, in a matching black tuxedo, lamented their lonely journey through an eerily quiet Sin City.
“That’s gonna be our wedding f—— supper,” he said. “McDonald’s.”
The sudden closure of all Nevada casinos was an overreaction, they insisted, drawing an expletive-laced tirade about how they didn’t think Las Vegas would throw in the towel. Clarke was especially upset because he thinks the virus is really affecting only old people: “I don’t believe that this should be happening.”
A worker updates the Fiesta Henderson Hotel & Casino marquee after all casinos were closed in Nevada as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. (David Becker/For The Washington Post)
The men were among the few remaining tourists navigating the Las Vegas Strip as no one has ever seen it: nearly devoid of revelers, gamblers and street hawkers. The governor’s directive, which fell on some deaf ears around the city (including those of an 18-and-over strip club offering drive-by lap dances), became a mandate Friday afternoon. Sisolak announced that police action would be taken as a last course of action against businesses that refused to comply with measures to stem the spread of a virus in a city reliant on the opposite of social distancing.
As casino floors fell silent — many for the first time since their construction — a desert town built on tourist traffic from around the globe boiled with anxiety. In local union headquarters, homeless shelters, around-the-block gun store lines and churches, people of all stripes braced for an uncertain future. It was almost unthinkable, this city up against the only true showstopper it has ever experienced: An insidious virus that was first detected on the other side of the world.
Traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard has fizzled, and the continuous buzzing and beeping inside the monolithic casinos has given way to the low hum of electricity, whooshing air conditioning and 1990s pop hits played for an audience of security personnel and cleaning staff.
The waters of the spiraling Bellagio fountains lie still, though a few of the hotel marquees remain illuminated at night, painting the sky blue, white and gold on an empty desert soundstage. A few mumbling panhandlers remained seated on Strip sidewalks. Unable or unwilling to seek alternatives in this strange new reality, they held up cardboard signs with marker-scribbled messages to a handful of people in no mood.
“Disabled marine veteran. Homeless. Only God can save us now.”
As a White House news briefing on the coronavirus is broadcast on a television, an employee cleans the back bar inside the now-closed Emerald Island Casino in Henderson, Nev., on Friday. (David Becker/For The Washington Post)
Where are the keys?
The shutdown has not just been unpopular with departing tourists, it also has infuriated Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who offered a stern rebuttal to the governor’s decision at a City Council meeting on Wednesday. A shutdown of this magnitude was unprecedented, she said. Neither the events of 9/11 nor the October 2017 mass shooting that took 58 lives at a music festival here had the effect of a 30-day freeze in tourism.
“I know we, and they, cannot survive any total shutdown of the economy for any length of time beyond the immediate week or two,” Goodman said. “Please, governor, we need to be able to live our lives, support our families and, yes, keep Nevada strong, but together.”
She called for an eight- to 10-day shutdown, shorter than what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says can be a two-week incubation period for the virus. Goodman’s challenge to Sisolak, which was ignored, divided many Las Vegans as it has many people across the country. What’s better? An economically crippling shutdown long enough to ensure the virus is in the past, or fewer restrictions on everyday life and the risk of widespread infection?
“As someone in the tourism industry, I really liked what Mayor Goodman had to say, for selfish reasons,” said Tim Brooks, owner and general manager of Emerald Island Casino in Henderson. “But I don’t really know what’s realistic. Would I like to be back at work and not have these families suffer? Yes. But at what risk?”
The Emerald Island, a single-story casino with a bar and 24-hour restaurant, is far less reliant on tourism than most casinos in the heart of Las Vegas. Think “Cheers” with slot machines. Late last week, it dawned on Brooks that the front door of his 24-hour casino hadn’t been locked since he opened the place 18 years ago. Where on earth are the keys? Anticipating a shutdown, Brooks called a locksmith on Monday and had a new lock installed. When the news came, he gave last call for the first time ever, at 11:50 p.m.
The next day, his staff went about the unfamiliar business of closing a casino. Slot machines were emptied of cash and wiped down with disinfectant spray. Liquor bottles were capped and keg tap lines blown clear.
