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Honoring the fallen and healing the family

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Sheila McDaniel, mother of fallen pararescueman Master Sgt. William L. McDaniel II, poses as her grandaughter, Ashley McDaniel, takes a photo of her. Both Sheila and Ashley visited the McDaniel Center at Kadena Air Base, Japan, to see the honoring of their loved one. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jessica H. Smith)

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- On February 17th, 2002, an Army MH-47 helicopter crashed into the Sulu Sea while conducting counterterrorist operations in the Philippines, killing 10 people, one of which was Master Sgt. William L. McDaniel II, a pararescueman with the 320th Special Tactics Squadron.

Two years later a professional development center on Kadena Air Base was dedicated in his memory and is now known as the McDaniel Center.

Nearly two decades later, his family was invited for an opportunity to see firsthand the dedication to their loved one and meet those who were involved.

While it may seem a little late, the timing was just right for his mother and niece to find closure and healing for their loss.

“I think it was just time,” said Sheila McDaniel, mother of the fallen. “My granddaughter kind of pushed me a little bit to get this going so we could come and see this … Maybe put a little bit of closure for me, for my son … About him.”

McDaniel was the first born son, and the only child to follow in the footsteps of his father by joining the military.

Upon finding out he was joining the military, Sheila had mixed emotions for her son, thinking back to a skinny little 13 year old boy.

“He decided to go in the Air Force and yah, I was happy for him – nervous but happy,” she said.

At a young age, McDaniel began to change his physical appearance – his dedication to fitness was a key factor in the confidence that could be seen in his work and a major contributor to his future successes.

After years of dedication as a crew chief he decided to cross-train to become a pararescueman – a challenge for anyone but possibly even more so for him.

“When he went into pararescue, he was the old man compared to the guys that were going through the pipeline at that time,” Sheila said. “He was 31, 32, and those guys were 18, 19, 20 years old, and he was doing just what they were and then some.”

For everyone who knew McDaniel, it was clear he loved what he did, his mother explained, but was never boastful.

“He wouldn’t have liked all this hoopla,” she laughed, “He was not into that … He became Pararescueman of the Year in 2001, and we never knew until he was killed – he never told.”

As much as this trip was about the legacy of McDaniel, it was also about the healing of his family – many years later, the heartache is still there.

Sheila still remembers the moment she found out about her son’s passing.

“When they first came to tell me, I felt like somebody had stuck me in the gut and just ripped half of me away,” Sheila recalled. “As far as how I feel today … I miss him very much – his smile, his sweetness, his kindness and beautiful face.”

Being able to come to Okinawa, brought a sense of peace to his mother as well as the rest of the family.

Ashley McDaniel was 18 when her uncle, “Bub,” died and is one of the key people behind getting her grandmother Sheila, here.

“I pushed for it, I pushed for her to be here because I felt like it would help her in a lot of ways,” Ashley said. “To see how happy she is to be here, makes me happy – words don’t describe it.”

For Ashley, the visit has made dealing with her grief a little easier.

“To see what everybody has done to keep his memory alive is awesome,” she said. “[It] makes it a little easier to deal with knowing that he’s never been found but he’s never been forgotten … “

During their trip, Sheila and Ashley were able to sense just how much people cared – and still do – for McDaniel.

“I just get it from everybody, and that makes me feel wonderful to know he was loved that much,” Shelia said.

The atmosphere of family and comradery made the trip better than expected for Ashley.

“It’s been above and beyond – they’re a part of our family – nothing will ever change that,” she said. “They have absolutely made us feel like family and we’ll forever hang on to that.”

Both Sheila and Ashley believe their loved one is looking down happily on their experience at Kadena. However, their emotions implore them to highlight the importance of valuing loved ones while they’re still here.

“Tell them every day how much you love them,” Sheila said through tears, “Because you’re not promised the next day – ever.”

Although the trip was a long time coming, it was still just as valued to the McDaniel family.

“We’ve never been able to see these things and be a part of what he was a part of, so to do it now, 16 years later … I think had it been done years ago or now, it still would’ve been just as amazing – there hasn’t been one bad part of this in any way,” Ashley expressed.

As the visit comes to an end, Sheila leaves the island with one parting message.

“If I had anything to say to these guys here, it’d be to tell them they have made my heart happy – I will never forget what these guys have done,” she said. “They’ve helped me in a way that I didn’t realize that will help me move forward … What they’ve done … I will never be able to thank them enough and tell them what it’s meant – doesn’t make it go away, but it has helped tremendously.”