Fairchild: One Year Later Wounds Deep, Haunting Each Member Of Family Hurt In Shootings, And Each Is Healing At A Different Rate
Kelly Moe crouched beside the espresso stand, crying as she relived her attempt to hide from the man with the gun.
Her eyes scanned the hospital hallway at Fairchild Air Force Base. There’s where she’d been shot … here’s where Dad fell … Mom took a bullet over there … sister Melissa was hit near the end of the hall.
Kelly, 14, gazed at the new carpet and remembered the bloody, bullet-torn floor left behind last year when an angry airman booted from the Air Force returned for revenge.
She wondered if she somehow could have dodged Dean Mellberg’s aim that sunny June 20. But she could not, nor could 25 others.
Kelly, her family and two children they were baby-sitting survived their wounds. Christin McCarron, another little girl in Kelly’s charge, was killed, as were three other people and an unborn baby.
It’s been a year since the Moes made the trip to the base hospital for a dermatologist appointment, a year since they saw their family torn apart and reassembled into something they barely recognized. But a year wasn’t nearly long enough for the Moes to adjust to their new lives.
Kelly’s dad, a master sergeant and family leader before the shootings, is out of work and learning to walk again. Her mom now supports the family, limping through the workday and coming home exhausted. Her sister, 16, can’t sleep at night.
They’ve learned they recover in different ways, at sometimes annoyingly different paces. One family member reaches to another for support, only to find someone wobbling under the weight of his or her own problems.
Dennis and Marlene Moe are trying hard to hold their family together, but they worry every day they might not be able to.
“A lot of people say, ‘I can’t even imagine how it would feel,”’ says Dennis Moe. “And they can’t.”
On their own
Mellberg’s assault rifle scarred many Inland Northwest homes, but the Moes were the only family to have every member wounded.
Melissa, shot in the lower back, abdomen and right knee, had her colostomy reversed in November. She contracted mononucleosis shortly after returning to school and spent weeks at home again.
Marlene Moe, 41, lost a kidney when a bullet hit her lower back. She is regaining feeling in her right leg, even though her sciatic nerve was damaged.
Dennis Moe, 42, defied the odds by simply surviving. He takes just half the painkillers he once took for wounds to his hip and abdomen.
Kelly, who was shot in the right thigh, can’t hide her scars when she wears shorts.
For the girls, even returning to a normal school life was impossible. Classmates’ blunt questions often offended them: “Was it really cool being shot?” “Did it hurt?”
Relatives from Eugene, Ore., eased their transitions from hospital to home by moving in temporarily to care for them.
Good Samaritans - including strangers - embraced the family, bringing casseroles and flowers and running errands. Friends built the long, red wheelchair ramp stretching across the front yard of their north Spokane rental home.
Now most helpers have faded from sight, and the Moes are often embarrassed to ask for assistance.
Yet every season they encounter new limitations. Last winter, it was the inability to install storm windows. More recently, they couldn’t lift a clunky air conditioner.
Most of the time, says Marlene Moe, “we’re on our own.”
Same faces, new family
Dennis Moe first noticed the transformation of his family the October day he returned to their white home on West Dalton after almost four months in the hospital and a rehabilitation center.
“I felt like an outsider,” he says. “They’d gotten used to running things without me.”
Marlene Moe, who came home three months earlier, doesn’t see where she had much choice. “I had to be the mom and the dad. I had to be the husband to the husband.”
Dennis Moe left home a perfectionist, a man obsessed with his hard-earned job in a weapons storage area at Fairchild.
He returned suddenly retired after 17 years in the military, his only job a five-day-a-week physical therapy schedule and endless appointments with doctors. He couldn’t control his bladder and he couldn’t dress or get out of bed in the morning without help.
“I felt like a failure,” he says.
Melissa and Kelly, who were back in school by the time their father came home, had trouble trading a dad who took care of them for one who required their care.
“The girls would come to me and say, ‘How come Daddy always wants to be the center of attention?”’ says Marlene Moe. “I had to be the mediator.”
Sometimes, the teenagers became the adults, changing the gauze on their own wounds and those of their parents. When Marlene Moe couldn’t bear to do it, Kelly changed her father’s dressings twice a day without flinching.
“I’ve seen everything,” says Kelly.Because they suffered less nerve
damage and recovered faster, the girls share much of the housework. They do the laundry, lugging baskets up and down the basement stairs.
Roles reversed again when Melissa and Kelly watched their father learn to walk, taking shaky baby steps across the kitchen floor.
At first, the girls and their mother couldn’t help but giggle. “I’d say, ‘You look like a toddler with cerebral palsy,”’ Marlene Moe recalls.
“Now,” she adds, “he just looks like a toddler.”
Looking for support
When everyone in the family has been traumatized, it can be hard to find an objective listener.
Dennis Moe began seeing a counselor last winter so he could talk without being interrupted by someone else’s problems.
“We’d kind of tune him out and say, ‘We know what you mean,”’ admits Marlene Moe.
“We’ve done it,” adds Kelly.
Neither Kelly nor her father could give each other much support on a recent elevator ride.
When a man standing beside them began fumbling for something in his black handbag, Kelly panicked and gripped her father’s hand, certain the stranger had a gun.
But when she looked at her father, he was wide-eyed, terrified and clutching her hand, too.
Kelly decided last fall to revisit the base hospital to come to grips with what happened. She convinced her counselor to take her one day after school. No other family member has any such desire.
Melissa just wants to sleep at night. “I still have to sleep with my mom,” she says. “I haven’t slept by myself yet.”
When the nightmares jolt Melissa awake, her mother is there for her, assuring her everything is all right.
But if it really is all right, Marlene Moe wonders, why does she herself have trouble sleeping?
Making small strides
Little by little, the Moes are regaining chunks of their lives.
Kelly, who felt guilty when the girl she baby-sat was killed, is babysitting for another family. Melissa is involved in softball, color guard and a Christian youth group.
Everyone but Dennis Moe can negotiate the basement stairs again.
Dennis Moe feels the family will
take a giant leap toward normalcy once he finds a job.
“I miss the camaraderie,” says Moe, whose wounds forced him to retire. “The job I was in, there were a lot of people dependent on me. I worked 17 years to get there. It was short-lived.”
The Moes are achieving one longtime dream by building a house for the first time. They expect to settle into the three-bedroom home near Green Bluff this summer.
Marlene Moe beams when flipping through a book of carpet samples: blue velvet for Kelly’s room, forest green for Melissa’s.
For a moment, escaping to the details of the future, Marlene Moe appears to have forgotten the past. But not for long. “Some days,” she says, “it’s disbelief that it really happened. Some days, it’s overwhelming and I have to catch my breath. I just have to cry.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo