ADAA Chaplain Walt Merrell reflects on a year of tragedies and helping prosecutors cope with the stress of their job.
When fellow District Attorney Greg Griggers was injured in an ambush shooting outside his Demopolis office in November 2018, Walt Merrell knew it was time. Before the shooting, Merrell, the district attorney for Covington County, had felt a calling to use his faith and his experience assisting people dealing with personal struggles, to help prosecutors cope with the trauma and heartbreak they regularly encounter as part of their job.
The means to doing that was the creation of the position of chaplain for the Alabama District Attorneys Association.
“It was something that was on my mind. I felt that it’s something the association needed,” Merrell said, though he was hesitant at first to ask to be appointed chaplain. “When Greg got shot, I was interested in reaching out to him. One of the things that came out of it is we have a much stronger relationship. I am grateful for that.”
Less than a month after the shooting, the ADAA created the position of chaplain and appointed Merrell.
“I saw that too many of my peers, friends and casual acquaintances were drowning in the turmoil of doing their job,” Merrell said. Prosecutors on a regular basis must confront heinous crimes, acts of cruelty and grieving families.
“The things you see as a prosecutor, you can’t un-see. The way you recover from that is through hope. My job is to comfort and offer encouragement, and to suggest to them there is hope out there.”
The past year has been an especially difficult one for the ADAA family. In November, Sloan Harmon, the 20-year-old son of St. Clair County District Attorney Lyle Harmon, was shot and killed while driving in St. Clair County. And over the course of the year, six law enforcement officers, including longtime and well-loved Lowndes County Sheriff John Williams, were killed in the line of duty.
In addition, the high-profile abductions and murders of a 3-year-old girl in Birmingham and a 19-year-old female college student in Auburn shook both the public and those in law enforcement involved in the desperate searches after they went missing. The emotional toll from dealing with such tragic cases is akin to post-traumatic stress disorder, Merrell said.
“Prosecutors and police officers face a secondhand trauma on a daily basis,” he said. “Many suffer PTSD from reliving the tragedies through the victims.
“Prosecutors have to have a very rigid exoskeleton to be immune from personal attacks and attacks from defense attorneys when we are just doing our job. But that exoskeleton doesn’t make us immune to the pain and suffering we see from the victims. It’s just a shell. We are still people inside. What I hope happens (through my position as chaplain) is a mechanism of support for those who are worn out or need help coping, without them having to worry about the stigma of going to counseling.”
Merrell has served as district attorney for Covington County since 2011. Before that, he worked four years as an assistant district attorney, preceded by six years in private practice as a criminal defense and plaintiff lawyer.
Outside of his work in the courtroom, Merrell puts in action his faith as a devout Christian as well as his desire to help others. He regularly speaks to schoolchildren and community and religious groups about the importance of making good decisions, staying out of trouble and avoiding the dangers of alcohol and drugs.
Fifteen years ago, Merrell helped found an addiction recovery program to provide resources to people trying to straighten out their lives. Crossover Ministry grew into a residential addiction recovery program six years ago with a facility in Opp and has served more than 1,000 people.
“The single biggest threat to the stability of our nation and to the structure of our society is addiction,” Merrell said. “Ninety to ninety-five percent of crimes are drug related or drug motivated. From that standpoint, you have to fix the problem. I tell people our job is not to prosecute, it’s to fix the problem.”
When he and six other men came together to create Crossover Ministry, there was a severe scarcity of resources in Covington County to treat those with substance abuse problems, Merrell said. Now, the residential program can accommodate up to 36 people – both men and women – at a time. Participants graduate after six months. All funding comes from donations, he said.
“We want them to successfully live sober,” Merrell said. “A guy came back after going through treatment and said, ‘You saved my life.’ He wanted to start a drug treatment program in Covington County.”
Barry Matson, executive director of the ADAA, said the DAs appreciate having Merrell available to talk with. Matson is usually the first to get the call when tragedy hits or a DA needs help.
