‘I’m a warrior and a survivor’

‘I’m a warrior and a survivor’

Wounded in the Navy Yard shooting that killed 12, Jennifer Bennett inspires co-workers with her recovery.

Published on September 6, 2014

The pain can get ugly. It travels from Jennifer Bennett’s shoulder, which was blown to pieces by the Navy Yard shooter, through her left arm, which was shredded, to her thumb, which was destroyed by a shotgun blast that tore a five-inch hole in her chest and arm.

An angry eight-inch scar crosses her chest and runs down her arm, which is now connected to her shoulder by a metal plate and 10 screws. Muscle is missing from the back of her arm, creating a two-inch crater. Most of her tricep is gone. Her thumb, which was blown inside out, has been reconstructed. But the damaged nerve endings never stop throbbing.

Video: 'I heard pop, pop, pop'

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At top: Jennifer Bennett, 57, continues to heal from injuries suffered when she was shot in the chest and shoulder last year.

“There were times my thumb would cause far more pain than my shoulder. It felt like my thumb was on fire. It hurts all the time,” says Bennett, who is still recovering from the shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard a year ago.

On that late summer day, gunman Aaron Alexis killed 12 people in Building 197, the headquarters for the Naval Sea Systems Command, where Bennett works as an operations manager for a cost analysis group.

Alexis wanted to kill her, too. She knows because she looked him in the eye and watched him make a decision to shoot her. She doesn’t know why she did not die that day. Instead, she became one of five people who were injured.

“God left me here for a purpose,” says Bennett, 57, who reads the Bible every day and draws much of her strength from her faith. “My job is to fulfill that.”

On Sept. 16, the country will mark the first anniversary of the Navy Yard shooting, a day of carnage that shook an already security-obsessed capital, sparked police, Pentagon and congressional investigations and left hundreds of people traumatized. Many who worked in Building 197 are still healing from the psychological wounds of watching co-workers die. Bennett concentrates on healing from her physical wounds.

“I’m a warrior and a survivor,” she declares as she heads into a Northern Virginia physical therapy practice, where she goes twice a week to regain as much use of her left arm as possible. “I have a determination not to give in.”

She sometimes calls herself “Xena Warrior,” after the television character who uses her powers to defend those unable to defend themselves. Bennett stands 5-4 and wears her brown hair in a practical style, cut just above her ears. A friend told her a few years ago that she should try using a little makeup. She started wearing pearl studs and painted her trimmed nails red. She has piercing eyes and fierce sense of what is right and what is wrong. There are few — if any — subjects about which she is lukewarm. Even before the shooting, she was known around Navy Command as fearless and unflinching.

“I could dress a sailor down, and he would end up standing against a wall pulling his chin,” says Bennett, a former contractor who has worked for the Navy since 2001.

When her co-workers heard there was an injured woman at the hospital telling people what to do after the shooting, they knew it was Bennett.

She pushes the elevator button to the physical therapist’s office on the third floor and holds the door for an older man who is using a walker. Bennett signs in and uses her right arm to climb onto Table 16. The facility’s director, Andrew Gordon, begins massaging Bennett’s arm and shoulder to help break up scar tissue.

Gordon bends Bennett’s left elbow and gently rocks the arm back and forth. Then he presses his thumb down the scar, which grew two inches after her third surgery.

“Ow!” Bennett exclaims.

Gordon repositions the arm. “Does that still hurt?”

Pain has become a constant presence, a pain so intense that she sometimes cries out to God to free her of it.

But her scars are physical, she says. Unlike many who fled as Alexis stalked office cubicles with a Remington 870 shotgun until the 34-year-old contractor was killed by police, Bennett gets no night sweats, no nightmares. Loud noises do not make her jump. When she thinks about Alexis, it’s mostly to consider what his mother must be going through, the burden she’s had to bear along with the death of her son.

“God left me here for a purpose. My job is to fulfill that.”

—Jennifer Bennett

“I think of her often,” says Bennett, who still wants to write Cathleen Alexis a letter to express her concern and forgiveness. “I’m sorry for her loss as well.”

