‘It’s still very raw’: South Deerfield family reeling from daughter’s murder

  • U.S. Navy Corpsman Meaghan Burns in her boot camp graduation photograph in November 2015. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO


  • U.S. Navy Corpsman Meaghan Burns with her fiancé, James. The metal bracelet on her right wrist originally belonged to her father to honor a friend killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Meaghan was wearing it when she was killed in Virginia on May 4. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • The Burns family during a family vacation in Dublin, Ireland, in April 2017. U.S. Navy Corpsman Meaghan Burns, far right, was one of three active-duty Navy corpsmen who died in Portsmouth, Va., on May 4 in a double homicide and suicide. She is joined by her mother, Carolyn, younger sister, Kyleigh Rose, and father, Matthew. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/29/2019 10:59:25 PM
Modified: 12/29/2019 10:59:11 PM

SOUTH DEERFIELD — To see him looking at his phone while sitting toward the back of Leo’s Table in South Deerfield, Matthew Burns doesn’t necessarily look like a man harboring pain. He’s clean-cut, stands tall with good posture, and has a firm handshake. But there is anguish behind those eyes framed by a pair of glasses.

“It’s really hard to talk about,” he said last week. “It’s still very raw. I think it always will be.”

Burns’ 23-year-old daughter, Meaghan, was one of three active-duty Navy corpsmen who died at a 7-Eleven convenience store in Portsmouth, Va., in a double homicide and suicide on May 4. Meaghan’s friend, Shianne Taylor Soles, 19, of Veradale, Wash., was also killed by Donavon Moora, 22, of New York. Meaghan and her friend were stationed at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. Moora was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where Burns had spent 2½ years as a Marine in the 1980s.

“This kid who killed our daughter and her friend was a guy trained by the military to help people, help sailors and Marines,” he said. “The thing is, I called the police two days after she died and, unfortunately, he described to me in great detail how she was murdered, but not why. We still don’t have any word about what happened.”

Moora was Soles’ ex-boyfriend, and reportedly was abusive. Burns said his daughter had forced Moora to go to the police station on base to get searched. Burns said he is trying to get copies of the official reports so he can learn the whole story.

Burns also said he has arrangements to speak with state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and the district manager for U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat representing the 2nd Congressional District of Massachusetts, to discuss potential legislation for increased mental health screening in the military.

The past 7½ months have been nightmarish for the Burns family — the elder Burns, his wife, Carolyn, and youngest daughter Kyleigh Rose, who lives on Nantucket.

“The next thing is, we’ve got to get through Christmas. We’re not going to spend it at home. We’re going to New York City,” Burns said last week. “Christmas was always our big holiday. It was always at home.”

Support network

The Burns clan has found itself members of the club they hoped never to join — Gold Star families. Meaghan was active-duty when she was killed. She had also recently agreed to marry her boyfriend, a fellow U.S. Navy corpsman.

Matthew Burns said his family has received tremendous support from the Military Friends Foundation, run by Sarah Sweeney. The foundation paid for the air travel and lodging of 20 of Meaghan’s friends and co-workers so they could attend her celebration of life. Earlier in December, the family visited the State House for a tree lighting in honor of Gold Star families. Last month, the Burns family attended the Run for the Fallen, a Military Friends Foundation project in Dedham, and stood along the course with a photo of Meaghan. Burns said one runner approached the family to say she was from Greenfield and that the whole community supports them.

“The local community’s been incredibly supportive — friends, our relatives, even strangers,” he said.

The Burnses’ South Deerfield home has been flooded with thousands of cards and gifts from across the nation. The gifts include American flags and four homemade quilts and afghans, including one from a Florida woman who has since become Facebook friends with Matthew Burns, who said the quilt now rests on Meaghan’s bed. Burns also said his family has received many pictures of Meaghan from her friends, and he posts one to Facebook every couple of days.

The Navy flew Meaghan’s body to Bradley International Airport in Connecticut, where she received a military escort to Wrisley Funeral Home in South Deerfield on May 14. Meaghan, a 2013 graduate of Frontier Regional School, was cremated. Burns carries a small sample of her ashes in a cremation necklace he wears.

Hundreds of people — many of them holding American flags — stood quietly on the town common as the escort made its way through. Matthew said people with banners and flags lined every overpass between Hartford, Conn., and Deerfield. He said the drive was gut-wrenching, but also inspiring.

A familiarity with loss

Burns and his wife have grown to dislike a certain word: loss. Nobody lost Meaghan — she was stolen, he said. Nevertheless, Burns is familiar with the death of loved ones.

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when most Americans were reeling from the deaths of 3,000 of their countrymen and a future full of uncertainty, he was mourning Matthew D. Garvey, an old Marine buddy who perished while fulfilling his duties as a New York City firefighter. Burns made a habit of wearing a commemorative bracelet to remember his fallen friend. Meaghan took a liking to it and Burns gave it to her on the promise that she take care of it. It can be seen in numerous photos of Meaghan, and she was wearing it when she was killed.

Burns said Meaghan became a Navy corpsman because she liked helping people and wanted to follow in his military footsteps. September would have been the four-year anniversary of her enlistment. Burns said Meaghan planned to become a physician’s assistant, also like her father.

Burns has been an emergency room physician assistant at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield for about 17 years, though he hasn’t worked since Meaghan was killed. The demands of the job carry too much potential for emotional triggers.

“There are reasons I can’t go back to work — just the nature of the work and the way she died. My boss there and all my co-workers are very supportive,” he said, adding that he is still on staff but is on an indefinite leave of absence. His situation will be evaluated at the end of month. “I’m going to see if there’s another job in the health system that I can do that’s not going to cause as much emotion for me, but I don’t know if that exists.”

Carolyn, Matthew Burns said, has returned to work as a speech therapist for the Union 38 School District.

Matthew Burns has taken hundreds of photographs in the past seven months.

Whether he’s walking around South Deerfield or watching a couple of dogs play at his niece’s house, he will take out his phone to snap a picture whenever an image speaks to him. And he has noticed sunbeams have made their fair share of appearances in his photos.

Sometimes, he is conscious of the cascading illumination when he takes the picture; other times, it is a happy surprise. But, either way, the beams often make themselves known. And he can’t help but wonder if the sunlight is his daughter, Meaghan, stopping by to say hello.


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