“Having Walt is a real resource,” Matson said. “I make it a point to be there personally when one of the DAs needs help or a family needs comforting. But having someone else available, especially someone they know well and who demonstrates such a strong faith, is a big plus for the association. I am proud of the work Walt does.”
Merrell was first appointed ADAA chaplain last year by former association President Tom Anderson of Enterprise. The current president, Jill Lee of Shelby County, gladly kept him in the post this year.
“Walt is a no-nonsense guy, but he has a love for God and a passion for people,” Lee said. “It shows in his willingness to reach out to other DAs who might be going through some things. It also shows in the work he’s doing in his community. We are very fortunate to have him.”
Joe Borg, director of the Alabama Securities Commission and an ADAA affiliate member, said it’s important for the association to have a chaplain, and he believes Merrell is a great fit for the job.
“Walt has a deep conviction for the law. He has a deep conviction for his faith. He has a deep conviction for the truth,” Borg said. “A prosecutor’s job is to serve and protect the citizens of his jurisdiction. When you have someone with deep convictions, it’s a system that brings true justice.”
Larry Smith is a retired chief investigator for the Madison County DA’s office and has been an ADAA member since 1972.“I was really pleased they created the position of chaplain,” Smith said. “We have things to celebrate, and we have things to grieve. Having established that position, DAs now have someone with their background to celebrate with and to grieve with. Walt is a spiritual man who knows how to reach out and connect with other people.”
Merrell said being a district attorney does make it easier identifying with the emotional and spiritual strains that other DAs face.
“There’s a certain comradery that exists. We kind of think only other prosecutors can understand what we go through,” he said. “The typical prosecutor is guided by two things: enforcement of the law and doing what we know to be right. The prosecutor who is working hardest to protect society is wearing himself or herself out. That’s why we need a chaplain.”
Opinion | State Sen. Will Barfoot should be highly commended
State Senator Will Barfoot should be highly commended, for sponsoring Senate Bill 105, in which military families, require school districts, operating magnet schools, to accept enrollment applications, for military children, where families have received transfer orders, to Alabama military installations.
Additionally, Sen. Barfoot (R) Pike Road is sponsoring Senate Bill 106, called the School Choice and Student Opportunity Act, formation of charter schools, on or near military installations, with focus on serving military dependents, authorized. Tenure for certificated teachers temporarily serving in charter schools are preserved.
Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, recently correctly stated that his goal is to “make Alabama the most military-friendly state, in the country.”
Over one year ago, former President and Commander of Air University, Lt. Gen. Anthony Cotton, advised the public, that 56 percent of students attending the Air War College, were not bringing their families; due to a poorly performing local school system, that was under intervention, and take over status. Mandatory, federal laws, state that adequate, and sufficient education must be provided, to kids of military families, by the Local Education Agency, which is, the Montgomery Public School System.
Gov. Kay Ivey drafted, an outstanding tentative education initiative package, of ideas, by reaching out to Lt. Gen. Cotton, to ask the families at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, to provide their list of wanted items. The Governor’s directives to her staff, were very clear; provide the families at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, with everything, they put, on their list.
The governor also ensured, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford were notified. Emergency education funding was requested. Additionally, the acting Secretary of the Air Force Matthew Donovan, and the Chief of Staff Air Force Gen. David Goldfein were contacted.
Through Gov. Ivey reaching out to Lt. Gen. Cotton, the education committees were formed; with successful results. Currently, the military children at Maxwell-Gunter, are attending schools out of district, in counties such as Elmore, Autauga, and Pike Road City Schools, regardless if they live on base, or off base. Families living at the family camp; within recreational vehicles, may enroll their kids, in the on-base school. Faculty, professors and instructor kids, may enroll out of district.
