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Creating a cause to be thankful for

This past Veteran’s Day, the men and women who serve and have served in the nation’s armed forces were honored here in Philadelphia. But behind each and every one of those veterans is an entire family, and when a soldier loses his or her life, family members can be left struggling to find answers.

The holidays can be especially hard.

Charles Strange and his family did not celebrate Thanksgiving last year. Just knowing the holiday is approaching, he said, bothers him. His son, Michael J. Strange, was 25 on Aug. 8, 2011, when he was killed in action during his third tour in Afghanistan.

Michael Strange told his father in July 2011 that he would be home again for Thanksgiving that year. While, tragically, that visit never happened, Charles Strange is trying to make carrying on with life a bit easier for himself and other fallen veterans’ families.

Perhaps it’s what they will be most thankful for in the coming months.

“I’m trying to do something, just like my son defended this country and fought for our freedoms,” Charles Strange said.

Michael Strange was a graduate of North Catholic High School, and his family has strong ties to the River Wards and Fishtown in particular. Charles Strange has been working as a table games dealer at SugarHouse Casino since 2010, and Michael Strange’s grandmother, Bernice, lived in Fishtown for many years. His aunt, Maggie O’Brien, still resides there and is president of the Fishtown Action Committee.

To lend a hand to other grieving families of fallen veterans, Charles Strange has organized what he’s calling “Healing the Family: Moving Beyond Loss,” a counseling retreat for the families of fallen veterans. The retreat is a project of the Michael J. Strange Foundation, which Charles Strange and others organized in Michael’s memory.

The first retreat is scheduled to take place Feb. 15 through 17, in Malvern, Pa. It is the first counseling retreat to be organized for the parents and siblings of fallen service personnel, Strange said.

“This is what I think he would do. He would step out. He was always for the underdog, and he loved everybody, his brothers and sisters, his friends,” Charles Strange said.

Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Strange was a Navy cryptologist technician who joined the Navy SEALs in a support role in 2009. He quickly advanced to SEAL Team 6, the team that led the mission to assassinate Osama Bin Laden. He died when Taliban fighters shot down the American Chinook helicopter in which he and 30 other U.S. service members were riding.

“We have to do this for the parents,” Charles Strange said. “I still get gripped up, and don’t get to work, or go to Wawa to get coffee, and start crying when I see a kid that looks like him.”

When Charles Strange first sought out counseling, he felt disconnected from well-meaning therapists who could not understand his grief. He later was allowed to attend a counseling retreat with the organization Vets Journey Home. There, he said, he finally began to find some solace. He realized that he could pay tribute to his son’s memory by providing support to other fallen soldier’s families.

“The process this weekend is sort of like cracking an egg, helping the mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters learn some coping skills,” Charles Strange said.

The February retreat is planned for five veterans’ mothers and five veterans’ fathers. In the future, Charles Strange said he hopes to organize retreats in Chicago and in Texas. The retreats are free for participating families with food, housing and transportation covered by donations.

The U.S. Department of Defense has provided Charles Strange with 5,000 names of people who lost a loved one in overseas military actions. He said he believes this group needs special attention for grief counseling.

“I would love to have had somebody call me after Michael died, two-three weeks later, ‘Yo, buddy, I know what you’re going through; you’re gonna be numb; you’re gonna be crazy,’” Charles Strange said.

In reaching out to other families of fallen veterans, Charles Strange said he has found many people who are suffering in a way similar to what he went through.

He spoke with one mother whose son died three years ago. She hasn’t left home since.

There was another man who lost a child and said he stayed indoors for nine months afterward, drinking Jack Daniels and smoking marijuana, before he could bear to leave again.

One man refused to consider the retreat when Charles Strange first called him, but after a long conversation, changed his mind.

“I feel like, something’s got to be done,” Charles Strange said. “I feel like my son fought for this country, and he loved the U.S.A. This is what he would do.”

It was also announced in August that SugarHouse casino and the Penn Treaty Special Services District would erect the “8.6.11” memorial statue on a SugarHouse site in honor of Michael Strange and the others killed in the 2011 helicopter crash. Learn more about that project at www.6august11.org.

For more information on the Michael J. Strange Foundation and the “Healing the Family” retreats, visit www.michaeljstrange.org.

Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215–354–3124 or at snewhouse@bsmphilly.com.

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