It won’t be easy for Sheila Gearhart from now on, but then it wasn’t easy before. Sheila, 35, is the widow of Daniel Gearhart, the 34-year-old American soldier of fortune who was executed by the Angolan government on July 10.
“He wasn’t a true mercenary,” says Sheila. “He never thought of killing anyone. He never owned a gun. He needed the money.” Gearhart died on the couple’s 11th wedding anniversary far from the small house in suburban Kensington, Md. where they lived with their four children: Gail, 9 (who is retarded), Michael, 7, and twin boys Justin and Kevin, 3½. Gearhart had been promised $1,000 for going to Africa, an additional $640 for his air fare and a minimum of $300 a week.
Gearhart was paid $1,640. He turned it over to a fellow mercenary who was to send it to Sheila; the money is still missing. Four days after his arrival in Angola, Gearhart was captured. “Danny didn’t desert me,” she insists. “In his own misguided way, he was taking care of us. He was a family man.”
Before he left Gearhart was attending Montgomery College and working in two jobs—maintaining cafeteria equipment and packing parachutes. He was also serving one weekend a month with the National Guard. He brought home about $150 a week. Sheila, a college graduate, earned about $150 a month as a part-time receptionist. “He was frustrated in his jobs,” she recalls. “He was under tremendous pressure. He was tired of the pressure. And he could never accept that Gail was retarded, that he did not have a perfect child.”
Last fall Gearhart, a Vietnam veteran who ironically wasn’t even scratched in that war, first talked about becoming a mercenary. Sheila was mortified. “No,” she pleaded, “don’t do it! No way! That’s not you.” But he went ahead and placed an ad in a magazine called Soldier of Fortune. A California recruiter signed him up. On Feb. 3 he told Sheila he was going to Africa. “Is there anything I can do to stop you?” she asked. “No,” he replied.
“When Danny got into the cab,” Sheila remembers, “I knew I’d never see him alive again. I kissed him goodbye, but I regret that it wasn’t warmer. As soon as the cab pulled away, I went over to my neighbor’s and broke down. I cried and cried.”
Gearhart languished in prison for three months before he faced the firing squad. “I read that he was shot seven times and died instantly,” she says. “I certainly hope so. I feel relief that Danny is not suffering anymore. He stood tall up to the end.”
Sheila’s problems have mounted. Her son Justin was hit by a car and his leg broken. She went into the hospital with appendicitis and an infected fallopian tube. Bills piled up. The family was on welfare for two months, but since Gearhart died friends, neighbors, relatives and total strangers have sent $16,000 to help out. “I’m not alone,” Sheila says. “Everyone went out of their way to do what they could.” She brought her husband’s body back home for a memorial mass attended by 300 people. The priest called Sheila “an inspiration,” but decided against any eulogy for Gearhart.
She and Danny met at a high school party in Washington, D.C. “We liked each other right away,” recalls Sheila. “He was shy and I was outgoing. They say opposites attract—it was certainly true in our case.” Her family, thinking him too young, broke up the romance. He married another girl, was divorced in a few months and married Sheila in 1965. “We had a bumpy road in our marriage,” she reflects. “We never talked much in later years. We never really had time. But when I got his letters, I knew he still loved me. The letters are beautiful.”
On July 6 Gearhart wrote: “This will be my last letter to you, because I know I’m going to die. I’m just one of those people who never made good. It will be very hard on you all, and it is all my fault, as most everything that has gone wrong has been. All I can say is that I’m sorry, and I wish I could make it up to you. Please pray that God will let me into His house so that one day I can see all of you again. All my love and goodbye.”
Sheila, the youngest of five children of an Irish Catholic family from Washington, says she will soon return to work. “I can cope. I will cope,” she says. “I have great inner peace. I know I can handle the future. I have four little reasons. And Danny’s letters will keep me going.”