Opinion: Lewiston killings show the war zone we have at home

Editor’s Note: Danielle Campoamor is freelance writer and reporter, formerly of TODAY and NBC. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

On the morning of May 24, 2022, my then-editors at TODAY.com were ready to send me to Ukraine to cover Russia’s unprovoked war. I had done everything necessary to prepare: I completed a three-day hostile environment training; purchased tourniquets and other battlefield medical equipment to carry on my person at all times; facilitated difficult conversations with my then-partner, about the worst case scenario and how he would discuss the unthinkable with our two young sons.

Danielle Campoamor - Ashley Batz
Danielle Campoamor - Ashley Batz

Then, I received a phone call as news alerts flooded my phone, email and Slack: A reported 19 children and two teachers were shot and killed inside two fourth-grade classrooms at Robb Elementary School In Uvalde, Texas.

I would not be traveling to Ukraine, my senior editor told me. Instead, I had a one-way ticket to Texas, where the newer and more immediate story was breaking. There was no need to travel halfway around the world to cover the devastating impact of weapons of war when that impact was being felt at home by children nearly the same age as my firstborn son.

On Thursday it happened again.

While on a 10-hour flight to Israel to cover the ongoing Israel-Hamas war as an independent journalist, I received notifications of a mass shooting in Maine. As I was planning on-the-ground coverage — including face-to-face interviews with grieving family members whose loved ones were either killed or kidnapped by Hamas, and while collecting voice memos from innocent civilians trapped in Gaza — I read the initial reports with a very familiar feeling of dread: Multiple people killed. More than a dozen others injured. The shooter still at large. An entire community paralyzed by fear, sheltering-in-place, and waiting for the sun to rise and the nightmare that is gun violence to be over.

I was traveling across the globe to cover a devastating war that has left thousands reported dead, many of them children — and all the while the devastation of yet another mass shooting was being felt at home.

It’s not hyperbolic to say that unfettered access to weapons of war have turned this nation’s schools, parades, churches and synagogues, nightclubs, health care clinics, movie theaters, malls, grocery stores, outdoor concerts and bowling alleys into potential slaughterhouses. Guns are now the leading cause of death among children living in the United States, surpassing car crashes, overdoses and Covid-19, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2023, it took the country just about two months to surpass 100 mass shootings nationwide. In 2022, the US surpassed 100 mass shootings by March 19. In 2021, by the end of March.

In other words, it’s getting worse.

In Texas, students in the seventh grade and higher are offered “battlefield trauma care,” including how to apply tourniquets and chest steals. Earlier this year, policymakers in the state introduced legislation that would expand these mandated offerings to children as young as the third grade.

In Uvalde, the medics who were finally able to breach the classrooms and tend to the children who survived the massacre described a scene with “so much blood.” Law enforcement personnel were seen on body cameras sobbing and vomiting after witnessing the carnage firsthand, all carried out by an 18-year-old armed with an assault rifle.

Now, in Maine, we’re watching it all unfold again.

And like war-time soldiers, those who either lost a loved one to gun violence, survived a mass shooting or witnessed one firsthand are suffering negative mental health outcomes, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

And like soldiers who return from war, they are often not able to obtain adequate, sustainable mental health care.

Ashbey Beasley — who, on July 4, 2022, ran for her life alongside her 6-year-old son as a man with an AR-15 style weapon opened fire on a parade in Highland Park, Illinois, killing seven and injuring dozens of others — told me on Thursday that in the last year she has learned “how critical mental health care and community resources are to mass shooting survivors.”

“Some people will not be able to work. Some people don’t have health insurance or paid time off to take care of themselves,” she continued. “Expanding the conversation to include every person who was present at these mass shooting events means they will be counted in the total number of people who need resources. And they will need it.” Over 30 people were killed or injured in Lewiston, Maine. The town has a population of about 38,000. The entire state has only one Level 1 Trauma Hospital. Everyone — witnesses, loved ones, family members, first responders, health care workers and community members — are impacted.

In the era of a 24-hour news cycle covering two international conflicts, an unprecedented rolling back of constitutional and human rights, the ramifications of an unparalleled global pandemic, an opioid epidemic and the scourge of gun violence, it’s not a stretch to say that as human beings we have always carried with us the capacity to experience or bear witness to multiple horrors simultaneously.

So, to be clear: What has happened in Maine — like what happened in Uvalde, Highland Park, Sandy Hook, Buffalo, Las Vegas, Pulse, Parkland, San Jose, Columbine, Aurora, and more — does not negate what is happening in Israel, Gaza, Ukraine and beyond. And visa versa. One horrific act does not mean another should be ignored. Violence is violence. Lives stolen are forever lost, erasing bright futures and leaving communities destroyed and generations forever scarred.

But as a journalist who has covered both bloody conflicts waged overseas and countless acts of gun violence here at home, it is not lost on me that the horror of war is not some foreign concept that requires long flights, battlefield medical equipment and flak jackets with the word “PRESS” to adequately cover. Instead, those horrors are an American reality, experienced in quiet towns, local supermarkets and children’s classrooms.

Now in Israel, I keep thinking about what Uvalde dad Brett Cross, who lost his son, Uzi, in the Robb Elementary School shooting, told me as he heard about the shooting in Maine:

“I know you’re headed into a war zone,” he messaged. “But I’m here — we’re all here —  in a war zone, too. A war zone that is brought about by lax gun laws and failure by our politicians. A war zone that is uniquely American.”

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