Surviving Spouse On New Path
October 12, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--There's a lot of change going on in Emily McFall's life these days.
She's gone back to school at Calhoun Community College. She is leaving her job with Army Community Service. And she's making plans to move closer to her family in a south Birmingham suburb.
But those changes can't compare to the painful upheaval that occurred in her life on Memorial Day 2007, when an Army casualty notification officer came to her door with the news that her husband, 36-year-old Staff Sgt. Tom McFall, had been killed by a roadside bomb while on foot patrol south of Baghdad, Iraq.
Since that day, McFall and the couple's three children -- Austin, Elizabeth and Matthew, now 20, 11 and 8 respectively -- have rebuilt a family life without the Soldier they so dearly loved and enjoyed being around. In 2008, that rebuilding took them from Fort Lewis, Wash., to Alabama, where they moved to Hartselle and where McFall began an association with a Redstone Arsenal widows support group -- My Soldier, My Fallen Hero -- that eventually led to her position as the first coordinator of the new Survivor Outreach Services program established at Army Community Service.
McFall's decision to leave her position with Survivor Outreach Services was difficult and caused her a great deal of anxiety about the future. But she also knew the decision was a vital step in her very personal healing process. It is something she has to do to move away from the pain of loss.
"I'm always in the grief when I'm here," she said. "It's time for me to step away and start healing the wounds that are constantly open."
At one time, leading the Survivor Outreach Services program was good therapy for McFall. In those early days of the program in 2010, she was busy communicating the needs of survivor families to those within Army Community Service and the Garrison who were working with her to establish the support program. Her workdays were spent bringing survivor families together; working on the SOS facility, which includes an office and the multipurpose activity room; getting the news out about the new program mandated by the Army; and introducing the first TAPS -- Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors -- to Redstone earlier this year.
Everywhere a visitor looks in the SOS facility they see things with McFall's touch, from The Giving Tree artwork she painted on the wall in the children's indoor play area and the "Hall of Reflection" featuring photos of fallen Soldiers who belong to local survivor families to the comfortable furnishings where visitors can gather, talk and share, and the inspirational sayings painted on the walls.
"It was good being part of establishing the base of this program, and it did help me to help others. It was rewarding to grow this outreach and to help spouses going through what I did. I'm still very much part of the group that we've made here," McFall said.
"But it's just too much for me right now. The kids are growing up and the way they are responding and what they need, I just need to be there for them. This job can be emotionally overwhelming for me, but then I also go home to the emotions of my own children. I needed a break somewhere."
Survivor Outreach Services will continue with new coordinator Kerrie Branson. She will be introduced to survivor families at a fall festival and cookout at Lt. Gen. Richard Formica's home Saturday.
"Kerrie is a very detailed oriented person, and she will be a great transition for the program," McFall said. "She will be good at leading this program."
Last spring, McFall started thinking about where she wanted to go with her life. Although she and her children had started anew in North Alabama, there were aspects of their new life that weren't quite what she expected. Hartselle is close to McFall's family, but not quite close enough for the grandparents to have an active role in their grandchildren's lives. And McFall had this growing desire to pursue the college degree she had dreamed of long before marriage and children. Combine that with the reminders of loss that she faces at SOS, and McFall was ready for some changes.
"I'm not forgetting. I'm moving forward. I feel it's time," she said. "We've been in Hartselle for three years and we haven't made strong personal connections with the people there. As a military spouse, I am used to moving every three years. So, it's time."
Being closer to her father and mother will help fill a void for her children that McFall just can't do by herself.
"You can see it at football practice and everyone is out there with their dad. Matthew doesn't have his dad. He misses the male presence in his life, and my dad wants to be a father figure for him," she said.
"Elizabeth is at that age where she should be a daddy's girl. She's also becoming more motherly and she's very mature. But she's also very protective and she doesn't let people in. I want to spend more time with her."
McFall also thinks that moving to a larger, growing area will help her family feel more at home.
"Helena (where they hope to move) is small, but it is surrounded by the big city of Birmingham," she said. "It has a good school system and it is a good area. It is a growing area so that my kids won't be the only new kids in school."
McFall grew up in Hoover, another suburb of Birmingham. She herself joined the military in 1995, about three years after graduating high school.