Casino porter Geralyn Johnson deep-cleans video poker machines inside the Emerald Island Casino after it closed. (David Becker/For The Washington Post)Owner and general manager Tim Brooks checks a door as he surveys the closed Emerald Island Casino. Brooks had to hire a locksmith, as he has never had to lock the doors in the 18 years he has owned the business. (David Becker/For The Washington Post)
A month on the shelf will mean a six-figure loss in revenue, Brooks says, and he’s keeping 20 to 30 essential staff members on board and letting go of more than 130, most of whom trickled into the Island between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Friday to get educated on unemployment benefits.
“We were humming right along and planning an expansion at the end of the year and to employ 50 more people,” Brooks said. “We’re hoping the state will step up to the plate and ease some of the restrictions for all the people collecting unemployment. What hurts me more than anything is that it’s affecting the livelihood of the people we know and love.”
‘It’s insane right now’
Jose Triana emerged from the front desk of his health clinic Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m. to unlock the front door and tell a towering, mohawked man coughing into a blue medical mask that drive-through testing for covid-19 was over.
“I would rather you call tomorrow. It’s insane right now,” said Triana, 29. When the man asked how long he’d have to wait to be tested, Triana’s pain and exhaustion broke through his N95 mask and medical visor. “I don’t know. I really wish we could, I really wish we could. It’s just … I can’t afford it, I can’t afford to pay my staff.”
Sahara Urgent Care and Wellness was one of just a few clinics here offering coronavirus tests, available to people exhibiting symptoms. For three days beginning Monday, employees directed cars through a maze of traffic cones linked with white rope to a spot where technicians waited with nasal swabs. When the results were in, patients waited several hours after they were obtained to be notified if they had tested positive for the virus. Cars circled the block each day, and after more than 700 tests, the clinic limited them to appointment by phone or online.
“We’re not getting the support that we’d like,” Triana said as the man retreated to his parked car, where a woman in a mask waited in the passenger seat. “Our resources have been exhausted. Honestly, everyone that was coming in, they looked bad. We really didn’t turn away anybody.”
Triana said he wasn’t allowed to share how many confirmed cases his clinic has reported to Clark County — which includes Las Vegas and Nevada’s second-largest city, Henderson. According to the Southern Nevada Health District, 126 positive cases of covid-19 were reported in Clark County as of Friday, with two deaths, both being people in their 60s with underlying medical conditions. But the threat of transmission is especially high compared with the rest of the country, experts said, because in the region’s more than 200 casinos, people handle chips, cash, cards, slot machines and touch screens, all in proximity to one another.
Bertha Lopez, of Mexico, wears a face mask as she visits the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign with her family on Thursday. (David Becker/For The Washington Post)
Six medical providers at five hospitals who spoke with The Washington Post said each had been inundated with patients seeking tests after exhibiting covid-19 symptoms. Such was the demand at Valley Hospital Medical Center, two nurses said, that security was concentrated in the admissions areas to deal with overflow and assist in screening. That provided an opportunity for badness: Thieves broke into five cars belonging to members of the hospital staff, and they took multiple garage door openers and registrations bearing home addresses, staff members said. The two nurses spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a hospital rule against unauthorized contact with the media. The Las Vegas Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
“When I first heard about it, I thought, no, that’s gotta be fake news,” said one of the nurses. Then she saw the pictures and spoke with those whose cars were targeted. “We’re just trying to do our jobs and trying to help people, and it feels like there’s no one helping us. It just doesn’t sound real. Who attacks the people trying to help them?”
People wait in line to enter the Briarhawk Firearms and Ammunition store in Las Vegas. (David Becker/For The Washington Post)
Four miles away, at the Briarhawk Firearms and Ammunition store, more than 30 people waited in line to purchase guns and/or ammunition when the store opened at noon, mirroring a scene at multiple other gun stores here. Some customers said they were motivated by stories circulating on social media of home invasions. Three cited a specific item they had seen on Snapchat that described a home invasion in nearby Henderson, in which men apparently dressed as utility workers held a family at gunpoint and stole supplies. Many such stories and claims from around the country — many debunked — have been circulating online and on social media for days, stoking fear; the Henderson Police Department said the posting was not deemed credible and has urged people to stop spreading rumors.
