"I just tried to be there,” Ron Link said as he recounted his first call from dispatch. “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do but it turns out I was doing what I was supposed to,"
Link became a chaplain for the Dawson County Sheriff's Office three years ago, and vividly remembers his first call to a scene: a devastating house fire.
Dr. Charles Blackstock, the lead chaplain who has served in the role for 10 years, was in Atlanta, leaving Link with the responsibility of responding to the call alone.
"I had no formal sheriff’s office training. I just went out there to try to be a help," Link said. "It was kind of overwhelming. It was a really bad scene."
It was a house fire, and someone’s significant other was inside. All Link could do was stand outside with the husband, comforting him as authorities conducted their investigation.
"I didn’t know what the procedures and processes were. I didn’t know who to talk to. All I knew was there was somebody there that was in real, emotional crisis and so I went over and stayed with him until his family arrived," Link said.
It was his first taste of what his new role as a chaplain entailed.
For Blackstock, a pastor at Lighthouse Baptist Church, stepping into the role was a little bit easier. With his ministerial background, he was rather comfortable with providing faith-based support to the sheriff's office staff and the community.
After speaking at a Sept. 11 memorial service 10 years ago, he was asked if he would be interested in being part of the chaplaincy program.
In 2016, Link was asked to join the program to help spread the reach of the chaplaincy.
Each year they receive 40 hours of training from the Georgia Sheriffs' Association to maintain their certification, which they said reinvigorates and motivates them to keep answering the calls from dispatch.
As chaplains, Blackstock and Link voluntarily assist the sheriff's office by delivering death notices, consoling emotional victims at crime scenes and emergencies and supporting the sheriff's office staff through counseling and helping officers cope with traumatic events.
How they go about providing assistance from scene to scene varies with every call.
"You never know what you’re going to get called on to do," Blackstock said.
Blackstock thought back to a call he received a few years ago. A plane had crashed in the middle of the night and he was called to respond to the scene with emergency services personnel. They walked until they found the plane, and carried the body back down.
"It’s not something you look forward to when the phone rings in the middle of the night," Link said about knowing he will be responding to someone’s tragedy. ”We’ve never been called out on anything other than somebody’s worst day ever. It’s always a tragedy, a death, an accident, an injury, somebody’s missing and people are distraught. It’s the worst day of their lives.”
In some cases, the men are called out to comfort grieving family members and to shield them from the gruesome scene. Other times they are there to help retrieve witness statements.
"I remember one of my first calls that I went to, probably 2009, was a lady - her husband committed suicide and when I got there the deputies needed a statement from her. She was the only one in the home when it happened, so they needed a statement from her, but it took nearly three hours to get her to where she could give a statement,” Blackstock said
He sat with the woman on the side of the road at the curbside for hours, helping her process her emotions so that she could provide a statement. The entire scene was shut down during that time.
Link remembered a similar situation in which he responded to a fatality. An older man had died in his home and was found by his wife. After EMS and the deputies left, Link remained on the scene making sure the woman was okay.
“I sat there with this little old lady who had the flu for an hour and a half just waiting until her family members got up there so she wouldn’t be alone in this house where her love had just been carried away,” Link said.
For the community, the chaplains provide emotional support, helping to console and answer questions during crises. While on the scene, Link said sometimes it feels as though he hasn’t done much to directly help the deputies.
Link said that once while responding to a death investigation, numerous people began showing up to the home, and Link was tasked with settling the emotional crowd down to allow the investigators to do their work.
“After it was over… the investigator, she thanked me for my help and I said ‘I didn’t do anything’ and she said ‘Oh yes you did. You helped keep those people calm and that’s a huge thing,’” Link said.
Though it might feel like they haven’t done much work by consoling distraught individuals, the chaplains relieve deputies of the responsibility of dealing with someone in an emotional crisis, which is invaluable to the officers who see tragic events day in and day out.
When they aren’t assisting on the scene, the chaplains can be found visiting the sheriff’s office, meeting with staff and offering their assistance and friendship.
Ministering to the deputies is Blackstock and Link’s number one priority. When it’s time to don the chaplain badge, they leave their pastoral roles at the door and “minister by presence,” providing support for officers simply by being there.
“They spend most of their time, all their time on duty, in a defense mode and trying to be keenly aware of anything that would enter their world and trying to keep anything bad out,” Blackstock said. “They can’t be out of control so it’s really hard for them to kind of let their guard down and talk to somebody.”
The chaplains help to break into that closed brotherhood by lending their ears and allowing officers to confide in them so that they can process the traumatic events they have experienced.
For Link, he’s found it easy to relate to the deputies.
“I spent 20 years in the army jumping out of airplanes, blowing stuff up and fighting bad guys,” Link said.
The Desert Storm veteran spent 20 years as an Army Ranger and received similar training to law enforcement during his military career.
“I’ve seen a lot of terrible things. I’ve seen people’s worst days and dealt with my soldiers and the things that we had to experience,” Link said. “That brings that perspective that I had and the way I deal with and process real horrific scenes… this is something that happened. I can’t change the outcome of it. It’s a terrible thing. Let me help these folks get through it and try to see things in a way that’s not so soul crushing.”
It’s not always easy, but without hesitation the chaplains said they would continue to serve the sheriff’s office staff and the community in any way they can.
“I think it’s our blessing to be able to serve our community this way,” Blackstock said. “I tell other pastors one of the best things I ever did was get involved with chaplaincy because I feel like as a church sometimes people might think you’re limited to your congregation… but as a chaplain I do feel like that I’m serving our county at large.”