KILLEEN — Every time Sheryll Pearson sees a teenage boy ride down the street on a skateboard, wearing a cap turned backward on his head, she sees her son.
She hears him in the guitar melodies on the radio, and remembers him through the stories of friends and loved ones.
Pearson’s son, Pfc. Michael Pearson, was one of the 13 people killed in the Nov. 5, 2009, Fort Hood shooting. He was 22 years old.
Pearson joined the Army when he was 19, and was preparing for his first deployment with Fort Hood’s 36th Engineer Brigade when he was killed.
“Michael was very talented. He was quiet. He was always moving forward in his life, always. He was a great musician. When he got out of the military he wanted to come home and be a music theory and guitar teacher,” Pearson’s mom said. “That’s what was so exciting about Michael is he was always moving on in his life, and I wanted to see what he was really going to be.”
Last week, Pearson and her husband, Michael Pearson’s father, came to Killeen from their home in Wisconsin to join other family members of the fallen for the dedication of the memorial site honoring the 12 soldiers and one civilian who lost their lives on that November day. As loved ones and those wounded toured the memorial for the first time on Friday, clips of Michael Pearson playing the guitar played in the background.
A mother’s grief
In the six years since the tragedy, Pearson said her healing process has “been more down than up,” though a support system of family and friends has helped her through.
“I’m out of a lot of pot holes, but I don’t think I’ll ever be out of all of them. I can hear (Michael) in my head saying ‘Mom, straighten up.’”
She and Michael, her youngest of four children, were inseparable, the mother said.
“His dad worked nights and we’d stay up for hours and hours, all night, talking, or out on the deck, while he was playing his guitar, or we’d go to Wendy’s for a Frosty. ... If there was poster child for the best son in the whole world, it was him.”
Pearson said she didn’t fully understand how joining the military fit into Michael’s dreams of pursuing music, but said the career choice was in line with his nature.
“He told his sister that he wanted to do something that mattered, but that was Michael. ... He just wanted to be who he was and help people, and he never lost himself along the way,” Pearson said.
Her son’s death was life-changing for Pearson, but for his service to the country, the mother said she is proud.
“As a mom I was devastated. As an American, I couldn’t be prouder.”
After the shooting, Pearson and other family members of the soldiers killed in the shooting fought for years to have their fallen recognized with the Purple Heart award for their actions on Nov. 5, 2009.
“Nobody thinks it can happen to them until they pick up that phone. They think it happens somewhere else in the world, not the boy next door. And it does. And it’s here now. The line was moved, and that’s why we fought so hard (for the Purple Heart awards), because everything was set up for people that (deployed) overseas, but, I’m sorry, somebody moved that line. It may be imaginary but it is here now and people need to know it is here,” Pearson said.
Last year, on Feb. 6, what would have been Michael Pearson’s 28th birthday, Pearson received the news that her son, and the dozens of others killed and wounded, would receive the Purple Heart award.
The award, and the memorial, are much-appreciated, Pearson said. But the wounds she now carries, will go on with her forever.
“Closure for me is a stupid word because that’s not even possible. It’s not accurate, and it won’t happen, but I am glad that they will always be remembered. It does not make anything easier, but I’m very proud and very honored,” she said.
A widow who will ‘never forget’
For another family member of one of the fallen, “closure” also is an unreachable reality after the shooting. Christine Gaffaney lost her husband, Capt. John Gaffaney, 56, after he was shot trying to charge the gunman during the massacre.
“Closure is a word that I took out of my vocabulary.... This is just another step on the journey. I’ll never forget him,” Gaffaney said Friday before the memorial dedication.
Still, Gaffaney said she’s grateful for the memorial, and more importantly, for what it symbolizes: A community that remembers.
She traveled to Killeen from her home of more than 30 years in San Diego, where she said most people don’t remember or give recognition anymore to the shooting.
“It hurts my feelings,” Gaffaney said.
“They barely acknowledge that this whole thing happened, so having the state of Texas wrap us up in their arms, and do all this, I know it happened here and they probably feel like they’re obligated to do it, but I don’t get that impression at all. I get the impression that it’s something they really want to do.”
John Gaffaney was a psychiatric nurse who began his military career in the Navy, then the National Guard.
He returned to service later in life, joining the Army Reserves at age 53.
“When I think of my husband, I think of how selfless he was. After 9/11 he said ‘I’ve got to try to get back in. I’ve got to try to help the soldiers with PTSD. ... That’s where he was going (before he died). He was going to be deployed to Iraq for 400 days, and he was going to help the soldiers with PTSD,” Gaffaney said.
When Christine Gaffaney thinks back on the couple’s 33 years of marriage, the things she remembers most is how they each supported one another.
“We always supported each other, and I never told my husband ‘No, don’t go back in.’ ... You support them. Whatever they want to do. He would have supported me if I were to have said I want to shave my head bald,” she said.
The Gaffaneys have a 36-year-old son, who Christine Gaffaney said was deeply impacted by his father’s death.
“Him and his dad were extremely close, so it has hit him hard,” she said.
A big brother lost
As Rebecca Cahill got ready to head back to Killeen for the memorial ceremony, fresh emotions washed up to the surface. The past six years have not been easy.
“Last weekend when I started packing, it got a little tense ... I really don’t want to do this again. I don’t want to pick it open. I’m done,” she said.
The trip marked both a beginning and an end for Cahill, whose brother, Michael Cahill, was the only civilian killed in the shooting.
“This is it. The next time I come back to Texas, if I come back, it’s to be with family, to visit and watch kids grow up and do other things. It’s not going to be about this. ... I’m hoping that the next time I come down to see family we don’t have to worry about SWAT teams, and things like that, and police escorts,” she said.
Though 10 years separated, Rebecca and Michael Cahill — his “baby sister” — said they were always close as kids, and reconnected in their adult years when Michael settled down with his wife and children in Texas.
“We talked on the phone every Sunday for hours. My youngest son called me every Sunday for the next six months (after Michael’s death) so I would have somebody to talk to,” Rebecca Cahill said.
In addition to their weekly phone calls, the thing Rebecca said she misses most about her big brother are his “bear hugs.”
“He wasn’t exactly a really touchy feely guy, but he was a great hugger. He hugged everybody. He was huge and when I was little, especially, I just felt like his arms went around me twice. That’s the first thing I think of, that I don’t get anymore.”
Despite wanting to move on from the grief of the past several years, Cahill said the memorial was important to her, a reminder of some of the good that has come out of tragedy. Cahill stayed at Killeen’s Shilo Inn, along with other loved ones who, like her, grieve the losses of that day every day, and said the atmosphere was like “a reunion.”
“We’re a huge family,” she said. “If you have to go through something like this, you have to take up the positive from it.”