AURORA, Colo. U.S. Army Chaplain Jared Vineyard was only in his fifth day on the job at nearby Buckley Air Force Base when a dozen innocent victims were brutally murdered by a gunman early last Friday morning at the Century Theater in Aurora.
Captain Vineyard, a 36-year-old chaplain, is using every bit of the grief counseling experience he gained as an Army chaplain in Afghanistan to console the family, friends and Navy colleagues of John Larimer, one of 12 victims killed. Another 58 people were injured in the melee.
Larimer, 27, was a Petty Officer 3rd class and had been assigned since last October to Buckley, where he worked as a cryptologic technician. Larimer was with another sailor injured in the attack at the midnight opening of "The Dark Knight Rises," the latest Batman movie.
"The shooting happened less than 10 miles from my house," said Vineyard, who had spent his first three weeks in Aurora getting processed as a resident of the base and moving into his new home. Monday, July 16, was his first day on the job. It's a week he won't soon forget.
Vineyard, awakened at 4:30 a.m. Friday with news of the 12:39 a.m. shooting, took off for the base early and immediately began counseling with a dozen of Larimer's fellow sailors.
"On Friday, I did a lot of one-on-one grief counseling with the Navy guys, who all knew John personally. They were still in shock. I even counseled with some Army guys who also knew John," said Vineyard. He and another Navy chaplain were on hand when Buckley AFB officers officially broke the news on base.
Friday night, it was Vineyard and other Navy personnel who picked up Larimer's brother at the airport and drove him to the Aurora high school serving as the gathering place for victims' family members. The parents of Larimer, from Crystal Lake, Ill., are making plans to bury their son in Illinois.
"With the friends and loved ones, you're initially dealing with the shock factor," said the chaplain. "They're not looking for answers. There are no easy answers. The biggest thing to do initially is just to listen. They want to get things off their chests. They asked questions that have no easy answers like 'why did this happen?'
"We'll have many more opportunities to talk with other people in the days ahead. I don't know how this could happen," says Vineyard. "But I know God is loving, good and still on His throne. There are questions but we can look to Him for answers whether we get them or not. There's peace in that."
Vineyard, who won a Purple Heart in Iraq as an artillery officer before answering the call to the ministry and serving as a chaplain in Afghanistan, said the people of Aurora, a suburb east of Denver, are still in shock three days later.
"This is so close to Littleton (about 30 minutes away), and people here still remember that shooting. They're shocked at yet another mass shooting so close by."
Littleton was the site of the notorious Columbine High School massacre of 1999, when 12 students and a teacher were shot and killed by two Columbine students who also killed themselves.
Vineyard was one of thousands of local citizens, officials and pastors who attended a prayer vigil at Aurora's municipal complex Sunday night. According to Vineyard, Aurora is known as an "All-American" city.
As Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan put it, "We're still an All-American city and we will be known by how we come together not by this incident."
Vineyard said there's already been an outpouring of love and support by area churches, civic groups and businesses. "Everybody's working together. While it is such a tragedy, it's been amazing to see how people have come together on a united front just since Friday.
"It's a time for all Americans to pray for the people of Aurora and Colorado," Vineyard said. "It's a time when Christ can shine through the tragedy an opportunity to show God's love through the evil."
At the June SBC annual meeting, Vineyard and his wife Amanda were recognized by North American Mission Board leaders and messengers, and received a lengthy standing ovation.
Vineyard is a chaplain with the North American Mission Board, which has 1,450 endorsed chaplains serving in the military. A total of 3,400 NAMB-commissioned and endorsed chaplains are ministering in corporations, healthcare, public safety and the military.