Shawna Sanders, one of the first in line when Briarhawk opened at noon Thursday, said she had heard stories of break-ins and seen videos of fights in grocery stores. When she read that someone was stabbed over supplies in another state, she figured the violence was coming to Las Vegas. She moved here four years ago from New Jersey to live with her mother, a decision she has come to regret. The single mother of two worked as a bartender until the shutdown, which caused her to be laid off. On Monday she Googled “guns for women,” then showed up at the Range 702, a local shooting venue, with an idea of which pistols she wanted to try out. She narrowed the options down to two small, light guns — a Glock 40 or a Glock 9 — both in the $400 to $600 range. “I can’t be out here trying to live life with a knife,” she said. “I need real protection.”
Volunteers load boxes of food at an emergency food distribution site in the parking lot of the Palace Station hotel-casino in Las Vegas. (David Becker/For The Washington Post)
‘The Twilight Zone’
Representatives from more than 130 nonprofit organizations in southern Nevada joined a United Way conference call Tuesday morning, hosted by Kyle Rahn, 60, the first female president of the United Way of Southern Nevada. Homeless shelters, meal providers, drug and alcohol treatment centers and state and local health and emergency assistance representatives joined in, aiming to take stock of resources and encouraging collaboration. Many anticipate that the shutdown of one of the nation’s largest county’s will put the people on the fringes of Las Vegas’ economy at great risk. Rahn three weeks ago set up an emergency assistance fund for the nonprofits, anticipating a shutdown.
“It’s no longer business as usual,” Rahn told the group. “And it may never be again.”
It’s the kind of work that can’t be done from home, so throughout the week a core group of five women came to the United Way offices every day, diligently washing their hands and maintaining social distancing while organizing a growing network of volunteers and nonprofits re-purposing themselves for a tsunami.
One of the women on the call, Terry Ruth Lindemann, runs Family Promise of Las Vegas, a group that helps newly homeless families find temporary housing in motels and with religious organizations. Lindemann requires visitors to wash their hands upon entry. After that, parents are introduced to case workers and go through the often-painful process of explaining how they got there. Children sprawl on couches and watch Pixar DVDs in the main room; the office is packed with stacked boxes of diapers.
She has been working 13-hour days, answering hundreds of emails. “I’m still not convinced that I’m not a star in an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ” Lindemann said.
Clark County, she says, typically finishes each school year with about 14,000 children listed as homeless, which she estimates to mean as many as 5,000 families are living in cars or otherwise oscillating between homeless and housed. Family Promise has about 40 families on its caseload, with plans to expand to 100 in 2020 with an operating budget of $700,000 per year, a portion of which is public funds.
Closing the Strip, she says, will create “a lot of need for food banks, for rental assistance, for motel shelter,” she said. “That means that this community is going to have to come together as we never have before, and we are beginning to respond in that way, much in the way they had to for Katrina and Sandy.”
Maintenance workers clean the stairs for a Las Vegas Strip pedestrian overpass. (David Becker/For The Washington Post)
As she spoke, the first housing casualties of the shutdown walked in from the street and parked on the Family Promise couch: A family of five, led by a single mother, who just last week made the pilgrimage from Utah to Las Vegas in search of work.
Two miles east, at the Culinary Workers Union headquarters, the largest union in Las Vegas and arguably the city’s most powerful, workers called in and filled the waiting room, wondering about their paychecks while casinos and hotels sit vacant.
“We’re negotiating that this week with casinos,” said Bethany Khan, director of communications for the culinary union. “For most workers that the culinary union represents, nothing will change. They’ll be paid throughout this. We are demanding that all employers, union and nonunion, pay their employees during the closure.”
