Not enough people know what a Gold Star parent is, says Charles Strange; but as one of them, he is dedicated to helping other family members of fallen service members.
A “Gold Star” in military parlance is someone who lost a close family member to combat. Through his Michael Strange Foundation, Strange holds workshops aiming to help people who endured this deeply painful tragedy.
When a service member is killed in action, Strange says, the families at first receive a wellspring of social and spiritual support. As the months progress, however, the families increasingly are left to deal alone with their devastating losses.
“That’s where we step in,” Strange says.
Strange and his helpers hold workshops where families address their grief, making friends and establishing close bonds in the process.
The Michael Strange Foundation sprang from Charles Strange’s own fitful journey as a Gold Star father.
Strange’s son Michael was a cryptologist who served with the Navy’s elite SEAL Team 6. Michael was aboard a Chinook helicopter that was shot down in Afghanistan in August 2011. The crash of “Extortion-17” killed all 38 people, plus one military working dog, who where aboard the aircraft.
In the aftermath, Charles Strange was left devastated.
“I’ve buried other family members, and friends,” Strange tells PEOPLE. “Burying a child is different. There’s nothing like it.”
Strange struggled mightily.
“I was out of my mind with grief,” he says.
The bereaved father attended counseling. He went through a series of therapists who, while sincere and compassionate, he says, did not understand the full scope of what Strange was going through.
One day, the heartbroken man talked to another Gold Star father.
“He was emotional, angry, crying,” Strange says. “I realized, I was just like him.”
After talking to other Gold Star parents, Strange found, “We’re all the same.”
Hence sprang the idea to help other families while honoring Michael’s memory. Consulting with mental health experts and other Gold Star parents, Strange organized four weekend workshops. His first year, he brought in 150 families.
The workshops use various techniques to help people express their grief.
In one technique, parents are asked to write a letter to the lost child. Later, the parents read the letter to the child’s picture.
“It was amazing to see how effective the grief counseling sessions went,” says Mary Jane Walton, whose son, Army Lt. Colonel James Walton, was killed in Afghanistan in 2008. A retired nurse, Walton and her husband Donald, a retired physician, have helped at the workshops. “People really opened up, and presented a lot of stories about their children.”
Families come to the workshops primarily through word of mouth. That’s what brought in Michael Anderson, whose son, Marine Cpl. Michael Anderson, was killed in Iraq in 2004.
“This is not a group we filled out an application for,” Anderson says. “We paid our dues with the blood of our children. We didn’t want to join, but we have a lifetime membership.”
The grieving father decided to try a workshop last year in Colorado.
“We laughed, we cried, we broke bread, we bonded,” says Anderson, who brought his then-16-year-old daughter.
The camaraderie is important, Anderson says, because other people often don’t understand what it’s like to be a Gold Star parent.
“I’ve had people say you should get over this,” Anderson says. “But, no; you never get over it.”
Other families offer much needed understanding.
“At the workshops, we walk a mile with other families,” Anderson says.
That includes sharing their coping methods.
One dad goes out to a mountain on the anniversary of his son’s death. A mom puts a note in a bottle and sends it into the ocean.
The workshops also explain the dynamics of grief.
Deep sorrow surfaces, Strange says, at odd times: at the coffee shop, when you spot another customer who resembles the lost family member; or at a child’s sporting match, when other families appear to be intact when yours is not.
Grief also lingers.
Strange was at a movie theater when he struck up a conversation with the grand-niece of a soldier killed in action on Luzon in World War II. Strange reminded the woman of how her own family had dealt with that loss.
“I remembered the same look in my grandmother’s eyes when she talked about my father’s brother,” the woman wrote on the foundation’s website.
“Grief is something you live with for a lifetime,” says Donald Walton. “There’s no magic wand. The idea is to learn to live with it constructively.”
The Michael Strange Foundation has helped, says Gold Star father Anderson.
“Charlie has moved me forward in my journey,” Anderson says. “There will never be complete closure, but each step moves you farther along the journey.”
The aim is to let families know they are not alone, and that their loved one did not die in vain, Strange says.
“We learn to laugh again,” Strange says. “We learn to help each other, and that’s how my wife and I started the foundation.”
It’s a way to pass along a legacy from his son Michael, the dad says.
Says Strange: “The foundation is God and our son working through us to help others.”