"I had lived in the same hometown my whole life. In fact, my parents still live in the same house where I grew up. But I wanted to see what was out there. My brother was in the National Guard so I was familiar with the military," she recalled. "I planned to go in for three years, and get out and go to school to be a nurse. But love intervened."
McFall became a mechanic in the Army, working on repairs to 5-ton trucks, Humvees, forklifts, trailers and other heavy-use vehicles. She met her future husband while stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C.
"He was funny. He made me laugh. He always had a story to tell. He was just a good guy," McFall recalled. "He accepted me for who I was and he never tried to change me. He never said a negative word towards me. And he listened to me."
The couple's romance turned serious when it was time for them to re-enlist.
"We decided to get married because we wanted to make sure our next duty station was the same," she said.
McFall left the Army after her second three-year enlistment. In April 2004, the couple's youngest son was born on Tom McFall's birthday and just a few days before his deployment to Afghanistan with the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment. McFall's service as a Soldier helped her keep the family together during his husband's 18-month deployment.
"I was independent and that made it easier for Tom," McFall said. "If something needed to be fixed, I'd be the one to fix it. It's just my mechanical nature."
The family lived in Hoover during Tom McFall's first deployment. When he returned, they moved to Fort Lewis, where Tom McFall was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 38th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (one of two Fort Lewis Stryker Brigade Combat Teams serving in Iraq at the time) to train a group of Soldiers for a deployment to Iraq.
"They deployed on April 6, 2007. He was killed May 28, 2007," McFall said. "Both of his deployments were positive. The conditions weren't that good. But Tom believed in what he was doing.
"Two weeks before he was killed, he told me they were making a difference in Iraq. That gives me peace. He was killed while he was trying to do good. He believed in what he was doing."
Tom McFall and Cpl. Junior Cedeno Sanchez, 20, were on dismounted patrol in the streets of Dora, Iraq, when an improvised explosive device was detonated. Both were killed instantly.
"Before he left on the deployment, we had a conversation and I had reached a point where I was getting really upset about it. Tom was telling me 'I might not come back.' I think he may have known," McFall said.
In the few weeks between his deployment and death, McFall said she had visions of Soldiers walking around a flagpole that she could see from her kitchen window. Looking back, McFall believes that was a sign of things to come.
"I loved that man. We would hold hands. We would mess with each other. We loved being near each other, just flirting," McFall said. "I miss the physical closeness we shared just being with each other.
"The sadness never goes away. It still comes in waves. Tom was the man of the house. I was always very independent and he didn't have to worry about me. I think he'd be happy if he saw his family today."
Though she is committed to her children, McFall has started to think about the possibilities of having another special person in her life. Earlier this year, she took off her wedding ring.
"I was coming up on the four-year mark since Tom's death. I was somewhere out in public and there was a cute guy. I suddenly realized I was sitting there with a wedding ring on and two kids," she said.
"I also had a necklace with Tom's wedding ring on it that I had worn since his death. A couple weeks earlier I was lying in bed one night and the necklace felt like it was choking me. I grabbed it and pulled it off, and it broke. That was a sign to me. It didn't seem like the necklace needed to be fixed. If it doesn't bother me, it must be right."
McFall still carries with her the initials mTm -- for Thomas Michael McFall -- that are tattooed on the inside of her right wrist, and two bracelets she wears in her husband's memory.
Yet, she is open to life's possibilities and the future. She wants to be available for whatever comes her way. She wants to try new things, and encourage her children to live full and rich lives. Her oldest, stepson Austin, is considering a military career.
"If he or Matthew or Elizabeth decides to join the military, I will support them. I will still be scared, but I will support them," she said. "We have a lot of military friends. The Army is important to us. We still want to be part of this family."
Survivor Outreach Services has helped McFall understand the grieving process beyond her own grieving. Although she is not sure where her college education will take her, becoming a grief counselor is a future career possibility.
"I've become more aware of different people and how they deal with grief. There is no right way. Everyone is different," she said.
"This job has made me more patient. People who are grieving aren't always angry and they aren't always sad. They are somewhere in the middle. I still want to help survivors. I still want to be involved. But right now, I want to pursue my education to see what I want to do with the rest of my life."