While some nonunion casinos did offer compensation for furloughed employees — including notoriously anti-union Las Vegas Sands owner Sheldon Adelson — most smaller casinos, hotels and small businesses that exist on the periphery of the Strip will not. And with about 40 percent of residents not being members of a union, the impact of a month-long pay freeze will be long-lasting and severe, said Rusty McAllister, executive secretary-treasurer of the Nevada State AFL-CIO,
“If you look back at 9/11, we were one of the hardest-hit cities, and it took the longest for us to come back,” McAllister says. “If people are worried or people have to look at places to cut back, one of the first places they cut back is on their vacation plans. That has an immediate impact on our city. We’re one of the first to feel it and the last to come out of it when something like this happens.”
Hair stylist Hunter Stewart collects her belongings from her work station at The Hair Lounge salon. (David Becker/For The Washington Post)
Up in the air
For small business owners beyond the reach of the union, but no less reliant on a vibrant Las Vegas Strip, the length of the shutdown and the decisions handed down by the state and federal government may mean the difference between owning a business and not. Lisa Ortiz, owner and operator of The Hair Lounge, says the future of her business is reliant on her hair stylists paying rent at a time when none of them are working.
“If they pay their rent, and we bounce back, I will waive some stuff and try to get everyone on their feet,” she said. “But if they don’t, it may not bounce back. It honestly depends on whether or not this lasts longer than 30 days. Everything’s up in the air right now.”
So she’ll wait. On Thursday evening, Ortiz brought her young son to the shop to meet one of her stylists who needed to pick up supplies. She had spent the week clearing out hair products, intending to sell them via social media at cost, and securing the shop against looters: locking up mirrors and expensive salon equipment. She had seen the home invasion claim on Snapchat, too. And the salon recently experienced a break-in after hours. Tucked in her jean waistband as she buckled her toddler into a car seat was a small loaded pistol.
“It just feels like anything can happen,” she said. “You don’t know what to believe.”
For others, the math ahead of them portended more desperate measures. Walking the aisles of a Cardena’s grocery store, Oscar Ibarra and Judy Luis contemplated what was required to feed their 10-month-old, Catalina, pay rent and feed themselves after both lost their jobs. She was a hostess at the Grand Lux Cafe on the Strip, and he worked for a pool-builder.
“Because of this whole shutdown, the clients don’t want us around right now, because they think someone might have it,” Ibarra said. “I have a little bit saved away, enough for the next few weeks.”
They’ve been buying in bulk, and skipping meals. That should work for four weeks. If the shutdown lasts longer than a month, the family might have to move to Portland, where his mother lives: “Unless they tell us we don’t have to pay rent for the next month, there’s not much else we can do.”
And while some walked grocery store aisles and performed the painful calculus of how long they might last in a Las Vegas without work, the last of the tourists who once propped up the city made their way home.
On the Strip, crossing paths with the hungry Canadian wedding party, Matt Cross and Gio Feusi had carry-ons rolling in tow. They had been asked to leave the Cosmopolitan two nights into a three-night stay that, combined with airfare out of San Francisco, cost just $480 in an economy gripped by the virus.
“We got out of San Francisco because things were shutting down, and it was so cheap to get here,” Cross said. Added Feusi: “We didn’t think Vegas would ever shut down.”
In this, they were not alone.
Storm clouds hover over the Las Vegas Strip as seen from Henderson. (David Becker/For The Washington Post)
In spite of his fame as the nation’s Cross Man who has traveled over 800,000 miles setting up 27,770 crosses, the family has struggled financially since his mission began. And Sue, a nearly full-time substitute teacher at West Aurora School District, is not getting paid these days because of the coronavirus pandemic, although she’s at least thankful Kohl’s, where she works one day a week, has indicated the company will continue paying employees until the store can open again.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Crystal Woodman Miller huddled under the table in the Columbine High School library, a friend’s arm wrapped around her, sheltering her body with his own.
“Crystal,” he said, “I promise I will take a bullet for you.”
That’s when two boys from her school entered the room and began a killing rampage.
