BY DR. HOLCOMB JOHNSTON AND DR. KATEY T. FRANKLIN
HOLCOMB | The Mother
No one I loved died that night last October which is the only reason I can write this story. Unlike many mothers across our country, I did not lose my then 6- and 9-year-old daughters to the drunken man aimlessly shooting and screaming 10 feet outside our cabin window. A dear friend and her 18-month- old son also walked out alive. Miraculous. I am not sure why the gunman only partially lost control, sparing us all despite the arsenal of weapons the police later found in his room and the nearly two and a half hours of pure terror he created.
My children awoke when their bodies hit the floor mid-sleep; it was 1:03 a.m. and I threw them off the bed, desperate to keep them alive as shots rang out feet away. They moaned out in confusion. We had all been in peaceful slumber after a long hot springs soak on a girls’ weekend in southwest Montana. I pressed my body over my daughters, begged them to stay silent, and called my friend in the next room, then 911. Somehow through my sleep, I had registered the shots and intuitively responded, as though subconsciously I’d been waiting for this moment. In a strange way, in this country, I guess I had been. As a white woman of relative privilege, gun violence is often framed as a distant problem, something that happens to others elsewhere. In reality, statistics say in a lifetime nearly everyone in the United States will know someone involved in a gun-related incident.
On the phone, the 911 responder instructed me to barricade ourselves in the bathroom so we would have one more door between us and the gunshots outside should someone burst into the room. I dragged two half-asleep and confused bodies into the stall still wet from our bedtime shower. Our breath stopped for fear of him hearing; we kept all lights off desperately trying to keep any sign of life undetectable. The flimsy window in the tiny bathroom opened directly toward the shooter, who wandered and shouted wildly just feet away. My family owns guns for hunting. I knew enough to understand the bullets would pass through the thin wall as though through paper. My children’s only hope was me—my physical mass, my physical body. I pressed my small daughters against the walls and positioned my torso to cover my youngest and my bent knees for part of my oldest. My head tracked hers; I matched her movements so that a bullet would hit my brain first.
For more than two hours, we were there, huddled, waiting motionless—for death, for more terror to burst through the door, for light, for life. My older daughter sweetly wrapped her arm around my youngest as her tiny body continuously vomited all over me from fear. Primal responses. That display of sisterly love and bravery still brings me to tears—the 9-year-old having to comfort the 6-year-old as a man shot bullets and screamed murderous words into the dark night. No child should have that experience. Ever. My friend and I stayed on the phone between my calls to 911, silent, breathing together, confirming life to each other. We whispered only if absolutely needed. “Are you there? Are you alive? Are you ok?” She kept her son from crying by breastfeeding him for nearly two hours. Moms are nothing less than superheroes.
Around forty minutes in, I risked the light of my phone screen to shakily text my husband who was, ironically, on a hunting trip in a remote area near Yellowstone for rifle season opening. “… There’s an active shooting going on,” I wrote. “I have my body over the girls. If this ends badly I love you more than words. Please tell everyone else so too.” This was all I could eek out amidst tremoring hands and knowing each second of light could possibly mean the end. I had assumed he had no service but, miraculously, he was not sleeping due to the excitement of the early morning hunt. “Oh my god I just got this! Are you ok??” I didn’t respond. Couldn’t respond. “I love you so much please be ok?! Hello?” It would be another 20 minutes before I risked it again.
During our hours sheltering in place, between the shots fired and the incessant screaming of the shooter, I would occasionally risk dialing 911 in hopes of an update. “Are we going to live?” SWAT teams from the nearby towns of Dillon and Wisdom were on their way—it would take awhile. Did I know where he was now? What was I hearing? Were there other shooters involved? Could I tell his location? I tried my best to give helpful tidbits at a whisper: “He’s gone from the back of the building to the front. He has fired six shots so far. He is wailing some guy’s name. He is out front now by my truck and our dog and the road. There may be others but a lonesome car just peeled out into the darkness … I don’t know. Do you? You are 911.” Then, finally, the sound of a different gun, one that had more power, one with a silencer. I’m still not sure why I could discern this difference. And then a pause. Nothing. We were still there, covered in bodily fluids, pressed against the shower, frozen and shaking at the same time, awaiting the end. Then, for what felt like forever, silence.
Finally, tracks of lights hit the white wall above us. Flash … flash … flash. Some were blue, some faster and brighter. Rays of hope—literally. But after hours of trauma, the psyche changes: Who could I trust and did they have him, them, whoever was out there a part of this drama we didn’t ask for. Just after 3 a.m., I called 911 again. “How will I know the person knocking is safe?” I gave dispatch our names and, not long after, someone who knew our information pounded on the door. But trust during a moment like that feels fleeting, fake, part of a death wish.
