LINKS
2017-11-15 / Local

One survivor’s story

By Jeff Valcher
Wilson County News


Vice President Mike Pence greets Stephen Willeford Nov. 8, during a vigil in Floresville to pray for those killed and wounded in the violent attack Nov. 5 in Sutherland Springs, and for their families. 
JEFF VALCHER/Reprints at bit.ly/wcnphotos Vice President Mike Pence greets Stephen Willeford Nov. 8, during a vigil in Floresville to pray for those killed and wounded in the violent attack Nov. 5 in Sutherland Springs, and for their families. JEFF VALCHER/Reprints at bit.ly/wcnphotos I don’t want them to feel like,Oh, you’re the one that saved lives.” I want them to feel like,Oh, you lost someone the way we did.”’


Stephen Willeford’s tightly clasped hands reflect his inner turmoil. He engaged the lone gunman who slew and wounded worshippers Nov. 5 in the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, just yards away from Willeford’s own home. 
JEFF VALCHER/Reprints at bit.ly/wcnphotos Stephen Willeford’s tightly clasped hands reflect his inner turmoil. He engaged the lone gunman who slew and wounded worshippers Nov. 5 in the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, just yards away from Willeford’s own home. JEFF VALCHER/Reprints at bit.ly/wcnphotos — Stephen Willeford

As people around the world scramble to make sense of the Sutherland Springs shooting — sifting through the facts and drawing lines in the political sands — the one living man who has drawn the greatest amount of attention for his role in confronting the shooter continues to struggle, not only with the horrors of that day, but with the “heroic” title he has been assigned.

A fourth-generation resident of Sutherland Springs, Stephen Willeford still remembers his great-grandmother, Annie Deason, telling him how her husband, Blake, bought a truck during the Great Depression, which he used to carry supplies into the city from Seguin. They eventually went on to purchase the farmland that Stephen and his family own to this day.

The depth of his roots in the community now mirrors the sorrow he feels about what happened in his city, on his street, less than a block from his house.

“Sutherland Springs is my place that I belong,” Stephen told the Wilson County News. “I feel for everyone that was in that church.”

His eyes are tired and red, both from the tragedy itself and the whirlwind of media activity that waited for him outside his door, ready to sweep him back into the narrative.

“I’ve almost been a prisoner in my own home,” the father of three said.

He recounted how he had gone out onto his front porch the day before just to breathe, and a reporter immediately accosted him from behind the police tape, asking for an interview. He told the journalist to get off his lawn.

“He said, ‘But sir, we consider you a hero.’

“And that’s that word I hate,” Stephen said.

In the days since the incident, he had been trying to understand his own discomfort in being labeled this way. It’s common to hear those who have played an important part in traumatic circumstances downplay their own roles, and Stephen had done the same during all the interviews to which he felt compelled to submit.

Under the glare of studio lights, he recounted how scared he was, that he wasn’t a hero, that it must have been God who gave him the strength to do what needed to be done. And everyone marveled about how humble the hero was being.

It was during a meeting with Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that Stephen’s place in Nov. 5’s tragic events became clear to him. He was told that he had been invited to attend a gathering of survivors who were going to meet with Vice President Mike Pence.

“I wasn’t invited to this because I was part of the survivors.

“I was invited to this because I took away the bogeyman, and they need to know that I’m a survivor. I’m part of them,” Stephen said, breaking down in tears.

The gunman shot at him twice — and missed.

Even after the media frenzy subsides, he worries that this dichotomy — that you’re either a hero or a victim — will continue to haunt him in his own community.

“I don’t want [my neighbors] to feel like, ‘Oh, you’re the one that saved lives,’” he said. “I want them to feel like, ‘Oh, you lost someone the way we did.’”

These are the words of a man who can no longer laugh without thinking of those victims who won’t be able to find humor or joy in anything for years to come. A man who didn’t believe in seeking out professional counseling, but has been forced into it all the same, in order to process the enormity of what he experienced. A man attempting to heal the suffering of his daughter after her own experience that day of trying to comfort a young girl, still covered in the blood of her family members.

“She told me that story and broke down into tears,” the overwhelmed father said. “I said, ‘Baby doll, who’s brave here?’ Because I’ll chase down 10 rogue maniacs if I don’t have to see that. She did more for that little girl’s life than I ever could have.”

With his side of the story now well-established in the media, he sought this final interview on the matter to set straight the misconceptions that have hovered around the truth of his role that day.

“Anybody who knows me knows that I’m not an aggressive person, and that’s not who I want to be known as,” Stephen said. “Someone asked me the other day what I want from here on forward — what I wanted for myself — and I said peace. The only things that are important are peace and love, and I have more love in my life than most people.

“But right now I’ve lost my peace.”

jvalcher@wcn-online.com

Return to top

Click here for digital edition
2017-11-15 digital edition