"Suddenly there was a tremendous roar, a shotgun blast at close range. I was hit. It felt like I had been hit with a haymaker in my chest. My right arm stung and burned. But the most serious wound, the one that had all my attention in a few seconds, was one just under my left eye.
"The pain seemed to overcome all the others. It was excruciating, just like somebody had driven a nail in my cheek. My head was spun around, very forcefully to the left, and I was knocked to the ground. The pellet penetrated down into the sinus.
"Blood was flowing out of my nose. I didn't know exactly where it was coming from. I thought it might be coming from the eye. It was shut, and I couldn't get it open. I was down on my knees in the mud and I was shouting, 'You shot me. You shot me.' I couldn't believe what had happened."
That is how Dennis Ballard of Columbia, Mo., remembers the experience that made him a statistic. Thousands of persons are shot every year (an estimated 155,000 Americans are injured annually by firearms, according to government statistics) under widely varying circumstances.
However an outsider perceives the experience - it often seems so orderly and painless on television, for example - a shooting victim nearly always undergoes such trauma that his life is never the same.
It is also a unique experience for each individual - not only in the degree of physical injury but in the victim's reactions and emotions from the first terrifying instant to the end, if there is an end, of what is often a protracted recovery.
It's something that can happen anywhere to anybody, a fact of life; Sen. John C. Stennis, in front of his upper Northeast home; City Councilman Marion Barry, during the Hanati siege of the District Building; a woman on a Metrobus, by a man who wanted matches from her; a 61-year-old Silver Spring woman, during a robbery attempt at her house; a hotel manager in Alexandria, by a guest, a man trying to separate two men arguing in the corridor of a K Street apartment house; an 18-year-old Riverdale man, as he was walking home late one night, by a man who said, "You're giving me bad looks."
It happens suddenly. Even for a police officer or a soldier in combat, getting shot often comes as something unexpected. Getting shot in line of duty is something you don't think about.
Not, that is, until it happens. First Moments
The bullet went right through 43-year-old Bobby Mitchell. "It went in below the pit of my right arm and came in the left hip area," he said. But, incredibly, he suffered no excruciating pain. Not at first.
"I didn't know I was shot. I first realized it when I felt dizzy. Everything started turning black. I felt something warm running down my right side." He looked and saw his blood.
Mitchell was slumped on the floor of the Clifton Carry-Out on 14th Street NW. The store is owned by his brother, Harold, who was shot 4 times himself, but not as seriously as Bobby, when three men apparently attempted a holdup in February. I didn't feel any of the bullets," said Harold, who picked up a gun from the floor that his brother had had and shot one intruder dead. After the other two fled, Harold turned to Bobby.
"They laid my head on a box until the ambulance arrived." Boddy Mitchell said, "I could see things I just can't remember." Except for one thing - the shooting itself.
"I was looking into the barrel. The guy was shaking like a leaf. I don't know why he missed me.How he missed my head, it was a miracle." The thought gave him hope.
Mitchell didn't know what was to happen to him; the loss of much of his intestine, receiving 106 pints of blood "when they stopped counting," spending four months in the hospital including 63 days in intensive care, and almost dying twice, the second time during a relapse three weeks later. But he knew at least as he lay on the floor that he had not been hit in the head, that he had a chance to survive.
Another Washington man, who did not wish to be identified, was shot outside a movie theater, fell to the sidewalk and thought - with good reason, because one of the two bullets was in his chest - that he surely was going to die. He said the first thing he did was pray, an act of contrition.
Dennis Ballard, a bowhunter shot accidentally by a friend carrying a shotgun, said, "I wanted it to be a second or two before it happened. I wanted to go back so this thing wouldn't happen. But it did happen."
"I felt a hot, burning sensation in my chest," D.C. council member Marion Barry said at the time, "I knew I'd been shot."