Miller could hear them mocking those they shot as they moved closer and closer to where she hid. She began to pray. Soon, one of the gunman’s boots was just inches from her body. She could smell him. Feel his presence. She waited for her turn to die.
“Will it be quick?” she wondered. “Or will I suffer slowly?”
Then the shooting stopped. Out of ammo, the perpetrators left to get more. They vowed to return to murder those who remained. When they were out of sight, Miller fled.
“It looked like a war had taken place in that room,” she said. “I stepped over the bodies of classmates to save myself.”
Nearly 21 years have passed since that April day when 12 students, one teacher and the two student gunmen died. The events at Columbine intensified the national conversation around mass shootings. Since then, hundreds of acts of violence have shattered the country. Las Vegas. Nashville. Milwaukee. With each attack, the nation’s attention diverts to new victims, the latest assault eclipsing the one before it.
But survivors from past tragedies remain marked by trauma and are left with few tangible tools to manage the pain. They are isolated by an experience hardly anyone else can understand.
This month, a new initiative to support those affected by mass shootings begins. In a first-of-its-kind workshop, The Onsite Foundation brings survivors from across the country together for a week-long retreat on a private campus just outside Nashville to provide a safe place to process, connect and heal.
The program, called Triumph Over Tragedy, was created to honor the life of Austin Eubanks, a survivor of the 1999 Columbine shooting and a champion for trauma-based causes and programs. Eubanks died of an overdose in 2019. His girlfriend, Laura Hutfless, now helps lead the effort as a member of the foundation board.
She is guided by the foundation’s Survivor Advisory Council, which includes victims from Columbine, Parkland, Thurston, Charleston, Las Vegas, Aurora and the Nashville Waffle House tragedies. Miller is among them.
Triumph Over Tragedy, Miller said, evokes emotional understanding in the face of the incomprehensible. “It’s knowing I’m not broken, I’m not ruined because of what I have been through, but I am still journeying through this,” she said. “I don’t have to be rushed through this process just because our culture says I should be over it.”
‘THEY HAD ALL LOST HOPE’
Recovery took a long, dark turn for Austin Eubanks, who was just 17 during the Columbine rampage.
Eubanks was shot in his hand and knee and watched his best friend die in the 1999 attack in Colorado.
Last year, Eubanks died of a heroin overdose.
It devastated many who had been inspired by his words. He had become a motivational speaker on addiction and trauma, and his death underscored an emotional chasm still felt by others who shared his experiences.
“After his passing, so many survivors reached out,” Hutfless said. “And I noticed a trend — they had all lost hope.”
In the wake of tragedy, healing doesn’t happen in months, or even years. And though mass shootings have become more common in the United States, victims still feel isolated and alone.
Eubanks shared his story very publicly, and Hutfless knew it very intimately, but even she never understood the long-term affects of that trauma, “because many people put on a brave face,” she said.
“They don’t fully understand the physical and emotional and physiological symptoms. They may be experiencing them, but they are not relating them back to that event. And I just wasn’t aware that there would still be emotional wounds from 20 years ago that would still be bleeding.
“When I learned that, I think my goal was: We have to stop the bleeding. They say, ‘Hurt people hurt other people’ and I hope this is a way to stop that cycle.”
COMING TOGETHER IN COMMUNITY TO MOVE FORWARD
After Eubanks’ death, Hutfless joined the Onsite Foundation board and helped create the Triumph Over Tragedy workshop.
This week, 40 survivors from 15 different states representing seven different mass shootings are in attendance. Not all of them are from tragedies that the public is familiar with. Some are from small towns that don’t have access to many mental health resources or that didn’t receive funding when the violence occurred.
During the six-day workshop, survivors live together on a private 250-acre campus outside of Nashville. They meet with therapists in small groups morning and afternoon to understand the impact of the life-threatening experiences they’ve had. They take part in equine therapy, and walk along the trails and streams.
Triumph Over Tragedy is funded by full scholarships and each workshop is curated to meet the needs of the survivors, as there is no “one size fits all” solution in trauma. No phones or computers are allowed, giving survivors the space to focus on their healing.
