After Marine's death, his family remembers his life
SUFFOLK, Va. — When the call came on Sept. 16, Mary Strong looked over at her husband, Donny, behind the wheel.
The Suffolk couple were on the way to Connecticut to attend a memorial service for Donny’s father, who had died four days earlier. There was nowhere to pull over on the busy road, and Mary wondered how she was ever going to repeat what their daughter-in-law had just told her.
“Charlie’s gone,” Taylor had said.
Their youngest son, a Marine, had been gunned down in western Afghanistan’s Herat province by one of the Afghan soldiers he’d been training for months. Their older son, Jasen, who served in the same Marine Corps special operations unit and was deployed nearby, had gotten there in time to hold Charlie’s hand and was now escorting his brother’s body home. Mary couldn’t stop thinking about what he must be going through.
Donny, now informed, could barely see. Everything was red. He focused all his efforts on driving.
“It was the longest trip we’ve ever taken in our lives,” Donny said.
The Strongs settled in Suffolk nearly two decades ago, the last of Donny’s many Navy moves.
It was here that Charlie developed his love of cars and motorcycles by helping his dad fix them, where during high school, he learned auto maintenance after hours at the Pruden Center.
The yard is etched with Donny’s handiwork: A meticulously restored horse-drawn wooden cart sits outside the fence along the main road; a handcrafted wood and iron table and chairs furnish the back patio; a koi pond and meditation bench define a quiet side yard.
And it is here, at the back table — after the long journey to Dover Air Force Base in which Jasen ushered Charlie home; after an unexpected outpouring of love and support took shape as they traveled down I-95, with firefighters and police and ordinary people lining the highway to pay their respects; after Charlie was lowered into the ground at Marine Corps Base Quantico — that Donny and Mary sit and pore over photographs.
There’s Charlie at his wedding and with Taylor, now expecting their first child, dozens of images of him posing proudly in uniform, of the two brothers stopping to face the camera so Mom or Dad can capture a moment.
“He had this magnetic personality that just drove people to him,” Mary says. “His smile. Even now, the guys he was working with, one of the things they’ll tell you about was his smile.”
At the wake, one Marine told them a story. During training, the group had to find their way out of the woods. They were lost and exhausted and more than a little fed up. And here comes Charlie — or Chuck, as he was known among his Marine comrades — running along, “smiling away and laughing,” Mary says.
“All of them look at each other and said, ‘Well, he must know the way,’ and they all just followed him and he brought them right out of the woods, right where they needed to go,” she says. “That was just the way Charlie was. People just gravitated to him.”
Charlie grew up a lot in the Marines, his mother says. He’d never been a serious student like his older brother. Even after Jasen joined, their parents didn’t think Charlie would end up in the military.
But Charlie always admired his brother. As a student at Nansemond River High School, he watched Jasen join the Marine Corps, then become a member of its exclusive Special Operations Command. Charlie made it his mission to follow the same path.
They were the only siblings in the command and lived just a few doors down from each other in Holly Ridge, N.C. — Jasen with his wife and children, Charlie and Taylor expecting a girl.
Mary now realizes there had been clues to Charlie’s path. He was about 9 when the family, living in Bremerton, Wash., went hiking one day at Mount Rainier. Charlie was using a walking stick he’d spent days whittling from a tree branch. When an elderly woman struggling down the path commented on how nice it would be to have a stick like that, he just handed it to her.
That was when she knew just how special a man he’d become, Mary says, a sob surfacing.
When the time came, Charlie took his passion for cars and made a career for himself as a vehicle recovery operator, placing himself in harm’s way for a job he loved.
On his first deployment to Iraq, he was driving a convoy refueling tanker when it was attacked. A rocket-propelled grenade tore through the passenger side, wounding the Marine next to him and flipping the truck onto the driver’s side.
It burst into flames; the two men struggled to escape. The other Marine had shrapnel wounds and Charlie suffered second- and third-degree burns, but they dragged their way to a building where they took shelter while colleagues fought off insurgents.
Another time, he ran to a burning vehicle under incoming fire to pull out the bodies of four Marines. He later told his men why: “Because everybody deserves to go home,’?” his mother recounts, her voice catching again. “That’s the kind of stuff he did.”
