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A Fort Hood Family's Journey to 'the Great Part of Mourning'

Mose Buchele, KUT News

Public radio listeners were first introduced to Michael Cahill just days after his death.

In a story that aired November 2009, we learned about Cahill, who was working as a physician’s assistant at Fort Hood when he became the only civilian killed in the shooting there.

We also met his family.

“The last few days have been just kind of surreal,” his wife, Joleen Cahill, told KUT at the time.  "Did this really happen? And yes, it did.”

Since then new information has come to light about Cahill. By all accounts he died a hero, trying to disarm the shooter with nothing but a folding chair. On Wednesday that shooter, Nadal Hasan was sentenced for the massacre. After the sentence was given, KUT sat down to catch up with the Cahill family. 

Michael’s daughter Keely Vanacker says every day since his death has been touched with sadness.

“I have two kids who don’t get to know their grandfather,” Vanacker says. “One who is really into trains and he loves Walt Dinsey comic books, the same ones that my father loved. My father isn’t going to get to sit there and read them with him. And it's those moment that I have to deal with.”

When you ask the family how the conclusion of the trial might change that sadness, they don’t really talk about justice, and not at all about retribution. They focus instead on the process of the whole thing: the years of court proceedings, the communication with other victims families. It’s something that’s consumed them.

“Last year we thought the court martial was going to begin right when I was going to have my daughter Kate,” Vanacker says. “And then we had an issue [with starting the trial]. And so in some ways it’s almost like, 'Oh – it’s over now.’”

“We get to close this door,” adds Cahill's other daughter, Kerry Cahill. “It doesn’t mean we’re done. It means we’re done with this. Which is why I don’t want to talk about him anymore. Because we don’t have to. So why would we!?!” 

When she says ‘him,’ she’s referring to the shooter: Nadal Hasan. That was something else many people who lost family on that day shared: a desire to memorialize their loved ones – not dwell on the crime.

“The thing now is that we get to move forward to the great part of mourning, if that makes sense,” says Kerry. “We get to celebrate dad and only celebrate dad.”

And how do they do that? Keely says it happens in small ways. She celebrates him by eating some of his favorite foods, like chocolate peanut butter pie. 

But the family also remembers in larger ways – including how they live their lives.

“He’s an inspiration to me to do better,” says his wife Joleen. “As far as reading books, and being more informed and knowledgeable. And trying to smile more and being more humorous and just. I have to remember that he’s the inspiration of that.”

Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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