Jamie Calhoon is taking it one day at a time. Ask her how she’s doing and she’ll give you a straight answer:
“If you would have asked me two and a half weeks ago, I would have said, ‘not very good.' she said Saturday. "It was an eye-opener to sit and listen to Casey. It hit me in the face that, ‘Oh my God, we could have lost him’, and it scared the crap out of me.”
Calhoon is talking about her son-in-law, Casey Blanchard.
Blanchard, his mom, Julie, and best friend Shelley Hayes were shot last month in Missoula at point-blank range with an AR-15.
Johnathan Bertsch is accused of shooting the three. Later that evening he allegedly shot and critically wounded Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Wade Palmer, also a Stevensville resident.
Shelley Hayes was killed in the attack, which also injured Julie Blanchard.
Casey took eight rounds, wounding one of his arms, his chest, spine, abdomen and both legs.
He survived, however, and is now in rehabilitation in Utah.
“Tough dude," Calhoon said. "He is a strong man.”
It’s Saturday evening and we’re standing outside Saint Mary’s Parish in Stevensville. It’s cold and raw and a sloppy mix of rain and snow moved in to the valley by early evening. None of it deterred hundreds of people from attending a spaghetti dinner benefit for the Blanchard family.
It’s a full house inside the parish hall.
Tables lining the room are filled with items or services up for silent auction.
Auctioneers chanting at the front of the house, meanwhile, quickly move through items ranging from elaborate gift baskets to hand-crafted knives and bronze sculptures.
Saturday night’s benefit was organized by two 23-year-old women, Skye Mitcham and Jessica Hals, both longtime Blanchard family friends.
Mitcham says Casey and wife Leah Blanchard, “would be more than willing to help out anybody and give the shirt off their backs if someone else needed it more than they did. Honestly, it’s the least that Jessica and I could do.”
Jessica Hals is still trying to wrap her head around the random violence that changed the course of her friends’ lives.
“It’s heartbreaking to know that someone you personally know has this happen to them," Hals said. "We thought Montana was a safe place, that Missoula was a safe place. Any more you never know what’s going to happen from one minute to the next ten minutes.”
Sheila Schiwal and her daughter Mariah own a mobile bakery that works the length of the valley from Hamilton to Missoula
Mariah has special needs, and Leah Blanchard was Mariah’s aid in high school.
“(Leah) helped her and she was so sweet," Shiela said. "Whenever she sees Mariah, even after graduation, she gives her a big hug and introduces her to her kids. She’s just very kind.”
The Schiwals donated 200 handmade brownie sundaes to Saturday night’s fundraiser for Leah’s husband, Casey.
That’s the sort of community spirit that Ben Meyer deeply appreciates about the Bitterroot Valley.
“Living here, grew up here, moved away but back now," Meyer said. "I don’t know Casey Blanchard personally, but know the story. This is what small towns across America - and especially in Montana- do.”
Meyer also attended a local fundraiser earlier this month for Highway Patrol Trooper Wade Palmer.
I asked Casey Blanchard’s mother-in-law, Jamie Calhoon, if the media’s extensive coverage of trooper Palmer comes at the expense of attention needed for the rest of the shooter’s victims.
“Yeah, it does bother a lot of people," Calhoon said. "I know some of the Palmer family. I adore them. I’m not taking anything away from them. I think it’s just because he’s a trooper. He’s out there every single day protecting everybody, but the rest of the three – they’re just the average working person. Each family is going through their own hurt, their own pain. Everybody’s going through a hard time.”
Calhoon estimates the Blanchards, who are uninsured, are facing nearly a million dollars in medical expenses.
Cradling her grandson, Calhoon says the family has no choice but to take it one day at a time.
And on Saturday she felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the kinship of the Bitterroot Valley and for her son-in-law’s life.
“How do you say thank you to a community, a state and half the people you don’t even know?" Calhoon asked. "Today is a good day. You caught me on a good day. Yeah – he’s here with us.”
Calhoon says Casey Blanchard may be able to return to the Bitterroot Valley by early June.
Saturday night’s benefit raised about $26,000 for the Blanchard family.