But Charlie didn’t tell his parents everything. When he got retinal surgery to repair his vision, he told his mom the doctors had taken out scar tissue from his cornea.
“What scar tissue?” Mary asked him.
“Where the shrapnel went in,” Charlie said.
“What shrapnel?” she asked.
“Oh, from the car bomb.”
“Yeah,” Donny says. “There are stories he never told us.”
News of his death drew friends and comrades from across the country. They flew in from Washington and Illinois, Texas and Florida. Marines told his parents that Charlie helped them figure out their finances and if they needed money, he helped them with that too.
One buddy, upon hearing that Charlie had been killed, got a huge tattoo on his chest emblazoned with the words: “He who sheds blood with me shall forever be my brother.” The word “Strong” is written in red across the top corner of the image. It took nine hours of inking, Donny says.
A friend set up a GoFundMe site to raise money for Taylor and the daughter she is expecting in December.
The day after his brother died, while still in Afghanistan, Jasen sent a note to Jesse James, founder of the West Cost Choppers motorcycle brand.
Charlie had been a motorcycle enthusiast and a big fan and had recently sent James a video of himself exploding a “cake” of C4 explosive in the hopes of winning a bike.
He didn’t win, but he did get honorable mention, and James was crafting a custom-made rifle for Charlie.
Jasen wrote to the star, telling him that the last time he saw his brother, Charlie had been excited about receiving the honorable mention.
“Regretfully, my brother was killed in action last night, serving with me in Afghanistan. I am currently bringing him home,” he wrote. “Thank you for contributing to one of the last moments I shared with my baby brother. Semper Fi.”
James posted Jasen’s note on his Facebook page with a simple introduction: “No words …” he wrote.
He also posted a note urging fans to contribute to the GoFundMe page for Taylor and the baby. A page that had started out seeking $1,000 is now up to $43,000 and climbing daily.
Home and family have always been central to the Strongs. Despite Donny’s military background and a big Harley Davidson tattoo on his forearm, he was warm and gushy with his sons. Hugs were a big part of the family dynamic. The boys always said “I love you.”
The dining room table, once the place of family meals, is now a shrine covered with coins from the brothers’ unit, photos of Charlie as a baby, a groom and a Marine, with a folded U.S. flag given to them the day Charlie was buried.
“It’s going to be a lonely place without Charlie walking through door,” Donny says.
He’s taken to wearing a camouflage bandana since his son died. Mornings are tough. “You hear the birds chirping and think Charlie’s no longer here.”
For Mary, evenings hit the hardest — and driving down the road alone.
Sometimes, grief creeps up out of nowhere and grips them.
Donny, a truck driver, got a ticket his first week back at work because he misread the speed limit. He realized he’d gone back too soon and took another week off. One day, when Mary asked him in the supermarket what kind of yogurt he wanted, he burst out crying.
They struggle to understand why an Afghan soldier would turn on the Marines. Their sons’ unit had been training a group of Afghan forces for months and was just weeks away from coming home. They’re trying not to hate.
They fully expect Jasen to stay in the service. Like Charlie, who even when injured would get right back out there to be with his buddies, Jasen is committed to the mission — and the men, Donny says.
So they made up their minds that they will continue to support him, even if he chooses to go back to war.
“We can’t tell him we don’t want him to go because —” Donny says. Mary finishes his sentence: “He’s fighting for what he believes in.”
This week, the Strongs will head down to Holly Ridge, where the Marines and the local VFW are planning a celebration of Charlie’s life.
Mary’s not sure she will be able to enter the home where Charlie last lived.
She hopes the baby has a lot of Charlie’s characteristics — though maybe not be quite as meticulous as his father, both parents agree. In Charlie’s cabinets, every item is stored with the labels aligned.
He was also a guy who planned ahead and sent wonderful surprises. Before he deployed, he planted a birthday gift for their dog Theo in the pantry. It included a card and a bag of doggie treats.
After his death, a distraught florist called Taylor’s house and spoke with her mother. She had an order for three dozen roses for Taylor. They been ordered by Charlie in Afghanistan, before he died.
There was a card, too, the florist told her.
On it, he’d chosen six words: “I’ll see you in my dreams.”
©2014 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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