It is critical that SB-105, and SB 106 pass, successfully, through the House and Senate. Additionally, Gov. Ivey, Lt. Gov Ainsworth and Sen. Barfoot, are exactly right; on their current direction, and their proper and correct road, being travelled, due to the following reasons.
Today, the Montgomery Public School system, is still under intervention, and this education system, is not moving forward. Other military bases in Alabama, are facing similar situations, in which the Local Education Agencies, are not providing, adequate and sufficient education, outside the military base gates.
The on-base Maxwell-Gunter Elementary and Middle School, and its principal Mr. Paul Hernandez, have been deemed, Top-Notch School, and Top Principal, over recent years according to the Department of Defense Education Activity Americas.
I taught at Maxwell-Gunter, for two years, and I never had to send, one student to the office. The Parent Teacher Association at Maxwell-Gunter, is the best on the planet. I thought the parents were teachers. They are in the schools, from sun up, to sun down, helping to mold, and shape our next generation of airmen, wingmen, astronauts, scientists, doctors and future Air Force Academy cadets.
Many military parents, in private, are very concerned, their kids have the options, and opportunities to attend the very best schools, not the worst schools. Parents do not want their kids in unsafe environments, nor in class rooms, where the students are cursing at the teachers daily.
Over the years our Air Force Secretaries, Colonels and Generals, have spoiled us, by providing, the best of everything. Education is taken very seriously, within our military services. Our Air Force, and our Space Force, can’t remain number one, throughout the world, without the best education, top training, most effective hardware, and fastest software systems.
At this juncture, the only adequate, safe and sufficient schools, that I see in Montgomery, are a few of the magnet schools, private schools, or home schooling. A new Military Magnet school on the military base, or near the base, would be awesome.
I would also highly suggest, that the appropriate standards, of the Military Magnet schools, be set at the same high standards, and the current top cultures, of the Department of Defense Education Activity for K-12. Due to their proven excellence in education, and their top-notch academic advancements. Many students at Maxwell-Gunter, are highly performing, and virtually mastering, robotics in grades, 6 through 8.
Therefore, we should commend, Gov. Ivey, Lt. Gov. Ainsworth, and Sen. Barfoot; and support them in their efforts, in making our state the most military friendly in the nation. Their initiatives, will provide, much needed assistance, not only for Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, but for all military installations in Alabama. Our ultimate goal is to attract military families to our Great State, and retain the current military families—not run them away.
This one, we must get right. Other states would Love to have our military families. Our state leaders are making sure, that we do everything, in our power to keep them. We can’t let other states, out work us, nor out hustle us, through their better education and training systems.
Just as a matter of information, in working with Gov. Ivey, in an unofficial capacity over the years. A lot of top Department of Defense officials, and top Air Force and Space Force leaders, along with local Air Force leadership, such as Lt. Gen. Cotton, and 42nd ABW Commander Col. Patrick Carley; have been very gracious, in supporting Maxwell-Gunter families, and our regional communities, to ensure that we continue to have the best education, and training systems.
Our top Department of Defense, civilian and military leaders; and our Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett, Chief of Staff Air Force Gen. David Goldfein, and Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond, have always, had our Six, and we have always, had their Six. There is absolutely, no doubt about that!
Glenn Henry is retired from the U.S. Air Force. He has been a high school teacher and university adjunct professor. He has earned numerous IT Cisco certifications. He is a Certified Professional Ethical Hacker. He lives in Montgomery with his wife Teresa.
Opinion | The workforce superhighway—stay clear of malfunction junction
As you merge onto the Workforce Superhighway in search of that dream career, don’t venture into dead ends or get lost at malfunction junction. Instead, look for signs directing you to AlabamaWorks!
There are several ways to enter the workforce superhighway and get on the right path. On-ramps include the Alabama Department of Labor’s Career Center System with offices placed strategically in 50 locations, or via one of Alabama’s Community Colleges that are conveniently located across the state. Many will enter the workforce highway via one of the seven regional workforce councils representing Alabama’s seven workforce regions. While others will enter through one of Alabama’s existing employers through work-based learning initiatives, such as the Alabama Office of Apprenticeship.
