Spiritual leader a friend to Amish families after killing
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HARRISBURG -- In his role as a chaplain for the state police and, decades ago, the U.S. Army, the Rev. Grover DeVault held dying Marines in his arms and comforted distraught troopers in the hours after violent shootouts.
But even those experiences could not prepare him for the scene six years ago in the one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County: the bodies of five Amish girls in long-skirted dresses and the gunman lying on the floor of the Nickel Mines school.
"There was nothing unique about seeing the carnage," said Rev. DeVault, "but he had brought in 2-by-4s, eyebolts and ties."
Those items told Rev. DeVault the gunman, local truck driver Charles Roberts, had planned to torture the girls.
"When I saw the photos of it six months later, I broke down," he said. "Even now, whenever I see eyebolts, I think of that."
What started as a routine response to a crime scene turned into Rev. DeVault's long-term relationships with three Amish families who lost daughters that day.
Rev. DeVault said that although the families' faith and community guided them through the early dark times, some of the children who lived through it, now teenagers, still grapple with survivor's guilt and the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Rev. DeVault, 82, said he still hits the floor at the sound of heavy objects falling -- the lifelong effects of PTSD from the violence he experienced in Vietnam, where he tended to injured soldiers and civilian children and where his jeep was blown up under him by rocket fire.
Those memories haunt him, he said, and the survivors of Nickel Mines -- and likely those of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. -- are no different.
"For the children of Nickel Mines," Rev. DeVault said, "it's the sound of a pickup truck engine backing up to a building."
Roberts drove his truck up to the tiny school that served first- through eighth-graders in the rural community of Gap, 13 miles east of Lancaster, backing it up to the building to unload the supplies for his deadly scheme.
Rev. DeVault said his primary responsibility that day, Oct. 2, 2006, was to minister to the first responders -- the troopers and medics.
"They're covered with blood and thinking about the fact they couldn't save children," he said. "It's not a matter of what is said, it's hugging them, embracing them, giving law enforcement the OK to cry."
Rev. DeVault and others say traditional Amish culture better prepares its members to respond to a crisis.
"What gives the Amish a base that not everyone has: strength of community support, with immediate and long term," said Herman Bontrager, who was raised Amish and served as a liaison with the Nickel Mines families after the tragedy. "People talk about talk therapy; the Amish have known about that for a long time."
Nonetheless, some of the Amish children -- particularly the 15 boys who were freed by Roberts -- are still struggling with feelings of guilt and receiving professional counseling, Mr. Bontrager said.
What Rev. DeVault didn't know at the time was that the tragedy would lead to a long-term relationship with the families of the girls who were killed, the five who survived -- including one girl severely disabled by her injuries -- and with the boys.
What started in the days after as simple prayer sessions in the nearby Bart Firehouse turned into an ongoing involvement with the families, from weddings to funerals.
"I prayed with them at their request," Rev. DeVault said. "We sang hymns, we ate. It was a bonding tool, better than therapy."
The anniversary memorial gatherings are the hardest, he said, but he tries to apply what he calls a "ministry of presence."
"Just being there, sitting on the porch, holding a hand is valuable."
Still, he says, "some of the survivors are filled with grief and anxiety; the boys have a very hard time, thinking perhaps they could have done something."
Rev. DeVault says that although the Amish have lessons to teach the rest of the world about forgiveness -- a way of life he tries to impart to troopers in training sessions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey -- the Nickel Mines school shooting tested his resolve.
"A year after the shooting, at a memorial, tears came to my eyes as I looked at the little girl who will be incapacitated for the rest of her life, fed with a tube," he said. "I got so angry, I said, 'I hope Charles Roberts burns in hell.' It overtook me, and I apologized."
For the most part, he said, the children are doing well.
"They've become very joyful, they sing and have great hope," Rev. DeVault said. "There's always a new dynamic and a time to move on -- a little bit, anyway."
He said that despite their aversion to modern conveniences, the Amish families knew about the Newtown school shootings and wanted to know how they could help.
Rev. DeVault said some planned to write letters to the families of the 20 Sandy Hook students killed, and even offered to travel to Connecticut if they thought the families wanted them there.
"Their hearts cry for parents over the loss of a child, the potential of what a child could have been," Rev. DeVault said.
He said that coping with the violent death of a child hadn't given the Amish parents answers, but that it did give them the presence of mind to know how to respond in a time of grief.
"They would tell [Newtown] parents that God loves you, we love you," Rev. DeVault said. "We want to help, and we're here for you."
First Published January 2, 2013 12:00 am