"I felt the impact, but it didn't hurt," said D.C. police Officer David Hayhurst. He was shot in the back last November after entering a Georgetown boutique that had been taken over by three armed men. But the next sound he heard reassured him.
"I heard the bullet drop out and hit the floor. It turned around, guess." In fact, the bullet had taken a miraculous U-turn after striking the lower portion of Hayhurst's thick leather shoulder strap.That took the brunt of the bullet's force and probably saved Hayburst's life." I did see blood was coming out," he said, "but I wasn't all that shook up."
A Silver Spring man who was a counter guerrilla expert in Vietnam recalled: "There were five of us and they tell me there were 150 of them; it was a firefight, and we were trying to leapfrog out of there, back to a beach and into the water.
"I was the last guy forward, I was smaller, faster, harder to hit. I had this rocket with me and I was getting ready to fire. Twenty guys were rushing my position.
"I was shot from the left side, in the head. It was with an automatic weapon. It threw me right off this sand dune. I knew I had been hit, but I didn't know how bad. The bullet had blown out the front of my forehead. I had a big gap, my brain was hanging out. It took part of the brain out.
"I rolled over, got up, I no longer had my rocket but I had my automatic weapon. I tried to maneuver to give myself a base of fire on these guys coming on.
"Then I started getting tunnel vision, looking down a long tunnel. Darkness closing in. No feeling of pain. But I knew I was hurt. I was bleeding heavily. I knew I was in a bad situation. I saw the tunnel vision. I saw it coming on, but there was nothing you can do. No matter how hard you try to prevent going out, there's nothing you can do about it."
"I was out."
Even in noncombat situations, a victim sometimes reacts with a surge of emotion or instinct that doesn't seem possible. A Bethesda man told of the time when he was 16 years old and out with a friend in the woods, shooting tin cans with .22's until he was shot in the back.
"The bullet," he said, "went through the lung out the front, and lodged in my letter sweater. The guy who did it was terror stricken. I said something like, 'Let's get out of here,' and the two of us ran about a quarter mile to the car. He was too nervous to drive so I drove.
"We got to the hospital and I ran into the lobby, blood spurting from my chest. There were a lot of older ladies in there. I remember. They screamed, I collapsed right there on the floor." The Fear
The suspense - not knowing how badly you're hurt - can make the five, ten or 30 minutes after a shooting more terrifying for the victim than the shooting itself.
"The worst part was, I didn't know my condition," said Marion Barry. "I kept calling for a doctor. People grabbed me and took off my coat."
The wait for an ambulance, the ride to the hospital, arrival at the emergency room - these are anxious moments for a victim who is aware of what is happening. The only consolation for him sometimes is that he is still conscious, still alive.
"We didn't really have much time for the psychological aspect," said a doctor at the Washington Hospital Center, "although we deal with pain and in doing so tend to relieve anxiety somewhat. We want to make sure that the blood pressure and circulatory system are sustained while an evaluation is made."
"We call it the ABC's," explained a Georgetown University Hospital specialist in emergency medicine. "A is for airways - you see if the patient has a clear breathing mechanism. B is breathing - making sure the lungs are functioning so he can get oxygen. C is circulation - how the heart is pumping, blood pressure, pulse, and so forth."
"All of this is stabilization and should take about five minutes.Large intravenous lines are put in as a means to replace fluids and blood. Then its a matter of constant monitoring and taking care of the specific kind of injury, making the appropriate x-rays, clotting studies, etc. This can take a half hour, an hour or longer."
It can seem much longer than that to the victim if no answers can be given quickly.
Ballard, the hunter shot by his friend who had become disoriented, feared the loss of sight in one eye from the instant he was dropped in his tracks. "I was keeping my hand over my left eye. There was so much pain. I couldn't voluntarily get the eye open. I had to reach up with my hands and actually open the eyelid to see if I could still see. I could, although it was blurry. But the fact I could see indicated the eyeball hadn't been punctured. I was relieved."