“When we experience tragedies we have a choice,” Hutfless said. “We can build a wall around ourselves, and we can isolate, and we can protect ourselves from any more pain or hurt. Or we can choose to open ourselves and walk in the journey of grief and healing — and that’s not an easy one.
“We can reach out, ask for help, be in community and move forward, turning that pain into purpose.
“I very intentionally chose that path. So I learned about myself, that I can do hard things and that there is beauty from ashes, and I’ve already been able to see so much of that from this program.”
‘THAT NIGHT DOESN’T DEFINE ME’
For Taylor Eickenhorst, healing remains a daily process.
Before the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, her happiest place was at a country music festival.
She was there that night on Oct. 1, 2017, doing what she loved most, working for a big music brand and attending her 10th festival of the summer.
She sought cover when a shooter took aim from a hotel a quarter mile away and began firing down on the crowd of 22,000 during singer Jason Aldean’s set. Fifty-nine people died that night, the largest mass shooting in modern American history.
Now, Eickenhorst lives and works in Nashville.
“I’ve worked every day to try to make sure that night doesn’t define me,” she said. “Even though it’s super scary, and it can be difficult, and some days are harder than others, I try to keep moving forward.
“But it will always be a part of me. It’s been the hardest thing of my entire life to have to go through and have to deal with. It’s extremely difficult.”
That’s why she wants to share her story. And why she believes in the purpose of the Triumph Over Tragedy workshop.
She still works in the music industry and hasn’t stopped going to country music concerts, but her experiences have made them harder to attend. She sometimes get anxious before a show.
She knows it can happen to anyone.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
For Miller, the day at Columbine began no more remarkably than any other.
She sat in the school library studying for a test during lunch when the nightmare began.
Students ran through the hallways, terror and panic in their eyes.
She tried to make sense of what was happening. It must be a joke, she thought. Or a prank.
But when a teacher ran through the library door screaming frantically for the students to take cover, Miller knew it was neither.
Then she heard the popping noises.
“When you are forced to walk through something like this, everything changes,” Miller said. “And for me it forced me to grow up very quickly.”
There’s been a great deal of healing in her life since that day. She has traveled the country and the world sharing her story. As a speaker she can bring a message of hope, she said, but that only reaches so far. She has always hoped for a more tangible way for others to find help.
With Triumph Over Tragedy, she now has a resource to point people toward.
There’s a ripple affect to trauma, she said, and if people can better understand how it affects their brains and their bodies, they can heal in a healthier way.
“One of the most special pieces about Triumph over Tragedy is that when people come, they are not alone, they are part of a community,” Miller said.
“In that community, we share our experiences, not just for our healing, but we find courage in one another’s stories. … It’s not the absence of feeling the fear or sadness or grief, it’s feeling those deeply, but also finding way to walk through that and get to other side.”
Today is the 15-year anniversary of the school shooting at Red Lake High School. Although occurring somewhat sequestered from the public spotlight and amidst an independent indigenous sovereign, in many ways the 2005 rampage resembles other school shootings. A suicidal male student stole his grandfather’s guns, killed his grandfather and his girlfriend, broke into his own school, shot a teacher and teenagers before taking his own life. Sadly, it has become a common American narrative and pattern.
At Red Lake there were warning signs. There are always warning signs, which, somehow, if heeded, might prevent tragedy. The warning signs at Red Lake, each taken alone 15 years ago, were not so alarming to make him a likely mass shooter. After the fact, though, they paint a very troubling picture. Not uncommon, the shooter at Red Lake was an obviously suicidal teenager crying for help. And, he had access to guns.
It is, however, the aftermath and the indigenous style community response that sets this shooting apart. At Red Lake, the killer’s family did not have difficulty finding a place to bury him, and the killer was given a traditional funeral and mourning rituals, which were well attended. In contrast to the way the community treated the mother of the shooter of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., for example, at Red Lake, the shooter’s grandfather was counted as a victim and wasn’t blamed for the killings. His funeral was also well attended. What was most remarkable, though, was that the tribe included the killer’s family in distribution of victim compensation funds, helping to pay for his funeral and burial expenses. In Red Lake, parents of victims thought the murderer deserved some recognition from the community so he would not be forgotten. A number of the victims’ relatives forgave the killer and considered the circumstances that led to the massacre.