The four others who were wounded by Alexis include a young woman whose head was grazed by a bullet, another woman who took a pellet to her chest, D.C. police officer Dorian DeSantis, who took a bullet to his protective vest, and D.C. police officer Scott Williams, who was hit in both legs by gunfire. Except for Bennett, all have declined to talk about what the past year has been like for them.

Bennett has emerged as the most public Navy Yard survivor — a source of inspiration to almost everyone who was inside Building 197 that day. They ask her how she copes, how she stays strong.

“A big part of Jennifer’s philosophy is self-determination,” explains Marine Col. Dave Thompson, a naval casualty assistance calls officer who was assigned to Bennett after the shooting. “She hates being thought of as a victim. She is what she is: an example of a survivor.”

RELATED:

Graphic: What happened inside Building 197?

Map: The shooting scene.

Video: The gunman, Aaron Alexis.

Interactive: Remembering the victims.

‘I stood back up’

That Monday in September, Bennett was working at her desk on the fifth-floor deck of Building 197 shortly after 8 a.m. when she heard a loud popping sound. A co-worker thought it might be gunfire. Then a fire alarm went off, and a floor warden told her to evacuate immediately.

Bennett packed her stuff and slung three bags over her left shoulder. As she moved carefully down a stairwell, she ran into two co-workers, Navy Capt. Edward “Chip” Zawislak and financial management analyst Michael Jackson. They followed her down.

Bennett recalls humming a church hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul.” Then, as she reached the landing between the fourth and third floors, she ran into the shooter.

“He was standing there with his gun pointed up,” she says. “I looked at him, and he was looking at me.” She saw anger in his face but says she felt no fear.

“I watched the thought process as he made the decision to shoot me,” she recalls. “I watched the blast. I saw the fire and the smoke hit me.”

The shot knocked Bennett down, and it covered Jackson with her blood. He and Zawislak fled up the stairs, looking for an open door to get all of them to safety. They found that the doors to the fifth and sixth floors were locked.

Bennett was screaming, she says, “but I stood back up.” She walked up 3½ flights of stairs alone. When she got to the sixth floor, Jackson put his arm around her shoulder and helped her to the seventh floor. They found Zawislak, who’d heard her shouting for help and was coming back into the stairwell to get her after scoping out the roof for an escape.

They went out the seventh-floor door onto the roof, where they joined a third co-worker, Makonnen Eyob. Zawislak yelled to people below that there were four people stranded on the roof and one had been shot.

More gunshots went off, and everyone on the ground scattered for shelter. Zawislak, a 45-year-old Eagle Scout who was later honored by the Boy Scouts for his actions that day, stuffed part of his jacket into Bennett’s wounds to minimize the bleeding. She cried out. The adrenaline that had fueled her escape was fading, replaced by agony. Her hand, thumb and little finger, which were holding her three bags slung over her shoulder, had been shredded.

Zawislak dictated a note to Eyob: Four people on the roof and one with serious wounds, it read. Eyob, a 60-year-old cost analysis engineer, threw the note over the edge of the roof.

Bennett realized she had her cellphone, and they also called 911. Then they prayed for help.

More than an hour later, a SWAT team burst through the roof’s door. A U.S. Park Police officer and Zawislak packed Bennett’s wound with a dry-wet gauze and called for a helicopter. As rain fell and the wind whipped, the helicopter hovered over the roof and lowered a rescue basket.

“I’ve been a rescue guy all my adult life, and I’ve met a lot of victims, and victim isn’t a word I would use for her. She is a remarkable woman.”

—Sgt. Kenneth Burchell, who piloted the helicopter that rescued Bennett

To save time, rescuers decided not to pull the basket carrying Bennett into the helicopter.

“When the aircraft is hovering,” says Sgt. Kenneth Burchell, who was piloting the helicopter for the U.S. Park Police, “you don’t want to stay there longer than necessary, especially with potential for receiving ground fire.”

Bennett was still sitting in the rescue basket outside the 11,000-pound helicopter as it flew to MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Northwest Washington at 69 mph.

Bennett says she was thrilled with the ride, which lasted less than two minutes: “I have a ‘007’ in me.”