“Girls, don’t move. I love you no matter what. Stay here, I’m going to the door.” Dressed only in a t-shirt and covered in my youngest’s regurgitated dinner, I opened the door to three men dressed in tactical gear assuring me we were going to live. I have never been happier to see a cop in my life. Ever. The rest of the night unraveled like a dream. In posttrauma shock, I gathered my babies and brought them to see the policemen.
“We are safe, girls. We are alive. These men saved us.” The girls stared at the men’s uniforms and huge rifles backlit by the emergency vehicles. I spoke with a young-looking cop. It was his first active shooting too. His voice was awed and shaking. Not long ago he was a kid from a ranch who had grown up with cows and horses and ideals about freedom. I wished this active shooter would be his last. Then, after I texted my friend to let her know we were all safe, the cops, my girls and I knocked on my friend’s door.
“Hi. I love you. We made it. Oh my god. Oh my god. What just happened?” We showered in her room because ours was filled with vomit, then my girls crawled into their king bed and pressed their bodies against my friend and her baby. Warm. Safe. I hesitantly walked to the parking lot amidst flashing lights, police vehicles and men, calling out “Hello?” so I wouldn’t startle anyone and kept my hands in the air so they would know I didn’t have a weapon. I found my dog in the back of our truck, covered in diarrhea. He, too, had faced death. Finally, we all cuddled in together, children in the middle; my friend and I using our somatic trauma training to help the kids fall asleep, somehow finding rest until the sun came up.
I have learned that after trauma routine is important for the developing child. On the way home, we stopped at a pumpkin patch and wandered among other families gleefully celebrating the season. We have pictures but it feels like a dream. We made a detour to another primitive hot springs in hopes that the waters would wash away what had happened. As we got dressed, shots rang out from the other side of the river—hunting season was in full swing. I ducked and pushed my girls against the truck. Today, nearly a year later, it still takes everything I have not to cover their bodies when I hear a gun. Occasionally, when a man reaches into his pocket in a grocery store, I abandon my cart and flee outside in a panic. These are preconscious reflexes now. My responses make me think of my best friend from high school whose father had survived Vietnam. When fireworks went off, he had jumped on her, pushing her body into the sandy beach. I simply cannot imagine what people from wars have endured. One night was too much. I wish for them all the same healing we have found.
To be clear, an event like this is not something you just “get over.” Healing is a process and looks different for my children than it does for me. I was able to respond so quickly that night because a year-to-the day my father had dropped due to hemorrhaging in his brain. It had been an incredibly hard year, and that night I was in some dream-time talking to him. “Dad, I miss you. Are you there?” Then, the shots. After awaiting my own death and surviving, what truly matters in life has clarified. Like many who survive, positive changes since then feel clandestine. A new gratitude for even the most mundane tasks remains. I embrace parenthood more; have changed my work demands to allow for more presence with my family. Friendships have clarified and rearranged. My previous study of trauma and the nervous system now feels more poignant. I am able to better prioritize that which brings joy and growth. Horses have returned after a decade without. The knowledge that the veil is thin and life is short now feels truer than ever. Our mental health and our healing are now a priority. Amazing people have held us and helped heal us.
My heart goes out to those who have been in gun violence and have experienced much worse. To all the people who do not escape these mindless acts, I send so much love. One day, as a doctor, I hope to do more with people who are survivors. The message I receive is that it is still too soon but one day, yes. It is paramount to continue to heal myself before I can help others with their trauma. Ultimately, I hope to go into schools and teach communities that barricading behind a hollow door is futile. I hope my story and the countless others will land on ears that are currently deaf. Our future generations depend on change. I still walk the line between wanting a firearm on me at all times and wanting to never see or hear one again. Friends have reached out, offering to teach me; I think now I may be ready. While traveling in this country, I hope to never again have my body as the only option for defense. This statement breaks my peaceful heart. Other than providing yummy elk to our table, I am not convinced guns do the world much good.
KATEY | The Counselor
Holcomb first told me about the shooting a few months after it happened. It was May, and we were at the end-of-school-year celebration for our daughters, who had just graduated first grade. The two girls gleefully attempted to dislodge an errant tasseled ball from a tree, their shrieks of laughter filling the warm spring day with delight as they sprinted back to their classmates, the rogue ball liberated from the tree. I moved closer to Holcomb as she spoke, the sun warming my hair as my skin rippled with gooseflesh. I listened as everything I am: friend, mother, counselor, professor, Montanan.
