The first thing I noticed upon entering the room were the boxes of tissues strategically placed under dozens of chairs arranged for the mourners.
It was December 2015 in San Bernardino, California, and the room would soon fill with heartbroken families who were to receive a briefing on the details surrounding the terrorist attack that had just claimed the lives of their loved ones. It was a somber scene similar to those that would soon play out in the aftermath of tragedies in Orlando, Las Vegas, Parkland, and most recently in Santa Fe, Texas, this month.
Although the main speakers were law enforcement officials leading the investigation, navigating the room that day were a group of frequently unseen heroes: the victim specialists whose sole mission is to advocate for and comfort those impacted by crime. It is this group that has the solemn task of caring for the needs of victims and their families long after major tragedies recede from the headlines.
Once the briefing had concluded that day in San Bernardino, those who wished to visit and reflect outside the building where the tragedy had taken place were escorted by police motorcade to the crime scene.
After the lead FBI forensics agent on the case sympathetically outlined how the attack had unfolded, a bereaved man turned to the victim advocate standing next to me and asked if she would place a memento on the location where his loved one had died, which was roped off to the families. The victim advocate agreed, and, returning past the police tape, embraced the man, providing a shoulder to cry on for what seemed like an eternity.
As I watched, a woman farther away slowly went to her knees and began sobbing. One of the FBI's crisis response canines -- an English Labrador retriever whose job in part is to help victims cope with tragedies -- walked up to the woman and licked her face. Startled, she looked up, her crying quickly turning to laughter, and she pulled the dog in for a hug.
As this was all happening, several news helicopters suddenly appeared above us, unknowingly interrupting a solemn moment for the victims' families. "Make them go away," an FBI victim specialist whispered, shooting me a look indicating this was not a request. I quickly made a couple of calls to the nearby law enforcement public information officers, and, incredibly, within minutes the helicopters seemed to bank at once and disappear into the horizon.
While I had previously heard of victim advocates, I never truly appreciated their vital role until working alongside them as a special agent with the FBI. Although my job that day in San Bernardino was to help coordinate the flow of information between the field and FBI headquarters in Washington, I had previously worked countless cases around the world with victim specialists who served as critical members of our investigative teams.
Although victim advocates are known for their compassion, they are far from shrinking violets. I can recall one instance in particular when a victim specialist called me in the middle of the night, asking if I had any information we could relay to the daughter of a victim injured in a bombing overseas. When I demurred, citing the need to protect the integrity of the investigation, she replied in very forceful terms, "Remember that providing updates to those impacted by crime is not simply something we do when convenient, it is the law!"
Ask any law enforcement officer who has the toughest job, and you'll hear from most that this unceremonious title goes not to the officer on the street, nor the first responder approaching danger, but to the specialists who must look victim family members in the eyes day in and day out after a tragedy and help them somehow make sense of it.
It has now been over a week since most of my CNN colleagues and I returned from reporting on the recent school shooting in Santa Fe. Although the law enforcement tactical teams and news vans have since departed, let us not forget the ongoing, behind-the-scenes efforts of the victim specialists who continue to help those grieving from this tragedy and countless others, and whose work may sadly never be over.
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