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A Patient Ear for Those in Anguish

June 23, 1995|GREG BRAXTON

OKLAHOMA CITY — For much of the week, James Hoffman listens patiently as those directly and indirectly affected by the bombing of the federal building tell him about their stress, their nightmares and their inabilities to get beyond their anguish.

Hoffman, a crisis counselor at the state-sponsored Project Heartland program set up to help survivors and others, keeps up a strong front while listening to their worries and concerns.

But it still happens once a week.

On the way home from work, he will start to cry.

"You just can't listen to what's happening to these people without being affected," Hoffman said. "Most of the time they just want someone to listen to them. They feel guilty because their friends are getting tired of dealing with them, and these folks think there's something wrong with them.

"But the reality is, there is nothing wrong with them. What they're going through is very real, and it will take them years to recover."

More than 500 people seeking assistance have come into the Project Heartland office, almost overwhelming the eight-person staff. The program is operating with a $600,000 FEMA grant.

"Now that the initial shock has passed, what we're hearing is that there are a lot of people having nightmares, not sleeping. The images of the explosion occupies their every thought," said director Gwen Allen.

She added that there is a lot of survivor guilt. "At one point during the bombing, when rescuers were trying to help people, there were announcements that there was a second bomb, and they had to get out while all the injured were crying for help. When the rescuers returned, many of the people were dead."

She said that now that school is out, she expects some of the traumas to get worse. "A mother whose husband was killed in the blast pleaded with counselors to do something to help her teen-age sons," she said. "They are being defiant, experimenting with drugs. . . . There's a lot of acting-out behavior."

Hoffman said he often doesn't have advice for some of the people who come into the center. "But that's not what a lot of them are here for," he said. "No one will listen to them anymore, and all many of them want is just someone to listen, to let them know that they didn't do anything wrong. It's not their fault."

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