The great news is that there are thousands of job openings in all sectors of Alabama’s economy including aviation, forestry, chemical, automotive, bio-medical and information technology. Alabama companies are paying premium wages for employees with a positive attitude, good work ethic and the appropriate skill sets. AlabamaWorks! provides a roadmap to these great jobs and it’s just two clicks away. (www.alabamaworks.com)
Remember when career resource programs were siloed, loaded with government acronyms and frankly, not user friendly? In those days, to the unexperienced eye, all workforce roads led to nowhere. Even harder to understand were the state and federal programs which were designed to help, and yet always seemed to be just out of reach. It was as if one road led to another road, which led to another, and eventually people careened off the highway at malfunction junction.
To help untangle the malfunction junction, Gov. Kay Ivey announced her Success Plus plan mandating that Alabama’s workforce programs work together to help citizens find credentials of value that will lead to a self-sustaining career. The goal: 500,000 additional credentialed workers in the workforce by 2025. To succeed, workforce agencies are working towards becoming more user friendly, untying the complicated knots and cross-training staff on multiple programs. Therefore, when a citizen enters from any on-ramp on to the workforce highway, they will find that there are no detours or road blocks. Rather, they will find friendly and helpful workforce professionals ready to assist.
Credentials may be earned as a student completes their K-12 education, during college or as an apprentice. The credential may also be an occupational license or industry recognized certification needed as a job requirement, or to advance to the next level. There are thousands of potential credentials available, and they can be stacked, sequenced and aligned in a progression of increasing skill to assist Alabamians as they travel the workforce superhighway.
Now that you are successfully navigating the superhighway, how do you know what a credential of value is and if it is legitimate? Gov. Ivey has appointed a group of professionals though the Alabama Committee on Credentialing and Career Pathways (ACCCP) to make sure the credentials available in Alabama are truly of value. When you successfully attain your credential of value, then what? You want to make sure your credential is added to the Alabama College and Career Exploration Tool (ACCET) being created for you to market your workforce profile online where employers are looking for employees with credentials. The ACCET is a digital resume that helps you find employers and employers find you. The ACCET is currently under development and will be available in the fall of 2020.
The workforce superhighway has many intersections and AlabamaWorks! is the ever-evolving road map. This one-stop online workforce resource will turn malfunction junction into a distant memory. Happy motoring and stop by anytime, www.alabamaworks.com is open 24-7.
Ed Castile, Deputy Secretary of Commerce
Workforce Development Division, Director of AIDT
Opinion | The New Way Forward Act is an assault on our borders
A clear warning of how far to the extreme left the Democratic Party has moved is the recently introduced New Way Forward Act. This immigration bill would totally uproot the rule of law, provide amnesty for illegals here, and import dangerous criminals into the United States. By allowing foreign citizens who committed serious felonies to stay in our country, all Americans would be at risk. And by granting new rights to illegal aliens, the New Way Forward Act would prevent our immigration officials from detaining most illegal immigrants. Shockingly, over forty of my Democrat colleagues in the House have cosponsored this legislation.
We have long known that many on the far left have the goal of global open borders. They do not appreciate that to keep our country prosperous and strong we must have real, enforceable borders. Put another way, our country won’t be any different from the rest of the world if we eliminate our borders and let whoever wants here to enter.
Simply put, the New Way Forward Act aims to decriminalize illegal immigration altogether. It would turn us into a sanctuary nation where anyone who desires entry can come in almost unchallenged. It grants new rights to illegal border crossers that would effectively shut down our already overworked immigration courts. For example, those detained for illegally entering would be entitled to an initial custody hearing within 48 hours, and detainees would be entitled to a new bond hearing every 60 days. This is designed by the bill’s authors to be impossible!
