Officers from Sandy Hook, Columbine, Virginia Tech attend seminar in Augusta

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News 12 at 11 o'clock / Thursday, March 21, 2013

Forty-five first responders from all over the country attended the seminar at the Vineyard Church in Martinez. (WRDW-TV)
Forty-five first responders from all over the country attended the seminar at the Vineyard Church in Martinez. (WRDW-TV)

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW) -- First responders from some of the nation's biggest tragedies in recent history were in Augusta this week for a unique seminar.

It was put on by the Georgia State Patrol and provides intensive counseling and help for officers who've been through some unbelievable events. People came from as far as Colorado and Connecticut to be a part of it.

There were first responders from Sandy Hook, Columbine, Virginia Tech and many more. Georgia is one of just five states to offer these seminars, which the officers say are a crucial part of recovering from any traumatic event.

"Nothing can prepare you for what we saw that day and what we are dealing with in the aftermath," said Lt. Christopher Vanghele with the Newtown Police Department.

He was one of the first on scene at Sandy Hook Elementary.

"It overwhelms the senses, it overwhelms your sense of humanity, your sense of meaning and that can create some issues for a lot of people, a lot of officers," Vanghele said.

To help prevent those issues, officers take part in debriefings and counseling following traumatic events. That's why Newtown police officers spent this week in Augusta for the Georgia State Patrol's Post Critical Incident Seminar.

"We brought five officers from my department. These were five officers that were first responders, first on scene and first into the school that day," Vanghele said.

Forty-five first responders from all over the country attended the seminar at the Vineyard Church in Martinez. For three days they listened to speakers, had group sessions and as one-on-one counseling.

"It just seems like historically in law enforcement we are expected to just suck it up, it's part of the job, we knew that going in, but knowing that going and then when and incident happens are two different things," said Lt. Andy Carrier with the Georgia State Patrol.

Carrier is a member of the state patrol's critical incident support team and was in charge of the event.

"This is a fairly new concept," Carrier said. "That's why you have people coming from as far away as Colorado because there's only a few states that do this."

This was Georgia's first seminar. It was held in Augusta where patrol says law enforcement is no stranger to tragedy.

"We had those three stand-alone felonious line of duty deaths within a 3-and-a-half month period within a 25-mile radius. That doesn't happen," Carrier said.

Ten local officers affected by those line of duty deaths attended the seminar as well as first responders from Columbine, Virginia Tech and many more.

"To hear their stories, you realize you're not going through this alone," Vanghele said. "You realize that there's a path through the trauma and through what you're going through to a brighter future."

The seminar was led by fellow officers as well as mental health professionals. State patrol says almost all of the peer team has been through tragedies as well, which helps them be able to relate to the officers they are working with.

South Carolina was the first state to hold these seminars. They've been doing it for 13 years, had 21 different sessions and say they have helped more than 700 officers.

The seminars are funded by donations and help from the state or city. The City of Augusta donated money to help put on this seminar.

In South Carolina, you can actually donate to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program on your 1040 tax form. That money will help fund these seminars.

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