When the helicopter arrived at the hospital, a trauma team tried to unhook the rescue basket’s safety straps. Instead, Bennett stood and climbed out of the basket on her own.

“I’m watching this from the cockpit, and I thought that was amazing,” Burchell says. “I’ve been a rescue guy all my adult life, and I’ve met a lot of victims, and victim isn’t a word I would use for her. She is a remarkable woman.”

Bennett and her grandson visit the U.S. Park Police officers who plucked Bennett off the roof of Building 197. Officer Mike Abate, left, and Sgt. Kenneth Burchell, the pilot, describe how they rescued her and show the basket in which she was carried. (Correction: A previous version of this caption misidentified Abate)

‘Deal with it and move on’

Bennett’s resolve and resilience have deep roots. She was born and raised Baptist in Akron, Ohio, where she grew up in a three-story Dutch colonial with four siblings, one bathroom and parents who took pride in their stoicism.

Or as her mother, Joyce Sweeney, 82, puts it: “Things happen in life. You learn to deal with it and move on.”

When Bennett was in the 10th grade, her 19-year-old sister, Debbie, died of skin cancer after a struggle that lasted about a year and a half. Bennett says her parents were devastated. But after Debbie was buried, her death wasn’t mentioned again.

“We just didn’t talk about her,” Bennett recalls. “It wasn’t discussed. We just went on with life.”

She moved to Northern Virginia nearly 30 years ago after deciding that her first marriage, to a Marine, was over. She drove a U-Haul trailer from Southern California to Virginia with her 2-year-old daughter, Chatele, stopping overnight just once, in El Paso.

“I needed a new life,” she says. She started a job as an administrative assistant in Arlington and found an apartment in the Hybla Valley area of Fairfax County.

“I moved in myself,” she says. “I had no friends. No family. I knew nobody. I lived just above the poverty level for quite a few years.”

After her divorce was final, she began dating another Marine, Philip A. Bennett. They married in 1991 after Philip returned home from serving in the Gulf War.

Being married to a fiercely independent woman was tough, her husband says.

Jennifer needed no one. She lifted 50 pound bags of dirt alone while working in her garden. She moved furniture alone. She could go all day without eating or tiring. She had few friends.

“I was more male-oriented,” she says. “I didn’t even like women.”

About a year ago, she set out to change that, joining a Bible study for women at McLean Bible Church.

She asked God to soften her “harsh personality” that sometimes pushed people away. She says she used to pray: “God, you gave me this personality for a reason. What do you want me to do with it?”

People who fled buildings at the Washington Navy Yard after the shooting Sept. 16, 2013. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Jennifer Bennett with her husband, Philip, 54, a retired Marine colonel, across from Building 197. She was airlifted off the roof after being shot.

‘No clue it was Jennifer’

On the morning of the shooting, Philip tried to call Jennifer’s cellphone from his office at Fort Belvoir, where he works in international security for the Missile Defense Agency. But there was no answer.

He watched on television as a helicopter took off from the roof of Building 197 with an injured woman in the basket. “I had no clue it was Jennifer,” he says.

Then Philip heard a knock on his office door. This is the point in the story where he still gets weepy. Jennifer pats his hand as he describes a sober-faced D.C. police officer entering with a piece of paper. On it was written: “Mr. Philip Bennett Fort Belvoir, Va. Wife is Okay.”

Shaking, Philip wrote down the address of the hospital. He does not remember the drive there.

He walked into Jennifer’s hospital room choking back tears and saw his wife “horribly bandaged,” he says. The survivor was holding court with the trauma nurses. “Jennifer looks at them and says, ‘See, I told you he’s going to come in all mushy.’ ”

By the time her parents arrived that evening, Bennett had already had her first surgery.

“It looked like she was hit pretty close,” says Robert Golden, an orthopedic trauma surgeon at Washington Hospital Center. Her arm and shoulder had suffered significant muscle loss and bone loss. Doctors cleaned out the debris, including part of a leather strap from one of her bags that was embedded in her shoulder. They inserted a rod and packed the wound with “medical cement” mixed with antibiotics to fill the space where bone was missing.

