Overcoming trials in her own life, Marianne Sheehan dedicates herself to the students of Parkland

Bullied in her hometown, Milford native finds purpose as an Air Force mechanic, 'Titan Games' contestant, firefighter — and, her most important role, consoler of grief-stricken school shooting survivors

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  • A promo for "The Titan Games" featuring Marianne Sheehan (right)

  • Marianne Sheehan at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida (Photo provided)

  • The flag Marianne Sheehan made for Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School (Photo provided)

  • Marianne Sheehan, firefighter (Photo provided)

  • Marianne Sheehan keeps up her strength (Photo provided)

  • Cooper with his #MSDStrong tee shirt (Photo provided)

  • Marianne Sheehan, Air Force crew chief (Photo provided)

  • Marianne Sheehan swings a 60-pound ball in "The Titan Games" on Jan. 3 (Photo provided)

'The Rock' comes calling

A “Titan Games” staffer scouted Marianne Sheehan for the show’s premiere Jan. 3 on NBC after seeing her on an Instagram video. Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson called her personally — and her reaction was to scream.
She accepted because of her longtime admiration for Johnson.
“If anybody else had asked, the answer would be no," she said. "I’ve never done a competition before, just being really unsure of myself for the first time, not really knowing how I stacked up.”
She did not win, but she had tons of fun.
Sheehan said Johnson "is exactly how he portrays himself." She was amazed at how actively involved he was throughout the show, even while engaged in other projects.
“The biggest challenge was being present mentally and not having anxiety,” Sheehan said. “Swinging the 60-pound ball was very hard — I have very short arms, it’s like being a T-Rex.”
Contestants were tasked with knocking down two-story-high pillars by swinging the balls. Sheehan said her balls' momentum stopped as they hit the pillars. At the same time, it was painful hearing her competitor's pillars fall.
The "Titan Games" staff showed contestants how to make a fan page, warning them to shut off any nasty postings. The contestants were advised to block them, delete them, and not respond.
Good advice for anyone.

By Ginny Privitar

A year ago, Marianne Sheehan was a firefighter in Poultney, Vermont. She came home exhausted at 2 a.m. after battling a raging fire and logged onto Facebook, where she images from the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

"I saw the SWAT guys going through the classroom and saw the hands of students going up, shaking," she said. "I started to cry, and in that moment, I knew the Lord was going to use me. I was praying out loud and said, 'Whatever it was, I’d do it.'”

She had been tested before.

Sheehan, 27, grew up in Milford and attended Delaware Valley High School. Back then, bullies tormented her. She couldn't wait to get away. She coped by joining the diving team and staying at the pool as long as she could. Before she was 18, with her mom's consent, she signed up for the Air Force.

Before entering the military, she was very insecure.

“I cared what people thought, and once I signed that contract, I didn’t care what anybody thought,” Sheehan said. She was just happy she wasn't going to be "stuck in Milford."

"Now I love talking to high school kids and believe that’s a calling in my life," she said. "I was so angry at God for not changing (the bullies) and realized He was trying to change me."

But life in Milford wasn’t all bad. A fitness enthusiast, she met her husband, Derrek, while working at Planet Fitness. He was a member. For six months he kept asking her out but she declined.

"One day he brought me a cannoli as a surprise," Sheehan said. "I turned to my manager and said, 'I’m going marry that boy.'"

Her supreme fitness endures, and landed her a TV appearance on the very first episode of "the Titan Games," which aired on Jan. 3. According to NBC, "Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson offers exceptional everyday men and women the opportunity to push themselves in extreme tests of strength, endurance and mental fortitude. These contenders compete in intense head-to-head battles, with the winners battling it out in the ultimate physical challenge on Mount Olympus for the chance to become a Titan." (See related article for more about Sheehan's experience.)

