Mom says enlisting in army started son’s downfall
July 20, 2008, Tampa, FL – When the United States was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, 14-year-old Phillip Michael Pearson told his mother he wanted to join the military as soon as he graduated from Alonso High School.
The wrestling team captain graduated early at age 17, but his mother wouldn’t sign the papers. When he turned 18 in 2004, he immediately enlisted, said his mother, Tonya Shelton.
His entry into the Army, where he trained for Special Forces, was the beginning of a downward spiral, Shelton said. That ended Tuesday when his body was found in a courtyard between four air conditioning units at the Altamonte Apartments on North Himes Avenue.
“There was not one person that knew him before he went in the Army that would say anything negative,” Shelton said. “Before he went in the Army, he had no problems whatsoever.”
After initial training in Oklahoma, he was sent to Fort Benning, Ga., Shelton said. He told his mother the place had a party atmosphere like a college dorm.
“These kids in the Army created their own games to fight boredom,” Shelton said.
She said her son complained there was no structure, and that his fellow trainees were getting into trouble.
They were being trained for chemical and biological warfare and had to spend prolonged periods of time inside gas chambers, Shelton said. The experience was like torture, she said, and made the young men and women sick.
The trainees started experimenting with huffing Freon, which is used in air conditioners, she said. Her son told her it made him euphoric like nothing he’d ever experienced.
“Before he started doing this, he was training for something, and he was put on antipsychotic medication,” Shelton said.
Fits Of Rage, Talking To Himself
Less than a year after he went into the Army, she said, Pearson received an honorable medical discharge. He never got the chance to serve overseas. When he came home, he was not the same person.
Before the Army, “he would go out of his way to help anyone,” Shelton said. “Phillip was somebody, he had a great smile. He always had arms open and ready to comfort you … He would make you laugh. He was a sweetheart all around. He would play his guitar. When he came back, he hardly ever played his guitar anymore.”
He would go into rages, she said. He would talk to himself. Pearson, who previously had only two misdemeanor charges for larceny/petty theft as a juvenile, started getting arrested for trespassing, petit theft and burglary, Shelton said. Police would find him standing in the street talking to himself.
One time, he was doing some steel work with his brother when he disappeared. His brother found him in a cantaloupe patch, crawling on his elbows and knees. He told his brother to get down or else they would be seen.
Shelton said the family tried to get psychiatric help, but there were certain things he refused to talk about.
“They can’t help him if they don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “He said, ‘Mom, if I tell him everything, I can get court-martialed for treason.'”
Still, he was in and out of treatment. “I’ve had him at Northside Mental Health Center,” Shelton said. “He was at the VA hospital and psychiatric ward.”
He was hospitalized several times under the state’s Baker Act. Toward the end, he stopped taking his medications because he didn’t like the side effects.
“All he wanted to do was get his head back and be normal again,” Shelton said.
The Last Visit
“The last day I had seen him was Saturday,” Shelton said. She and her fiance tried to get him to stay with them for a couple of weeks.
It was tough, she said, because he would get up in the middle of the night with flashbacks and start raging.
“We let him in on Saturday and he took a shower,” she said. “He said it would be easier to stay with a homeless friend in a shed. We begged him to stay. I fed him breakfast … He started getting more and more irritated with little things that were going on.”
Pearson became irate and “just took off running. He ran, I guess directly to the apartments. He had been living in the apartments between the air-conditioning units.”
She said investigators told her the last time anyone saw him alive was Monday. He was walking around talking to himself. The witness thought he had a Bluetooth device in his ear because he was just talking.
The next day, his body was found. There was no trauma to the body or indication of foul play, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office reported.
“He’s in a better place,” Shelton said.
Shelton thinks he died from huffing. “I’m hoping it was as quick and painless as they say,” she said.
She said she isn’t angry with the military for the damage she said was done to her son.
“I can’t blame the Army for this. They do what they need to do. I blame the Army for not helping my son after he was released.
“They knew he had a problem when they released him and they didn’t follow through with any help,” she said.
She said he was approved for VA benefits. “I just now received a bill from VA for $6,000 for my son,” she said. “I blame them for not following up on these kids that are discharged on these medications that had no problems when they go in.
“Once they get these kids in, it’s either do or die.”
Now she is left to plan her son’s memorial service. She said it will be at the clubhouse of the Carrollwood Station Apartments on Colwell Avenue. Friends will be received between 1 and 5 p.m. Tuesday.