Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Greater Phoenix Chapter

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Church State Issues

Mixing God and government in the Arizona DPS.

Jun 3, 2010

By: E J Montini

The Arizona State Police or the DPS has had chaplains for at least 10 years. Currently 16 chaplain work for the DPS.

Ministering on the edge of tragedy

Roughly 15 minutes after Byron Yellowhair stepped out of his car and wandered into traffic on a darkened Interstate 10, Father Joe O'Donnell got a phone call.

O'Donnell has been a chaplain with the Arizona Department of Public Safety for nearly 10 years. Before that he'd spent nearly 30 years with the Navy, including a stint in Vietnam. He is one of 16 chaplains working with DPS, helping officers on an accident or crime scene to deal with victims, and also easing families through the aftermath of tragedy.

During his decade of volunteer work, Father O'Donnell figures that he's knocked on 250 doors to which officers had been dispatched to deliver bad news.

The call that he and another chaplain got shortly before 5 a.m. last Thursday would send him to the edge of a horrific scene.

Yellowhair was a troubled young man, a student at Arizona State University. In the rush of pre-dawn traffic near 24th street and I-10 he was struck first by one unsuspecting driver, then another, then another, then another. Investigators say they may never know exactly how many vehicles hit him.

“I knew it would be a horrible,” Father O'Donnell said. “But for a moment there it was like being back in Vietnam.”

In every tragedy there are more victims than the obvious ones. O'Donnell and the other chaplains are trained to deal with all of them.

“On a scene like this you not only consider the poor people who were part of the accident, but all of those who had to deal with it,” O'Donnell said. “Four cars that struck him (Yellowhair) stopped. Then there are the highway workers. The DPS officers, who must deal with this professionally and logically, but on whom it can exact a terrible toll. Paramedics and firefighters. In this case, some workers from the medical examiner's office spent three hours out there collecting remains.”

What do you say at such times? I asked.

“I'm a chaplain, but I'm not there to preach,” he said. “It's about listening, and then I give them a means for defusing. In that situation, you need to talk to someone you trust. I give them an outline. First, what they went through. What they saw. I first want them to tell their story, then to tell how they felt about it. You have to do this two or three times. And I tell them if they wake up in the middle of the night and they're experiencing the accident again, that means they're normal.”

Over the course of many years, however, O'Donnell has seen much horror. I wondered how he dealt with all the ghosts.

“In part, it has to do with my belief in a loving God,” he said. “I had my baptism in fire in Vietnam. I learned that I couldn't fix that place. Just as I couldn't fix that scene on the interstate. Over time, I've grown mellow enough to know that I don't have the answers, but that the best thing I can do is listen to other people. To their pain. Not so much to their words but to their hearts. That's what we do out there.”

Father O'Donnell is in his 70s and about to celebrate his 48th year in the priesthood. He has spent much of that time ministering on the periphery of war and tragedy.

“Cops and clergy are probably pretty much alike,” he said. “They take charge. They care. They don't do it for the money. We're lucky to have the men and women we have in Arizona working for DPS.”

How does he advise them to cope with with they must see and do each day? I wondered.

“I say, ‘Do what I do,'” he said. “I debrief after every time I go out. I have a spiritual counselor. You have to let things go or it become too much to bear. You learn to give the burden to God.”

(Column for June 3, 2008 Arizona Republic)