But he still wanted assurance about that and "then I thought, my God, what have these other pellets done internally." He yelled for help and the man who shot him responded from the brush, about 35 yards away. "Dennis, is that you?" They checked his body for hits from the shotgun; three in the chest, four in the right arm and one in the wrist, one in the right leg.
"The one in the leg went clear through, but I hadn't felt it because of the overriding pain from my sinus. I was scared to death, shaken something like that could happen. I kept saying out loud, "I can't believe this has happened. I can't believe this has happened."
"All the way to the hospital I thought about the seriousness of my condition. It was 30 miles and I was kind of dizzy. I thought of my wife. As we got closer to the hospital, I thought, more and more, what do you tell her?
"Then, it was a strange feeling lying in the emergency room. It shook me up. They were checking vital signs, my vital signs, checking to see if I was going to make it."
On his ride to the hospital, Hayhurst, the police officer, said, "I was wondering. I didn't know how deep the bullet was, but I figured it didn't hit anything major. When I got to the hospital, they said it was a flesh wound. That felt good."
Bobby Mitchell says he remembers all ambulance attendant saying to him. "If you want to see daylight in the mourning, we're going to the Washington Hospital Center." And then, "I knew I was there. I could see things. But I just can't remember."
Things went blank again when he suffered his relapse weeks later and underwent an eight-hour operation. "The doctor said he didn't know how I stood it.He said, 'I got to take a vacation, you worked me so hard." My stomach looked like a railroad track. There were seven tubes in my stomach, going every which way."
The combat victim recalled: "The next thing I remembered was Mike. When he got to me - he told me this - there were three guys on top of me. He shot all of them. Then he started shaking me, shaking me back to consciousness.
"I woke up, but I couldn't see. My whole face was covered with blood. Blood was in my eyes. The next thing I knew I was on his shoulder and off we went. We'd hit the ground and and roll and he'd pick me up again. He was continuously returning fire. A lot of those guys were very close.
"We got to the edge of the water and he said, 'I've got to put you down.' I felt the water, I was maybe knee deep. I ducked my head in and cleared out all the blood. I could see what was happening. Mike was shooting. Those guys were coming over the dunes like crazy.
"I started firing, and we started backing into the water. It was like a TV program. You could see the bullets just chopping up the water. These guys were lining up on the beach.We got out into the heavy surf. My head would bleed over again and I'd soak it in the water.
"We started swimming, just swimming out to sea. There was only one way to go. I started getting faint, but Mike was right with me. He'd grab me and say, 'OK, let's go.'
"Those guys were coming into the water. We beat some of them back. Then we started getting some rounds in from the Newport News. The last thing I had done before I was shot. I had called for covering fire. I said, 'You've got the coordinates. Give me two minutes.' By the time we were in the water, they started dropping some rounds in. That's the only thing that kept those guys from coming any further."
He says he passed into and out of consciousness many times during 2 1/2 hours in the water. They were picked up by a South Victnamese boat, transferred to an American ship, then to a sick bay in Danang, and finally to the Philippines. He remembers little of this. He weighed 142 pounds the days he went on his mission; he weighed 111 by the time he reached the hospital.
"I remember arriving there, seeing the doctors, the white uniforms, the lights. They operated on me for 12 hours." He remembers later a doctor telling him that his attitude and physical conditioning helped him survive, that possibly his eye might have been saved had not so much time elapsed, but by then . . .
"There was nothing they could do." Aftermath
Getting shot can tear apart the mind as well as the body.
During a long recovery period, a shooting victim often experiences widely varying emotions, according to a psychiatric clinical specialist familiar with gunshot patients.
First, shock or denial of what has happened. Then, anger, a lashing out doctors, nurses, a criticism of treatment. Next, prolonged depression, signaled, perhaps, by a dropoff in speaking, eating, sleeping. Then a "bargaining" phase: Why me? Why not my leg instead of my stomach." Finally, but not always, acceptance.