Yet, like other rampage killings, he left behind a long trail of surviving victims. Comparing victims’ injuries is difficult, but those with psychological trauma are no less injured.
“A lot of us still have wounds that are tender to the touch,” said Missy Dodds, the math teacher in the Red Lake High School classroom who witnessed and survived the 2005 rampage. The students in Dodds’ study hall experienced the vicious reign of terror with frightening proximity. After blasting his way into their locked classroom, wrestling with and shooting a football player, a teacher and seven students lay dead in the classroom, including the killer himself. Imagine the horror.
Fifteen years later the memories are vivid and terrifying. Today Missy Dodds suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. She suffers from survivor’s guilt and a profound sadness that she failed to protect her students, whom she calls “her babies.” Today Dodds is still concerned about the surviving children, now adults, and their well-being. “I worry about the help my students did not get in the aftermath and even now, 15 years later.”
Further, the workmen’s compensation proceedings brought by 12 teachers and the manner they were handled also harmed victims in dire need of help. The claims brought by the teachers sought compensation for psychological impairment. But, denied by the district, Dodds had to go through a trial to get a financial recovery, a grueling process that took many years. Eventually, after Dodds’ trial, the district settled with the other teachers.
The world is in an all hands-on deck public health crisis. We would be remiss, though, if we neglected the critically important public health crises of mass shootings and, in addition to paying fitting tribute to the victims who died like those at Red Lake, also remember the survivors.
James D. Diamond is the author of the book, “After The Bloodbath: Is Healing Possible in the Wake of Rampage Shootings,” published by Michigan State University Press. Diamond practiced criminal law in Connecticut for 25 years as both a prosecutor and defense attorney. He is the Dean of Academic Affairs of the National Tribal Trial College, holds a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from the University of Arizona College of Law, and is the former director of the Tribal Justice Clinic there.
LYNNWOOD, Wash. — While some businesses are struggling to keep their doors open during the coronavirus pandemic, one industry is booming.
“People are scared and now they’re massively buying guns,” said Tiffany Teasdale, owner of Lynnwood Gun and Ammunition.
That’s why Travis Wells was waiting outside.
“Home defense, probably a shot gun, some ammo if they have any left,” Wells said.
He got to the shop two hours before it opened.
“By the time people get in there, what they needed is gone. So, I feel like the earlier the better,” Wells said.
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Teasdale and Lynnwood Police said a spike in gun sales isn’t unusual when there are big events in the news, such as a mass shooting.
Wells said he just wants to feel safe in such uncertain times.
“That’s my motivation, to go out an protect myself and my family.”
And he’s not alone.
Teasdale delayed opening her shop, so she could catch up on work after a week of nonstop sales.
“We generally do 15, 20 guns a day, on a busy day, per day. But right now, we’re seeing upwards to a 100, 125 guns a day,” she said.
There are not enough hours in the day for Teasdale and her employees to get everything done. Something, Lynnwood Police is also dealing with.
Background checks are run on people buying guns, as part of Washington state law and Lynnwood Police Sgt. Jerry Reiner said the number coming into his department has risen during the pandemic.
“In the last six days we’ve averaged about seven guns a day, so that’s almost a 300% increase in gun sales,” he said.
Reiner said this is expected when people are unsure of what’s to come.
“We don’t necessarily know what’s going on and that creates a little fear, and this seems to be one of those things whenever there’s fear in society,” he said.
“I’m just trying to get the family ready from hunkering and staying inside. This is probably the first time I’ve been outside in a while and usually I’m outside every day. But you know, it’s just for the safety of my family and the people I’m around,” Wells said
And Teasdale asked for a little grace.
“Be patient with us. All gun shops right now, We’re not staffed for the amount of foot traffic that’s coming in. We’re doing out best we can only do what we can do.”
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