The 'Knuckle-Buster Award'In the Air Force, Sheehan's high math scores got her a job as a crew chief — essentially a mechanic — on a jet aircraft. During her four-year tour she was stationed at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois and traveled extensively to other countries and states. During Operation Enduring Freedom (October 2001 to December 2014) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (March 2003 to Deceember 2011), she worked at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, servicing cargo jets. She would fly to locations that didn't have a crew chief.

Upon arriving overseas, she found that the ratio of men to women was 300-1.

"I struggled to find the ground beneath my feet, wanting their respect but knowing how hard it would be to get it," Sheehan said. "I had never touched a wrench before."

The pressure was intense, but she learned quickly and well.

She was at first upset with her job designation.

"I joined to be a chaplain's assistant — the complete opposite," she said.

But by the end of her deployment, the base commander gave her what he coined the "Knuckle-Buster Award," for being "the hardest-working crew chief on the flight line."

"It was the best part of my enlistment," Sheehan said.

Coping with carpentry and a dog named CooperAfter her tour, Sheehan moved to Vermont. While working as a firefighter, she started weight lifting and acquired a following on Instagram. She also started college, but by her second semester found she couldn't sit in class. She was lost without the sense of purpose and camaraderie she had in the service.

"I was suicidal, and I realized I was not able mentally to be in a classroom," she said.

She was admitted to intensive outpatient care for PTSD. Recovery was a roller-coaster.

“I got better, got better, got worse," she said.

She adopted Cooper, a German shepherd puppy. If she had the dog, she figured, she wouldn’t be able to kill herself. She would have to live for the dog's sake. She and Cooper started attending service dog training.

During her last semester she took an introductory carpentry class.

"I wanted to make myself the American flag, and once I started making American flags, all my military buddies wanted a flag," Sheehan said. "I dropped out and started a business making custom American flags out of wood and posted photos to Instagram."

She still makes them, but now they're just for gifts.

Parkland callsA firefighter in Florida saw a video about her flags that Sheehan had posted on Instagram. As it turned out, he had graduated from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School. After the shooting, he asked Sheehan to make one of her wooden flags for the school.

She wanted to deliver the flag in person. She and Cooper flew to Florida, with plans to stay for three days.

"I'm here," she said as she entered the firehouse. "Is there any way I can help?"

"That day I was escorted to the hospital and was talking to students and families that survived the shooting," she said.

When the school reopened, she and Cooper were asked to be there.

"I didn’t know how I was going to help," she said. "But I would go in the classroom and say, 'If you need a laugh, here’s Cooper’s Instagram. If you're alone or suicidal, drinking more or smoking more than you used to, I know what that's like, and I wished someone had reached out to me during that time in my life.' I spoke like a friend and gave them my cell."

That night she received numerous text messages. She wanted to answer them all. A teacher gave her a place to stay, and she remained for three weeks.

"I ended up loving these students and families," she said. "I would go from house to house at night."

She also spoke with first responders.

"These tough first responders don’t want to see a psychiatrist or therapist, but they’ll talk to me and Cooper," she said.

Sheehan has since relocated to Santa Fe but still flies to Parkland every month and stays with different families.

“I told my kids I would be there every time as long as they want me, coming back every time until they graduate,” Sheehan said.

She'll be flying down this month for the one-year observance of the massacre, which occurred on Feb. 14, 2018. She is happy that she is able to help kids and families cope.

“When I don’t know what to say, I call my therapist and get back to them," she said. She doesn't soften her responses or tell them what they want to hear.

Sheehan had a heart-to-heart talk with one young man who was wounded and lost his older brother in the shooting. He said he felt like he was her brother.

“My kids text me and call me all the time,” she said, “They know, no matter what time of day or night, they can contact me.”

Sheehan has established a GoFundMe page to allow her to continue to visit the Parkland families. She may be reached in several ways:

Send a message through gofundme.com/CoopersTrips

Send a message on her contact page, SheehanStrong.com

Email SheehandCo@gmail.com

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