Had the shot been a few millimeters closer to the center of Bennett’s body, doctors told her, it would have hit major arteries and perhaps her lung. She could have bled to death or lost her left arm. Instead, they hooked her to a morphine pump to relieve the pain radiating from her muscles, and a Marcaine drip to soothe the damaged nerves that fed her bones.

Scott Williams, the police officer who’d been shot in both legs, was in another hospital room on the same floor. He and Bennett were inundated with visits from investigators, family members, friends and co-workers.

“So many people were in the hallway, visiting him and me,” she recalls. “One policeman came in and began to cry” when he saw her. “He said, ‘You don’t understand, you are like a light of hope. You lived.’ ”

Bennett, an avid gardener who used to lift 50-pound bags of mulch, now doesn’t have the strength in her wounded left arm to yank out root vegetables.

‘A very driven person’

The first time nurses took off Bennett’s bandages, she stared at her mangled shoulder and left arm. “I thought, ‘Wow, that is ugly.’ ”

But her sister Sandy Jubin, a surgical nurse who had flown to Washington from Knoxville, Tenn., disagreed. “They are beautiful stitches,” her sister told her. “The surgeon did a good job, and he put you together well.”

For days, Bennett was surrounded by family and other visitors around the clock.

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Navy Yard survivor Jennifer Bennett's grueling recovery.

Click on the image for more scenes from Bennett's life.

“It drove her crazy because Mom is a loner,” says her daughter, Chatele Stutts, a 32-year-old accountant who’d come from Minnesota. She could tell when her mother was feeling especially lousy: “She’d get sarcastic and pointed.”

The pain had taken up residence in her life like a bitter companion, following her from Washington Hospital Center to the MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital across the street and, finally, 13 days after the shooting, to her home in Springfield.

Before Bennett arrived, her mother cleaned furiously, polishing the wood floors of the house where five fat cats whom Bennett calls her “children” reign.

“It had to be in good order,” Joyce Sweeney says. “We wanted to make sure she wouldn’t come home and find something lacking.”

Bennett’s mother worked around the cats, dusting elegant antiques and French country tables and plumping the cushions of the wing-back chairs covered with a fabric of soft pink roses, an interior design so soft and feminine it surprised visiting colleagues. They expected something starker to match Bennett’s tough, hyper-organized demeanor at work.

“I was a very driven person,” she acknowledges.

The Jennifer Bennett who came home after the shooting was weaker, dependent. She tired easily.

After ordering her mother and husband to fill the bird feeders, she climbed into her husband’s brown leather chair near the cathedral windows that face their wooded lot.

“I lived in that chair,” Bennett says, as her house filled with food and flowers, get-well cards flooded in from across the country and she struggled to get comfortable. For weeks, she slept sitting up. She could not lie down.

“She couldn’t bear the pressure on her arm,” says Sweeney, who hated seeing her daughter suffer.

The shooting altered Bennett’s relationship with her husband.

“This was a very strong, independent woman,” Philip says. “This was a woman who didn’t have to rely on me as much.”

Now he helped her take her first real shower after the shooting and wash her hair. When the Oxycodone and Tylenol she was taking wore off, he endured her critiques about the way the laundry was folded or fingerprints on the doors.

Philip understood when she grew short-tempered. “It was not Jen,” he says. “It was the pain.”

One afternoon, she pulls off her long-sleeve shirt to reveal her scar. Before the shooting, she loved sleeveless shirts. She has a whole closet full of them.

“Now when I go to get dressed,” she says, “I think, ‘What do I wear so I don’t show it?’ In public, I don’t want people to stare at it.”

LEFT: Bennett with Capt. Edward “Chip” Zawislak, who helped save her. (Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post) RIGHT: Bennett is greeted by co-worker Sandy Rawdon at Naval Sea Systems Command. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

‘It’s like September 17th’

Two weeks before Christmas, Bennett reentered Building 197 for the first time since the day of the shooting.

At the time, Bennett was still recovering from her second surgery, during which doctors harvested bone from her thigh, reopened her shoulder wound, took out the medical cement and packed in bone graft.