The longer the recovery, the greater the chance for deep mental anguish, and a need for counseling. "Once you reach a point in your recovery, you don't recover the rest of the way as quickly," a psychologist said. "Then, there's also possibly the realization that one is going to be handicapped the rest of his life."
Bobby Mitchell said he has three doctors who give him "a lot of encouragement." He needs it. Eight months after being shot, he said, "I've got to go through a bell of a lot more. I've got to have another operation." This surgery is supposed to make it possible for him to live without a bag for waste, which he must use now.
"I've got to be 150 pounds before the next operation. But I've been standing still, gained only four pounds since June. I'm 130. I used to be 176. I was used to a lot of activity. I had a 42 chest, 34 waist. I felt good, not overweight. I would run.
"Now I can't do what I want to. I can't eat like I want to, can't eat certain things: fried foods, bacon, alcohol. Just soft and plain things."
And he can't seem to eat much. According to his brother, Harold, "He's just like a little kid - a little dab, then he has to stop."
"All the clothes I bought I can't wear." Bobby said. "I hold them up with suspenders. It's like clothes for 300 pounds on a 50-pound body.
"I just can't forget it. They've messed up a human's life.
"I just lay around, take one day at a time. I'm stuck. I can't stand too long. If I sit down too long, it draws me up, so I'm bent over before I can straighten up.
"Sometimes I get diarrhea. That really tears me up. The first time that happened. I couldn't cope with it. I just sat down like a mummy. Now it's not as bad. It's just something to put up with.
"You've got to have willpower. If I don't, I went through holy hell for nothing. In a way, that makes me feel I accomplished something - now I have something to live for."
Though injured less seriously, Ballard, the hunter, has had some unpleasant times.
Pellets remain in his sinus, chest and arm. They apparently won't bother him unless they move. The pellet in his wrist did, dropping into a joint four months after the accident, causing "excruciating pain" and necessitating surgery. But Ballard's first worry, that he might lose his eye, was quickly dispelled by an ophthalmologist at the hospital, who assured him the eye was not involved.
Ballard's longer-term problem was headaches, which last more than eight months. They began on the second day. "I got a splitting headache. No amount of pain medicine would kill it. I couldn't eat or sleep." He had suffered a cracked vertebrae in his nect when his head was snapped around by the shot.
A year and a half later the pain is gone, but the memory remains vivid. "Tomorrow is the opening day of deed season in Missouri. Yesterday when I was thinking about what route I'd take into the woods to a deer blind. I thought about it, I still think of that moment."
It's been five years since the serviceman was cut down in Vietnam. He's 33 now, and lives with his parents. He got disability retirement and medical benefits. He'd had eight "major" operation, including one 9 1/2-hour operation three years ago, and is still treated at a hopsital on a regular basis.
But he said he's been able to maintain a "positive" attitude - all this time. He still regards his injuries the way he did when they first became clear to him, in hospital in the Philippines, when he thought, "OK, I've lost an eye and had a great portion of my head shot away. That's it. Let's see what we can do about it.
"Even the doctor said, 'You've got a positive attitude. There are people in here with less of an injury than you have and they're moaning and groaning."
I said, "With all the injuries I've seen, this is nothing."
Hayhurst, the policeman, walks the same beat he used to and sometimes stops in the store where he was shot.
"As far as going in and out of places now," he said, "I think I'm mor ecautious than what I was. I didn't barge into the place. I did look around. I knew there were three people (with guns) in there. But I think a policeman gets where he kind of takes things for granted, lets his guard down every once in a while. You get a lot of calls. But close to 90 per cent are false calls. When you start getting them over and over . . ."
He still thinks about being shot, "when I'm sitting idle . . . I think about it when I'm walking." But he added, "I like the job. The way I looked at it and still look at it, it's something I'm paid to do."
"It's no more dangerous than what your job is," he told a reporter. "You could get shot just as quickly as I could. Maybe quicker."