CHICAGO (AP) — Pardeep Singh Kaleka has surveyed the landscape of an America scarred by mass shootings.

Seven years ago, a white supremacist invaded a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and killed six worshippers — among them Kaleka's father, who died clutching a butter knife he'd grabbed in a desperate attempt to stop the shooter. Now, whenever another gunman bloodies another town, Kaleka posts a supportive message on social media. Then later, either by invitation or on his own initiative, he'll journey to the community to shore up others who share his pain.

He's been to Newtown, Connecticut. Charleston, South Carolina. Pittsburgh. "We've become kind of a family," Kaleka said.

It's true. The unending litany of mass shootings in recent years — the latest, on Friday, leaving 12 dead in Virginia Beach, Virginia — has built an unacknowledged community of heartbreak, touching and warping the lives of untold thousands.

All the survivors, none of them unscathed. The loved ones of the living and dead. Their neighbors, relatives and colleagues. The first responders, the health care workers, the elected officials.

The attacks have changed how America talks, prays and prepares for trouble. Today, the phrases "active shooter" and "shelter in place" need no explanation. A house of worship will have a priest, a rabbi or an imam — and maybe an armed guard. And more schools are holding "lockdown drills" to prepare students for the possibility of a shooter.

Post-traumatic stress disorder was once largely associated with combat-weary veterans; now some police and firefighters tormented by the memories of the carnage they've witnessed are seeking professional help. Healing centers have opened to offer survivors therapy and a place to gather. Support groups of survivors of mass shootings have formed.

Mayors, doctors, police and other leaders who've endured these crises are paying it forward — offering comfort, mentoring and guidance to the next town that has to wrestle with the nightmare.

Former Oak Creek Mayor Stephen Scaffidi, who'd been on the job just four months at the time of the 2012 Sikh temple attack, remembers a call that night from the mayor of Aurora, Colorado, where 12 people had been fatally shot at a movie theater less than three weeks earlier.

"He gave me the best advice I could ever receive in that moment: 'Be calm. Reassure your community. And only speak to what you know. Don't speculate, don't pretend to be an expert on something that you're not,' " Scaffidi recalled.

Last year, two days after the fatal shooting of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Christine Hunschofsky, mayor of Parkland, Florida, met the mother of a 6-year-old killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School who offered a road map into the future.

"She forewarned me of many of the things that we would encounter," Hunschofsky recalled. "She said at first it will seem like everyone comes together. Then it seems like a tsunami that hits the community. People become very divided. This is all normal after a mass trauma."

Three months later, it was Hunschofsky's turn. She sent a message to the incoming mayor of Santa Fe, Texas, where a school shooting left 10 dead. "She told me this is not going to be the hardest day and harder days are coming," recalled Mayor Jason Tabor. " 'Prepare for that.' She was 100% right."

The two mayors have since become fast friends and Hunschofsky visited Santa Fe. "We're bonded for life," Tabor said.

Mass shootings account for a tiny percentage of homicides, but their scale sets them apart. In 1999, the Columbine shooting shocked the nation with its unforgettable images of teens running from the school with their hands up — scenes repeated in other similar attacks years later. Today, the public sees and hears about these events as they unfold, through live-streamed video or tweets.

Each tragedy is horrifying, but the sense of it-can't happen-here has worn off.

"We're a desensitized society," said Jaclyn Schildkraut, a criminologist at the State University of New York at Oswego.

"There is an element of mass shooting fatigue where we've gone from ONE MORE," she said, her voice rising with exasperation, "to add another one to the list. Everybody immediately goes for the gun argument ... and maybe throw a little mental health in there, but we really don't have a consistent, prolonged conversation about these events and how to prevent them."

Studies have offered some hints of their emotional wallop. The National Center for PTSD estimates that 28% of people who have witnessed a mass shooting develop post-traumatic stress disorder and about a third develop acute stress disorder.

Laura Wilson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia, conducted a meta-analysis — an examination of data from 11 studies of PTSD symptoms among more than 8,000 participants who ranged from those who had witnessed shootings to those who just lived in the communities in a 20-year period. She found that the greater the exposure — someone who was at the scene or who lost a friend or family — the greatest risk of developing PTSD. But, in her work, Wilson has found that other factors, including previous psychological symptoms and a lack of social support, also played a role in increasing the likelihood.

"Mass shootings are a different type of trauma," Wilson said. "People are confronted with the idea that bad things can happen to good people. ... Most people have a hard time reconciling the idea that a young, innocent person made the good decision to go to school, was sitting there, learning and was murdered. That does not make sense to us. ... It just rattles us to our core."

Andyet, some people don't fully appreciate the lasting psychological wounds of those who escaped physical harm.

A study conducted by a University of Nevada-Las Vegas professor after the 2017 Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting that left 58 people dead found that PTSD levels for those at the concert remained elevated at least a year later. Most of these people had a friend, family member or co-worker asking — as early as 1½ months after the event — why they were still troubled.

"Almost everyone had someone say, 'Get over it. Why are you letting this bother you?' " said Stephen Benning, a psychology professor who conducted the research. Those kinds of remarks were associated with increased levels of PTSD, which lasted longer than depression.

April Foreman, a psychologist and board member of the American Association of Suicidology, likens exposure to mass shootings to a flu epidemic that affects the entire community in different ways.

"When we have these mass casualty events, it's like an outbreak of a virus," she said. "Some people might be immune or not susceptible to that strain. Some people are going to get a little sick, some people are going to be very sick. Some people might have compromised immune systems and if they're exposed they have a very high risk for life-threatening illness. Suicide is ... the extreme outcome."

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.