The bill also includes provisions to block local law enforcement from performing immigration enforcement activities. Why would we not want our law enforcement to actually enforce our laws? Isn’t that what they are for? This explains a lot of what some of my more liberal colleagues in Washington think about law and order.
Perhaps most shockingly, the New Way Forward Act removes certain felonies from consideration when considering whether detainees should be allowed entry to our country. Why would we want to protect convicted felons from being deported? This legislation would roll out a welcome mat for them. The bill would even repeal laws that make illegal entry into the United States a crime. Can you imagine the chaos this would bring?
This bill has one goal – open borders. That’s why Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf says this bill would “gut the rule of law” in the country.
I have been to our southern border. I’ve seen firsthand the challenges facing our border patrol agents. Without question, gutting our immigration laws would make their jobs tougher. It would erode American safety and incentivize illegal immigration. Yet Democrats overwhelmingly support sanctuary city laws that allow jurisdictions to refuse to enforce our immigration laws. These sanctuary jurisdictions go further by stonewalling federal officials seeking to enforce our immigration laws. But it gets even worse. States like California have passed laws to grant driver licenses to illegal immigrants. Shockingly, these laws could even automatically register illegal immigrants granted driver licenses the right to vote in elections!
Last week I signed on as an original cosponsor of the Stop Greenlighting Driver Licenses for Illegal Immigrants Act. The premise of this bill is simple: if you are a sanctuary city blocking the enforcement of our federal immigration laws, you should be blocked from receiving federal money. This bill would prevent states that issue driver licenses to illegal aliens from receiving important federal grants.
Unfortunately, common sense is something lacking in Washington. I’m proud to be able to serve you by bringing Alabama values to the swamp. I’ll continue working with President Trump to fight bills like the New Way Forward Act and to ensure our immigration policies serve and protect you, the American people.
Opinion | We cannot allow Alabama to fall behind our neighbors
As the Birmingham region enters a new decade, it is more important than ever in our increasingly connected world that Alabama’s largest city be equipped with modern wireless infrastructure that provides connectivity that powers opportunities for businesses and residents alike.
That is why the Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA) supports standardization of small cell deployment statewide – enhancing connectivity today as well as supporting 5G and technologies of the future.
Connectivity is a key issue in creating and sustaining a 21st century economy and workforce, connecting both urban and rural areas to enhanced broadband opportunities. Ongoing advancements in wireless broadband technologies are necessary to keep pace with consumer demand and are crucial to our state’s continued economic success. Without the ability to economically deploy the latest in wireless broadband infrastructure, we put at risk our ability to effectively compete in a digital economy.
The BBA has long supported increased access to broadband technology across the Birmingham region and the state of Alabama through our annual state and federal legislative agendas. Our support is reflected in our 2020 state legislative agenda, which lists this issue as a priority and specifically supports streamlining and standardizing the permitting process for small cell wireless equipment and services, allowing wireless companies limited access to public Rights of Way for the deployment of small cells and establishing permit fee limitations for localities.
We join with key community organizations like the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce and the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce in supporting statewide legislation that simply standardizes the permitting process for small cell wireless equipment and services, including broadband; allows entities providing wireless services, subject to existing applicable constitutional provisions, access to Rights of Way for the deployment of small cell equipment; and establishes permit fee guidelines for localities, allowing them to recover reasonable compensation while still encouraging broadband investment.
Small cell deployment is one way to ensure Birmingham and Alabama’s wireless infrastructure remains competitive, allowing both businesses and residents to thrive. More than half of U.S. states have already passed legislation that welcomes investment and removes barriers to deploying wireless infrastructure.
This new decade and the ones after it will require us to be connected to ensure the best for the Birmingham region’s businesses and its residents. Supporting small cell deployment is key as we look towards the future, continually making sure that, as the world becomes more and more connected, we in Birmingham and in Alabama do the same.
We encourage state legislators to support this effort so we as a region and as a state can stay competitive in an ever-changing world.
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