Warnings Unheeded: Lessons from a Man Who Killed an Active Shooter

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Last week, former Air Force Security Policeman Andy Brown released his book Warnings Unheeded. Brown’s book is an account of his response to the 1994 Fairchild Air Force Base mass shooting, and the story of a B-52 crash at the same base just days later. If you’re a soldier, police officer or armed citizen you should know Brown’s story already; he killed an active shooter with four rounds from a pistol, at what many shooters would consider an impossible range. While many books have been written about mass shootings, I’m not aware of any written by a person who stopped one. That alone makes it worth reading, but Brown’s book is far more than just a memoir of his own actions.

Warnings Unheeded is an extraordinary look into three fascinating stories. The first is about how Airman Dean Mellberg managed to get into the Air Force despite his glaring mental health issues, why the Air Force retained him over the objections of pretty much everyone who interacted with him, and what ultimately happened when all the ignored danger signs came to fruition. The second is about the Air Force’s complete failure to rein in a dangerous and uncontrollable pilot who rammed himself, three others, and a B-52 into the ground in a crash which surprised no one. The third (and to a cop like me, the most interesting) is a detailed account of Mellberg’s assault on Fairchild Air Force Base’s hospital, Andy Brown’s response, and the four shots that ended a massacre.

Most of the book is devoted to Dean Mellberg’s agonizing path from disturbed and perverted teenager to awkward Air Force recruit to failed Airman to deranged mass shooter. What struck me about Brown’s incredibly detailed recounting of Mellberg’s short life was how painful it must have been for Brown to fully humanize the man he killed. While I’ve never shot anyone as a cop, I know many officers who have; every last one seems to view the person they shot as nothing more than an imminent threat that needed to be addressed. Brown, on the other hand, studied Mellberg’s family, his fruitless struggles to be accepted and loved, his many flaws and failures, his mental health diagnoses, and his tortured life’s final collapse. While Brown was completely justified in killing Mellberg that day – if anyone ever needed to be shot repeatedly, it was Dean Mellberg – I still suspect it wasn’t easy to change his perception of Mellberg from “imminent threat/difficult target” to “pitiful and dangerous, but still human.” I know it wouldn’t be easy for me.

Dean Mellberg in 1992

The second story, about the B-52 crash (which you’ve probably seen footage of), was initially hard for me to get into. I saw the crash as coincidental but completely unrelated, and felt it was a distraction from the real story about Brown and Mellberg’s confrontation. But as I got further into the B-52 story I found myself enthralled with it, and eventually understood it is related to the mass shooting. Both tragedies were the end result of a chain of leadership failures, and both could be seen coming light years ahead. As I got deeper into the B-52 crash story, knowing full well what was coming, I kept asking, Why did the Air Force let this guy keep flying? The man who crashed the B-52 had been warned, reprimanded, reported to commanders, and once missed a ridge by only 15 feet while showing off for a reporter. Many others refused to fly with him. Yet there he was four days after the mass shooting, showing off once again, pushing an aged bomber so hard it went straight into the dirt. Maybe that story grabbed me because I’m an amateur aviation nerd, but whatever the reason, I found it fascinating.

But the most important part of the book is Brown’s account of what he heard, saw, and did that day in 1994.

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Police training in the civilian world was, shall we say, “lacking” back in 1994. But even considering how bad civilian police training could be, the military seemed to be about twenty years behind that. And bad training gets people killed. So in 1994, if you’d asked me how I’d expect an Air Force Security Policeman with a pistol to fare against a murderous lunatic with an AK, I’d have answered, “The zoomie’s gonna die.”

Zoomie Andy Brown didn’t die.

Brown had realized his training wasn’t good enough. So he sought additional training on his own, bought a pistol similar to his issued weapon to practice with off-duty, mentally rehearsed responses to various threats, and committed himself to decisive action long before Dean Mellberg walked into the Fairchild AFB hospital with a rifle. When Brown heard the “shots fired” call on the radio he pedaled over as fast as he could, followed the screams, confronted Mellberg, and calmly returned fire while being shot at.

Brown fired only four shots. Two were hits, and one was almost right between the eyes. With an M9 pistol. From seventy yards away. I used to help train officers how to respond to active shooters, and Brown’s response was near perfect.