As a licensed counselor and professor in the counseling department at Montana State University, I understand that the experience of trauma is pervasive. I understand that even the threat of experiencing trauma by gun violence has a systemic impact on the state of Montana. According data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 209 gun deaths in Montana in 2019: 17 of those deaths were children and teens, 11 percent were homicide and 82 percent were suicide with guns as the means of death. That is an average of four deaths by gun each week in Montana. In 2021, the Montana Department of Health and Human Services reported that one Montanan dies because of a gun-related suicide every 50 hours, and Montana has had the second highest gun-related suicide rate nationwide for the past decade. While gun violence doesn’t often happen through drive-by shootings in Montana, it is prevalent. Death by gun violence in Montana happens by unintentional accidental death, death by suicide or homicide, and ready access to lethal means.
We also see the systemic impact of the threat of gun violence in the state’s public school systems with an increase in student resource officers, armed intruder and active shooter drills in K-12 schools, lockdowns and ongoing conversations about whether or not to arm Montana educators in school buildings.
As prevalent as gun violence is in Montana, so is the trauma it inflicts. Connection is the key to healing trauma, but this too can be challenging. People’s normative response to hearing about trauma is often to dehumanize and distance it: “That doesn’t happen here,” or, “That would never happen to me or my family.” This is the process of “othering,” a natural ego-defense mechanism. The physical, emotional and psychological responses to trauma are normal human responses to threats of harm; while they can be uncomfortable and often frightening, they are not aberrant. These responses are biological and serve to protect our minds, bodies and hearts as we process trauma. It is the cognitive, emotional and behavioral trauma responses that, when suppressed, numbed, or hidden, may become pathological and negatively impact a person’s physical health and relationships.
These responses can have a secondary effect of isolating and shaming the person who experienced the trauma. It tells them, “I don’t want to hear about or see what happened to you,” and sends the message that the impacted person is damaged, and they must contain their hurt, pain and fear. When this societal messaging is on repeat, a traumatized person learns to shrink and hide their experiences behind a neutral face, numbing with substances and behaviors, and not understanding why their physical health is declining. Children act out in classes, and teachers worry about their misbehavior and lack of concentration.
This is the opposite of healing.
I leaned into Holcomb and her story that day; I had the courage to hear her story with compassion while navigating my own experience of fear. I empathically listened to her as a mother and a friend. I stayed present with her and listened. We are all capable of this expression of empathy, and of this effort to connect. Connection can be this simple, and in this we can find hope.
From our perspective, the critical piece of healing from trauma is connection; the quality of how we are received by our family, partners, and communities when we disclose what has happened to us is foretelling of integration and healing. When we are received by our people with empathy, acceptance and compassion, we are able to actively engage the courageous and vulnerable process of trauma integration in a supported way. This is the opposite of “othering,” and suffering in isolation and silence. A traumatic experience does not define a person; rather, it is an aspect of their experience that may deeply impact them and their behaviors for a time. The human is still there, however hurt, and consciously or unconsciously needs connection to survive and heal. There are many paths to healing in Montana, be it counseling, nature, smudging, painting, horses, trail-running, church, hunting, ceremony, CrossFit, mending fence or beyond. Regardless of the modality or approach to healing trauma, connection is paramount. Changing the conversation and statistics of gun violence in Montana is possible too. Through brave, honest and vulnerable connection, we can heal.
HOLCOMB | The Mother
Out of hard times comes beauty and growth. I get to tie this story in a pretty bow because my children are still alive. It is that simple. Right now, my primary goal is to help my two young daughters heal and feel safe in the world again. We go to therapy and talk about that night when they bring it up. Thankfully, there is a federal victim’s compensation fund that will help with the costs; our health insurance has covered nothing, and we have spent thousands of dollars for our healing. I believe with enough time and support, that my brave girls will sleep in their own rooms again as they had for months before the shooting without a hitch. For weeks after the shooting, I had to wrestle my oldest down out of night terrors that threw her vertical out of sleep. They still cling to each other, eyes wide like deer, when something feels amiss. I often have to leave the room at bedtime so they don’t see my sorrow. Yet slowly, they are healing. No children should have to go through what they did—my oldest telling me she now knows to shield her head so she doesn’t die. Or my youngest now confused about the “active shooter drill.” No sweetie, that wasn’t a drill. That was real life.
One week after the incident, I contacted the jail and tried to anonymously send the shooter a note along with some books on healing trauma and male depression. I do not wish for this man to suffer; I wish for him to grow and change and find healing amidst this broken system. “I don’t know why you didn’t kill us all. Thank you for that. I hope you understand you have forever changed the lives of many in profound and disturbing ways, including my two previously fearless daughters. May you heal and become a better person in this world.”
The jail said no.
Dr. Holcomb Johnston is a trauma-informed physician, business owner, lover of mountains and mother of two radiant children. She believes strongly in the power of story, community and sense-of-place to heal and connect.
Dr. Katey Franklin is an assistant professor of counseling and the director of the Center for Mental Health Research & Recovery at Montana State University. She is the mother of three children, and enjoys an active life with her family in southwestern Montana.