JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —
Army Capt. Katie Ann Blanchard ran into trouble with her civilian employee from the start. He was combative, defiant and at times, explosive.
“I kept telling myself it will get better,” the Army nurse said.
Instead, it got worse. Clifford Currie grew erratic and aggressive to the point where Blanchard feared for her life. Today, she bears the scars of his final violent act, when he doused her with gasoline and lit her face on fire while standing by her desk at work.
Blanchard is just one of the more than 2 million victims of workplace violence reported each year, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration website.
The Department of Defense defines workplace violence as “any act of physical violence, threats of physical violence, harassment, intimidation, bullying, verbal or non-verbal threat, or other threatening disruptive behavior that occurs at or outside the work site.”
A downward spiral
Blanchard never expected her life would so quickly derail after becoming a first-time supervisor of 15 military and civilian employees at Munson Army Health Center in Kansas.
After identifying issues, she encouraged Currie to improve his work performance to ensure the best care of his customers. However, in time, the young lieutenant became alarmed by Currie’s defiance of authority and lack of willingness to improve on the job.
“One day he lost his temper, cornered me and started shouting,” she said. “I was fortunate I was able to call for help.”
Blanchard consulted with civilian personnel and her leadership and started keeping copious notes and records about Currie’s behavior. She placed him on a performance improvement plan but the situation continued to worsen.
“He was blowing up twice a day or not coming into work,” she said.
Various events in the workplace can trigger workplace violence including “anger over disciplinary actions, loss of a job, or disagreement with policy or practices,” according to the newly released Regional Health Command-Central Workplace Violence Guide.
Warning signs of potential workplace violence can include aggressive behavior, conflicts with co-workers or supervisors, statements showing fascination with workplace violence incidents, statements indicating desperation over finances or family issues to the point of suicide, direct or veiled threats of harm, substance abuse, and extreme changes in normal behavior. It can be difficult to determine whether or not a situation will escalate; however, it’s better to “err on the side of safety,” the guide notes.
If there’s any suspicion a situation will escalate, people should notify the employee’s supervisor or other leader as soon as possible, the guide advises. Supervisors should take these concerns seriously and consult with experts, to include the threat assessment team and the human resources department.
“One common thread exists in preventing workplace violence: strong leadership,” the guide notes.
“Supervisors play a key role in recognizing potentially violent situations and taking proactive measures to reduce the negative impact of such incidents.”
Best course is prevention
Overall, the best method to end workplace violence is early prevention. To start, agencies should implement a “sound” prevention plan, the guide recommends.
This should include required training for employees and supervisors on the signs of and reporting methods for workplace violence, the role of the multidisciplinary threat assessment team and resources such as Alternative Dispute Resolution and the Employee Assistance Program.
While she’d seen and reported the warning signs for months, Blanchard didn’t have time to react the afternoon Currie approached her at work. She had just texted her husband that she was heading home for family time with her three young sons when he walked into her office.
She saw the plastic bottle filled with a brownish-tinged liquid in his hand and felt a sudden rush of fear. As she stood up to run, he threw the liquid in her face and tossed two lit matches at her. All she saw was flames. “I thought I was going to die,” Blanchard said.
Currie continued his attack, stabbing at her with scissors, until Blanchard’s colleagues were able to subdue him.
Road to recovery
A year later, Blanchard continues to recover, cherishing her time with her family. She has become an advocate for workplace violence prevention, especially the need for education and awareness among supervisors. She’s a key member of the newly formed RHC-C Workplace Violence Working Group, which is taking swift action within the region to add more security to military healthcare facilities and working to institute workplace violence prevention education for supervisors and employees.
Blanchard shares her message every chance she gets alongside fellow victim Army Capt. John Arroyo.
A fellow survivor
Arroyo was blindsided by a workplace incident in 2014 at Fort Hood, Texas. The Green Beret, who weathered three deployments unscathed, had just stepped out of his car at brigade headquarters when Army Spc. Ivan Lopez pulled up and shot Arroyo in the neck from about 15 yards away.
Driven by thoughts of his family, Arroyo held his neck to staunch the bleeding, pulled himself to his feet and began searching for help. At that moment, Lopez walked right by Arroyo without seeing him, an act the Green Beret credits to God.
Lopez killed three people and wounded 15 others that day before turning the gun on himself.
Arroyo was told he’d never speak again, but he overcame the odds and today uses his voice to encourage others who are dealing with adversity and the aftermath of violence.
While he is healing physically, Arroyo said the tougher part was the emotional healing, which is tied to his faith and ability to forgive.
“I love the man who shot me and I love his family,” he said. “People are surprised to hear that but I mean it. God picked me up off the ground that day and restored my life for a reason.
“Both Katie and I plan to use our second chances for good.”
A message of hope
Earlier this month, Blanchard’s attacker was sentenced to 20 years in prison without chance of parole. But this news did not signal an end to Blanchard’s journey. She and Arroyo hope to team up to share their stories and message of hope across the military and civilian sectors.
“If I can help prevent even one workplace violence incident from happening,” she said, “then my pain will have been worth it.”
(Note: This is the second in a two-part series on the prevention of workplace violence.)