And that leads to another fascinating aspect of this story: Brown didn’t understand how well he had done. For well over a decade, he thought he had taken way too long to arrive at the hospital, then took too long to fire, then took too long to make a lethal hit. He experienced unwarranted guilt over actions he thought weren’t good enough. Nobody in the Air Force talked him through it, nobody made sure he understood he had done far better than anyone could have expected, nobody stopped him from breaking ties with his Fairchild support system and moving to another base. When the unreasonable guilt pushed him to seek psychological help, the Air Force’s reaction was to relieve him of duty and take his weapon (three times). He eventually got out of the Air Force and moved on with his life, but kept berating himself about what he thought was his inadequate response to the Fairchild shooting.

In 1995 Brown sent a Freedom of Information Act request for the radio transmissions from that morning. The Air Force put it off for fourteen years, allegedly, Brown says, “because they didn’t have a way to transfer a reel-to-reel recording to a cassette tape.” When someone finally discovered a cassette recording, duplicated it and sent it to Brown, he found out just how long it took from the first report of the shooting until he called in “shooter down.”

Two minutes. Brown rode to the scene, found the shooter, took aim, and killed him within two minutes. As far as I can tell, as soon as Brown arrived at the hospital, innocent people stopped dying.

Fairchild AFB hospital, site of the 1994 massacre

Brown’s book holds countless lessons learned about leadership, training, human nature, and even civilian response to mass shootings (one of the most frustrating things in the book is the mention of a civilian who Mellberg brushed with his rifle before he started shooting; the man backed off instead of tackling and disarming him). Warnings Unheeded should be required reading for academy instructors, police and military psychologists, and every armed citizen who’s serious about self-defense.

You can find Andy Brown’s book at his website here or on Amazon here.

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Chris Hernandez

Chris Hernandez may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LITE writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley, Proof of Our Resolve and Safe From the War. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog.


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7 thoughts on “Warnings Unheeded: Lessons from a Man Who Killed an Active Shooter

  • November 13, 2016 at 8:16 pm
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    70 yards? From pistol? In conditions return fire from an AK?

    At the man of steel balls and excellent weapons training.

    Reply
  • November 13, 2016 at 5:49 pm
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    As a retired Security Police/Force member I know first hand of the LACK of training and then LACK of any support system for Security Police/Force members after shooter/combat encounters. I was involved with a shooter and then a couple of months later a murder on base back in the early 1980s at Homestead AFB. After that I was first on scene to numerous suicides, fatal traffic accidents and saw combat in overseas. NOT one time did I receive any after incident counseling or anything in the way of “helping me deal” with what I did, saw or what was done to me. I have my demons and I have learned to live with them but the Air Force hasn’t a clue when it comes to assisting First Responders after incidents.

    Reply
  • November 13, 2016 at 4:12 pm
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    I had my own memories of dean mellburg while he was stationed at Lowry afb in Colorado while he was in tech school. He should have been discharged there but wasn’t. I was stationed at the NAVCONBRIG at Charleston naval weapons station when I heard about the shooting. For years, even up till today, I wonder what else I could have done to prevent this. This book by Andy, I could not put it down. I don’t read books, but had to read this one.

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    • November 14, 2016 at 9:22 am
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      Thank you Ben, I hope after reading the book, you realize that you did all you could do at the time. Countless people sounded the alarm, but those who needed to hear it weren’t listening. I hope this book will help people learn to pay attention.

      Reply
  • November 13, 2016 at 12:42 pm
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    Andy Brown is one of the heroes I talk about in the article I did on solo response to the active shooter. Back then solo response was VERY controversial in the cop world. Andy was one of the guys proving that it was the right thing to do most of the time.

    For anyone that cares; http://www.thetacticalwire.com/feature.html?featureID=3593

    What Andy Brown managed to do was what Jeff Cooper would have called a “feat of arms”. And rightfully so. He made sure when he had to stand and deliver he was able to, and to dominate the fight in style.

    It’s the type of thing Churchill famously spoke of;

    “To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.

    Sir Winston Churchill

    Well done Andy, very well done.

    Reply
  • November 13, 2016 at 11:40 am
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    Got it on the reading list now. Thanks, Chris.

    Reply

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