View Full Version : Hero to Felon -- A Soldier's Story, Part 1

05-17-07, 07:37 AM
Hero to Felon -- A Soldier's Story, Part 1

Last Update: May 17, 2007 8:14 AM

Kyle Clark (Caledonia, N.Y.) -- Marine Corps Sergeant Shawn Gianforte, 32, went from being Caledonia's hometown hero to being a convicted felon for a crime he claims he can't remember.

Gail Gianforte has spent years writing to her son in uniform far from home. But Gianforte's uniform has changed, he is now a prisoner in a Virginia jail.

She says before he was a sergeant, he was Shawn. His sights were set on the service. He joined the Marines just before graduating from Cal-Mum High School in 1994.

Shawn married his high school sweetheart, and went where his country asked: two tours in Iraq, the battle of Fallujah.

Gianforte recalled house-to-house fighting as the Marines methodically cleared the city of insurgents.

"It's a constant violence… You break the threshold of the front door... You don't know what's gonna be waiting on the other side," he said.

Gianforte came home to Caledonia a decorated hero. He spent a few precious weeks with his wife and daughter Zoie before attending military school in Virginia to train as an interrogator with plans of returning to Iraq.

Just a few days before he was due to graduate near the top of his class, Gianforte went to the oceanfront strip of Virginia Beach drinking with some Marine buddies.
He woke up the next morning in a jail cell on the way to losing his career, his family, and his freedom.

"Something happened that night and I don't know what it was," Gianforte said.

A few blocks from the oceanfront, Gianforte and Marine Sgt. Jerome Fenner stormed the front door of a house. They burst in, screaming at Dan Shain and his wife Debbie, "We're the police -- you're terrorists ...you're going to die tonight!"

Gianforte beat Dan Shain until police SWAT teams burst in and subdued him.

On April 10, 2007 Gianforte was sentenced to two years in prison. He was also ordered to pay restitution and get counseling.

He has steadfastly maintained he doesn't remember what happened that night. Nevertheless, presented with the evidence, he pleaded guilty to assault.

"I don't know how I got there. I don't know why… I really don't see how I can dispute what happened," he said.

The situation is similar to what he remembers doing in Fallujah, with one major exception – his target.

"I'm extremely sorry for what I did to them. I'm here to defend my country and take part in a war on terrorism and then, unfortunately, I go and terrorize an American couple in their own home," he said.

His mother thinks his drinking triggered something serious combat stress or post traumatic stress disorder.

"Shawn went into combat mode and did what he was trained to do... In Iraq, but not here," said Gail Gianforte.

A naval doctor confirmed Gianforte does have PTSD.

"Truthfully, I don't know what else it would have been," he said.

Still, Gianforte has never made any excuses.

"I accept full responsibility for what happened. I accept that I have a two-year sentence. I'm willing to do that. I'd like to know what's wrong with me. Ultimately, if at all possible, I'd like to know what the hell caused me to do what I did," he said.

He is struggling to understand the toll of his time in Fallujah. He worries that once he comes home to Rochester he won't be able to find help with his combat stress.

On that new battlefront in his life, Gianforte has found a new ally: Debbie Maloney-Shain, the woman whose home he invaded.

"We feel bad that he's a veteran and that's he's in this situation," she said. "I would hope that he makes something good come from this."

Debbie's husband Dan has lingering health issues because of the beating.


05-17-07, 07:39 AM
Hero to Felon -- A Soldier's Story, Part 2

Last Update: May 17, 2007 8:14 AM

Kyle Clark (Caledonia, N.Y.) -- He admits committing a violent home invasion attack that closely resembled his battles in Iraq.

Decorated war hero Sgt. Shawn Gianforte of Caledonia in Livingston County is now a convicted felon.

The softness of Debbie Maloney-Shain's voice disguises the raw brutality of that night in Virginia Beach, the night two Iraq war vets and decorated Marines came smashing through her front door.

"It sounded like someone had a battering ram at the door. You could hear the wood splitting and you knew they were coming in," said Maloney-Shain.

Gianforte was one of the two Marines who began beating and interrogating Debbie's husband, Dan.

"They were accusing him of being a terrorist and that he killed people and that they were going to kill him and his family," she said.

Police SWAT teams eventually rushed the house to save Dan Shain.

Gianforte's mug shot tells the story of the struggle that followed. Back home in Caledonia -- Gianforte's father Mario suspects his son had a flashback to intense house-to-house fighting in Fallujah.

"It's definitely all the training that came out. What triggered it? I don't know," he said.

Shawn Gianforte says he remembers having a few drinks that night last August, but claims he doesn't remember the attack. In court he accepted responsibility and pleaded guilty to assault.

He's halfway through a two year jail sentence. That's where a naval doctor found Gianforte shows many of the symptoms of PTSD -- post traumatic stress disorder.

"I had an illness, a disease I didn't know I had. I did some pretty terrible things," said Sgt. Gianforte.

Gianforte's victim says returning soldiers need more help containing engrained combat instincts and the memories of war.

"Regardless of how much they're prepared, it can't not impact them," said Debbie Maloney-Shain.

When Gianforte came back to the States his debrief at Camp Lejeune included warnings about nightmares and flashbacks indicators of combat stress or PTSD.

He was jumpy and easily angered, but so were the rest of the guys in his unit.

"If I'd known I was actually having problems or symptoms of a disease or a disorder, I would have definitely, one way or another, tried to get help," he said.

He considered himself normal and healthy , so he turned down voluntary counseling.

His parents say making extended counseling mandatory for returning soldiers might have caught their son's problem.

"That's not enough. They need to talk out what they have seen, what they have been through," they said.

Gianforte refuses to fault the Marines for where he sits today.

"I can't blame them for anything that's happened to me. You know, it's not their fault. They offered. The help was there. I didn't know I needed it," he said.

Counseling has not been available since his arrest. He may not receive any before he's released this time next year.

He admits he has violent nightmares in his sleep and remembers long, restless days wishing for the dangerous freedom of Iraq.

"I would do two years in Iraq in exchange for having to sit here," he said.

These days, he's looking ahead to his next homecoming and the possibility of getting some help.

"The day after I get home to Rochester, I plan on going right to the VA and saying ‘Please help me.’ This is what happened. You need to do something," he said.

Gianforte's lawyer has asked the governor of Virginia for a pardon so
Gianforte can get mental health counseling that might not be available in prison.

At sentencing, the judge required Gianforte to seek help, but Gianforte and his family believe that counseling won't come until next year when he comes back to the Rochester area.