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My first response to a first responder: What's wrong with you?

| Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, 12:47 a.m.
AFP/Getty Images
Hamel Morris, a National Parks Service police officer and younger brother of Trib columnist Nafari Vanaski, responds to the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday.

Too busy with other duties, I hadn't yet read about the Washington Navy Yard shootings on Monday when my sister-in-law sent me a link to a story about the shooting rampage that led to 13 deaths, including the gunman.

A photo atop the story showed a U.S. Park Police police officer holding an automatic weapon — one of many law enforcement officers who responded to the scene.

In emergency situations, there are always people like him, running toward the gunfire and chaos, nearly colliding with those trying to flee from the danger. We tend to gloss over these images, looking past them for a photo of the shooter, to see the damage and to learn a motive.

I couldn't look past this picture, though, because it was of my brother, Hamel Morris.

When we were young, I used to abuse him mercilessly. (That's probably the main reason he became a police officer, now that I think about it. Someday he'll be knocking on my door with some sort of retroactive warrant.) We played cops and robbers when we were little.

My knee-jerk reaction to the photo: “What the hell are you doing out there?! Get over here!”

My siblings, in-laws and I traded texts with my brother, some out of outright concern for his safety but mostly to express our familial language of humor. When my sister remarked that he looked fat in the photo, he replied that the gun he was carrying added 20 pounds to his figure.

That was funny — for a second. The more I looked at the photo, the more I asked myself, “What's wrong with him?”

When I presented that question to him, he told me that morning he had completed a training session on how to deal with a shooter. He arrived on the real shooting scene about five to seven minutes after the call went out.

When the photo was taken, he was going to the naval yard gate. When he got there, he was told there was no need for officers inside. He helped to clear the perimeter and make a path for emergency vehicles.

After that, he cleared a nearby parking lot for the horde of media. Then he left because he had a scheduled court hearing for a DUI suspect. All in a day's work.

“Weren't you scared?” I asked.

He thought for a moment, then said: “Not really. … You just go into an area where the past is the past, and you focus on what needs to be done.”

His main concern, he told me, was catching the perpetrator(s). “Your training kind of takes over,” he said. “... I know I might get shot. But I know there are other people being shot.”

“Great,” I said. “Now I'm going to be worried about you.”

“Nah,” he answered. “I have confidence in my ability to do the mission. There's always going to be another active situation.”

That certainly did little to allay my fears, but I've got a new appreciation for my brother and other first responders.

Nafari Vanaski is a Trib Total Media staff writer.

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