JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —
Shortly after 5 p.m. Sept. 7, 2016, Army 1st Lt. Katie Ann Blanchard was shutting down her computer for the day, eager to get home to her three young sons, when she saw him coming out of the corner of her eye. He was holding a plastic bottle filled with a brownish-tinged liquid and she felt a sudden rush of fear. Before she could react, he splashed the liquid on her face and struck a match.
What happened in those moments changed the course of Blanchard’s life. The Army nurse was severely burned and attacked by a man she supervised at Munson Army Health Center on Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Sept. 7, 2016.
“I was consumed with anger,” said Blanchard, who is still in recovery at Brooke Army Medical Center. “I felt robbed of time with my family and my career as an Army nurse. I felt hopeless.”
A year later, Blanchard is working to turn that senseless act of violence into a message of hope, thanks to the support of her family and a new friendship with Army Capt. John Arroyo, a fellow survivor of workplace violence. With their help, she’s found the strength to share her story in the hopes of inspiring others dealing with hurt and pain.
“It’s a difficult story to share, but if I can help even one person, one Soldier, it will make all of this worth it,” she said.
Arroyo, who also recovered at BAMC, is familiar with the devastating pain and aftermath of workplace violence. Two years before the Army nurse was set on fire, the Green Beret had been shot at Fort Hood, Texas, and left to die.
In April 2014, Arroyo had just stepped out of his car at brigade headquarters when Army Spc. Ivan Lopez walked up to him and shot him in his throat at close range with a .45-caliber pistol.
Gasping for breath, Arroyo held his throat to staunch the bleeding and managed to stumble toward some nearby Soldiers, who rushed him to the hospital.
Lopez killed three people and wounded 15 others that day before turning the gun on himself.
Doctors told Arroyo his voice box and right arm were damaged beyond repair, but after months of intense rehabilitation he was talking and regained the use of his hand. He now serves as the plans and training officer-in-charge of the Basic Officer Leaders Course here and shares his story to encourage others.
He went to visit Blanchard just weeks after her arrival with that same intent in mind. When Arroyo entered the dimly lit hospital room, he knew the best way he could connect with the Soldier swathed in bandages in front of him was to show her she was not alone. He pulled down the collar of his tan T-shirt and showed her the jagged scar from when he had been shot.
“It may not seem like it now,” he told her, “but you can come back from the worst of situations and be functional and useful again.”
In pain and despair, Blanchard had one question for Arroyo: “How do you deal with the nightmares?”
“My faith,” Arroyo responded without hesitation. Blanchard thought of her family and how they pulled her through in the early days after her attack.
Blanchard was only two years into her first tour of duty when she was stationed at Munson Army Health Center. The young lieutenant and military wife became a first-time supervisor of 15 military and civilian staff, including then-54-year-old Clifford Currie.
“Mr. Currie was difficult from the start,” she recalled. “I kept telling myself, it will get better.”
But it got worse. “He was blowing up twice a day or not coming into work,” she said. Blanchard expressed her fear and concern about Currie’s erratic and aggressive behavior to her leadership, who encouraged her to stay the course despite the red flags.
Shortly after 5 p.m. on Sept. 7, 2016, Blanchard noticed the light on in Currie’s office. Afraid to go on her own, she asked a physician to accompany her and told Currie it was time to go home.
She returned to her office alone and began to shut down her computer. She had just texted her husband that she was on her way when she saw Currie approach.
“He’s going to try to kill me,” she thought. Before she could react, he splashed the liquid on her face, mostly dousing the right side. As she stood up to run, he tossed two lit matches at her and there was a burst of flames.
Her vision obstructed by flames, she stumbled out of the room and ran down the hall screaming. She banged on the first office to no response but heard her co-workers down the hall. “Katie! Katie!” her co-worker yelled as she grabbed a blanket and smothered the flames.
Blanchard was still on the floor when Currie reappeared, this time brandishing a large pair of scissors and a straight-edge razor blade.
“He put his foot on my neck and started stabbing at me, trying to stomp on me. I put my hand and foot up trying to protect myself, to get away,” she recalled. A sergeant approached and grabbed Currie in a bear hug and he finally dropped the weapons.
Blanchard struggled for breath and as the adrenaline abated, the pain set in.
“It was excruciating pain,” she said. “I thought I was going to die and I didn’t want to die alone.”
Blanchard was rushed to the hospital and later transferred to the Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center at BAMC.
Currie stood trial in August and faces up to 20 years in prison after being convicted of assault with attempt to commit murder. His sentencing takes place next month.
As she heals from the physical wounds, Blanchard struggles with the invisible ones – severe post-traumatic stress and anger about the incident and the circumstances that led up to it.
Shortly after her arrival at BAMC, Arroyo met Blanchard and assured her that her journey was not at an end. Like Arroyo, she had survived for a purpose. The captain shares his story around the nation, speaking to groups on the importance of making the most of second chances.
Last month, Arroyo was invited to speak to students attending the National Registry Paramedic Recertification Course at Army Medical Department Center and School here and he immediately thought of Blanchard. “We can make a difference for these Soldiers,” he told her. She reluctantly agreed.
The experience was incredibly healing, she said. “I realized that day that I can do something. I can share my story and the warning signs of workplace violence so what happened to me won’t happen to someone else.”
Blanchard has continued her quest to combat workplace violence. She’s a key member of the newly formed Regional Health Command-Central Workplace Violence Working Group, which is taking swift action to add more security to military healthcare facilities, drafting a workplace violence guide, and working to institute violence prevention education and training for supervisors and employees.
“My anger has turned to passion,” she said. “I want to figure out how we can make the system better. I’m hoping Capt. Arroyo and I have future opportunities to speak to service members and civilians.”
Anyone can make a tremendous impact, whether in a combat zone or back home, Arroyo added. “We can help service members understand their skills are needed now,” he said. “There’s a perception that these skills are only needed overseas, but Lt. Blanchard and I are living proof that’s not the case. We must be vigilant and ready at all times and not grow complacent.”
A year ago, Arroyo had entered Blanchard’s hospital room and told her not to give up hope. He predicted the young lieutenant would have a bright future; one she now believes is possible.
As Blanchard talked with Arroyo about the officers’ aspirations to speak to and inspire service members around the world, he smiled.
“This is what tomorrow looks like,” he said.
(Note: This is the first in a two-part series on the prevention of workplace violence.)