Afterward, she went home and climbed into her husband’s brown leather chair as the cycle of pain started all over again.

“It took me seven weeks again before I felt human,” she says.

Dave Thompson, the casualty officer assigned to care for Jennifer, drove her back to Building 197, where she joined two of the men, Chip Zawislak and Makonnen Eyob, who had helped rescue her.

They walked in through the employee entrance. “The whole point was to walk through what happened that day,” Bennett explains. “What did we do, where did we go, how that day unfolded.”

The building was a mess, with doors off the hinges and carpets ripped up. They went to the fifth-floor deck, where they had worked, and retraced their steps that morning. Their desks had been sanitized, and their personal effects had been removed. Bennett noticed her favorite chair was gone.

“I talked about what I saw,” she says. “Chip talked about what he saw, what was going through his head.”

It is odd, Zawislak says, how quickly society moves on from traumatic events. “But for those of us involved, it is just like the next day after the event,” he says. “It’s like September 17th.”

Zawislak had been back to the building before. “Two days after the shooting, I came to the Navy Yard to pick up my car,” he recalls. “My body started to sweat and shake a bit.”

Still, he wanted to get back to Building 197 as quickly as he could to face what he called his “demons.” Unlike Bennett, Zawislak thinks about the day of the shooting often. It is on constant rewind.

“I don’t have survivor’s remorse, but I think about what could I have done differently to affect the outcome differently,” he says. “Maybe save other people. I didn’t know what was happening in the building. I know now, but at the time, I didn’t.”

In the immediate days after the shooting, Zawislak participated in large group therapy sessions with people who’d witnessed their co-workers being shot and killed. They needed to talk, to process what they’d been through.

After a while, the teams of counselors left, and a strange quiet settled in the office, which was eventually relocated to the former Coast Guard headquarters in Southwest Washington.

“Everybody is cognizant of slamming doors,” Zawislak says. “We try not to make loud noise. Everybody who was there that day is a victim.”

Bennett, her husband, Philip, and family members on a tour of the Pentagon last month. Philip Bennett was crying when he arrived at the hospital where his wife was taken after the Navy Yard shooting. “I told you he’s going to come in all mushy,” she told nurses.

Going forward

In February, five months after being shot, Bennett went back to work part time, over the objections of her doctors, physical therapist and husband.

“I told them I needed to because there was nobody there to do my job but me,” Bennett says. “I needed to reengage and be part of my Navy community.”

Bennett didn’t get much work done. People would sit for hours at her desk and talk about that day. They wanted to know how she was able to cope. Sometimes when employees saw that she had returned, they would burst into tears.

“They needed someone to hear them,” she says. “They’d talk about their sorrow. Where they were. What they did. What they did to get out of the building.”

In Bennett, they saw resilience and the promise of recovery.

Building 197 is being renovated. In the cafeteria of NAVSEA’s temporary quarters in Southwest Washington, there is a mock-up of its redesign.

The new color scheme will replace the purple, orange and navy blue with softer colors: “Daffodil, Freshwater, Parakeet, Cote D’Azur, House Plant and Georgian Bay.”

Employees are scheduled to move back into Building 197 early next year. They will return to new carpet, new cubicles and new desks. The building will be renamed.

Bennett, who had her third surgery in June to remove the titanium rod in her shoulder and have a metal plate with screws inserted, plans to be there.

“I see that day with the view of what God has planned for me,” Bennett says. She is wiping tears now, sitting in her chair covered in roses. “I’ve seen answers to prayer. I don’t try to change that day. I don’t worry about that day. My job is to go forward.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Bennett goes outside to her garage, where she slips on her green garden shoes, grabs garden gloves, clippers and a shovel with one hand. She walks around to the back of the house, where with one hand she pulls up the decorative fence panels that border the garden to keep deer out. Her daughter stands back.

“She doesn’t do anything halfway,” Stutts says.

Bennett uses her right arm to rip out bunches of mint that have taken over the salad garden. Her left arm still lacks the strength to yank herbs or root vegetables.

Bennett appears lopsided as she works.

“I’m not an invalid,” she says. “I’m in a lot of pain. But that doesn’t make me stop.”

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