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Lives of ‘three brave women’ killed at Yountville veterans program celebrated

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Yountville

Heroes. Heroines. Three brave women.

These were the terms used Monday night to memorialize three mental health care providers who died March 9 in service to traumatized veterans, each having dedicated her life to helping others struggling to adjust to life after war.

During a 75-minute public event on the grounds of the Veterans Home of California—Yountville where the women served, they were remembered for their compassion, commitment and unique skills for meeting troubled patients on their own battleground.

Honored in many of the same ways a fallen soldier might be — Congressman Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, was among the speakers, and representatives for each family were given folded American flags — the women wore no formal uniforms in life.

“But make no mistake, they served with us,” California Secretary of Veterans Affairs Vito Imbasciani told a full house at the 1,200-seat Napa Valley Performing Arts Center at Lincoln Theater in Yountville. “They shared our mission. They dedicated their lives to serving veterans, our brothers and sisters in arms.”

Executive Director Christine Loeber, 48, Clinical Director Jennifer Gray Golick, 42, and Dr. Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba, 32, a clinical psychologist with the San Francisco Department of Veterans Affairs Healthcare, formed the primary care team at The Pathway Home, a nonprofit residential treatment program for combat-stressed veterans on the grounds of the veterans home.

The women’s mission was to support men wrestling with the memories, doubts and horrors they had experienced in war and in life, at least four of whom attended the service Monday night and briefly stood to pay tribute to the women who worked with them.

“It is impossible to count how many lives they made better, how many lives they helped save,” said Yountville Mayor John Dunbar, a longtime member of The Pathway Home board of directors. “That is their legacy.”

But there was a man who perhaps could not be saved, a one-time Army infantryman recently kicked out of the program for undisclosed conduct who returned March 9 to exact vengeance.

Albert Cheung Wong, 36, a former Army infantryman who had served in Afghanistan, came heavily armed and uninvited that day to a weekly staff meeting at which program veterans and personnel were saying farewell to two departing staff members.

Wong sent everyone out of the room except for the three women, who were shot and killed. Wong then took his own life, authorities said.

Operations at the 10-year-old program have been suspended amid an ongoing investigation into the shooting.

Gonzales Shushereba was still a newlywed and expecting her first child with her husband, TJ. Her unborn baby died with her.

Zach Skiles, a graduate of The Pathway Home program now seeking a doctorate in clinical psychology, credited the trio’s success to their willingness to forge “an authentic connection, genuine experiences based on our relationship with them, and the love and dedication it takes to lead us through our s--t.”

In a country that he said often pays lip service to caring for military veterans, “every day, these women gave us so much more than lip service.”

Those who attended the service were greeted on arrival by an impressively large American flag fluttering over the roadway leading to the veterans home, courtesy of St. Helena Fire Department and a ladder truck.

The service also was attended by about 18 flag-bearing Patriot Guard Riders from the region — veterans who frequently stand honorary guard at funerals and burials of U.S. military and first responders.

A large contingent of at least 40 staffers from the VA hospital in Palo Alto also lined the sidewalk outside the theater. Many had worked with Loeber or Gonzales Shushereba. Wearing bright blue T-shirts, they were there, one member said, to offer their own version of the procession granted many fallen warriors.

“We truly regard the women, and ourselves, frankly, as heroes, and we feel they fell in the line of duty,” said Dorene Loew, a VA psychologist.

Wong was not mentioned during Monday’s service, but his memory was evoked by Keith Armstrong, director of the Student Affairs Health Program at the San Francisco VA Health Care System, who said “five lives were destroyed … including T.J. and Jennifer’s yet to be born baby.”

Many of those who paid tribute also spoke of the need to continue the women’s work, and to take personal responsibility for ensuring veterans get the assistance they have earned.

One person’s conduct “is not what veterans are,” Armstrong said ”We all love working with veterans. That will never change.”

Armstrong eulogized the women individually:

Golick, a big-hearted, eloquent, “sophisticated professional” who loved Giants baseball and right-fielder Hunter Pence, leaves a husband of nearly 20 years and an 8-year-old daughter.

Loeber, who once worked in marketing and community relations, left it “because she felt a need to work with people who needed help. She was kind and empathetic and passionate, and she was equally accurate and efficient and effective.”

Gonzales Shusheruba, a brilliant young clinician was “an up-and-comer with boundless energy and cutting- edge skills.” She was, Armstrong said, “a local gem” who already had “made a national impact.”

Each “had their own unique combination of attributes that made them special,” Gonzales Shushereba’s father, Mike Gonzales, said at the close of the service. He was the only family member to speak.

“But what they had in common was that they were willing to spend their lives toiling in obscurity, doing a job that was thankless and was never going to end.

“Who does that? Really, who does that?” he said, as applause rippled across the theater. “My thought is, only the best of us do.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.