Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Story of Bre and Mike

Because it should be written down.

Bre graduated high school in May of 2004. She'd already joined the Navy her junior year of high school and I fully supported her choice. She left for Navy bootcamp the last of that June. She was determined to be at the top of her class there and at A school as her goal was to end up in Hawaii.

On the east coast in Philadelphia was an 18 year old boy that was into partying a lot and was getting into some trouble. He knew he didn't want that life so came home one day and told his mom he'd joined the Navy and would be going to bootcamp in August. No one wanted him to go, not family or friends. He arrived in bootcamp 5 weeks after Bre.

He told me once the first time he saw her was across the quad and asked who she was. None of his friends knew her name so he just called her Bella. He never got up the nerve to ask her her name before she graduated the next week. Bre never even noticed him.

When Bre graduated bootcamp she went to A school in Pensacola Fl. The rooms there are in a U shape building. Girls rooms are in the inside of the U, boys are on the outside. 5 weeks after Bre got to A school Mike joined her there. His room and hers shared the back wall. Bre was still focused on being at the top of her class so she studied, a lot. Mike was still the life of the party and was still partying, a lot. Although now it was in his room. He would tell the story of how, many times Bre would come around and politely ask them to turn the music down some only she never saw Mike as he would hide in the bathroom and make his friends answer the door so she wouldn't know it was him being so loud. They still hadn't spoken.

Bre did graduate at the top of her class and did get shore duty in Hawaii. 5 weeks later Mike got orders going somewhere else but at the last minute the orders were changed to Kinea (spelling?). Mike originally thought it was Japan, but when someone told him it was Hawaii his reply was "sweet, that's where that cute brunette went to".

So...5 weeks after Bre got to Hawaii Mike joined her. His cubicle faced hers. Mike's name started popping up into all of our phone conversations. I told Rob I had a feeling she was falling in love. 5 of them decided to rent a nice house. When we went out for the 2 weeks at Christmas it was obvious they were both done, but they were still dancing around a romance. I personally fell in love with Mike and would have been very disappointed had they not gotten together. We spent pretty much the whole two weeks with both of them.

It was probably about 3 months after we came home that she called to say they were dating. When it came time to re-up or get out they both talked. They decided to extend for a year in order to go to Iraq. Both I and Betsy could have strangled both of them. But we were proud at the same time. Mike wound up in Baghdad on the "plush" base. He pretty much had it cush over there. Bre on the other hand wound up on an outer base, with generators that infrequently ran, MRE's or cold sandwiches for food and cold showers. Mike also rarely left base for work, while Bre went on over 75 missions, down streets where IED's had obviously been detonated. I did not know any of this, thank goodness. They got to meet up about 3 times while over there, one being Christmas Eve where Mike told her he wanted to apply to Devgru and wanted her to come to Virginia Beach with him.

They came back in June of 2009. Mike got back first, about two weeks earlier than Bre. When she got in he met her at the airport with flowers and diamond earrings. He applied to Devgru and flew out for an interview. Upon arriving back he told Bre everything went well but the psychologist terrified him. This would later be the same psychologist that came to the house that first week and helped Bre. He's also writing her a recommendation letter to USUHS.

Mike was accepted and after training and setting a record on the Seal's training course that still hasn't been broken was placed on the Gold Team - the premiere team of Devgru. Bre had decided to go reserves and finish college. Mike bought a house, they settled in to life as a couple and things were good. Bre's background made her a perfect partner for someone that was gone a lot and she knew what he did and that it was important.

They had a plan, was enjoying life to the max, was deeply in love and very happy.

Until August 6, 2011 came.

There should be a different ending to this story. I always said it was Fate that they met, that Fate kept throwing him in her face until she wised up. Well, Fate is a stark, raving BITCH.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Part Four and possibly the final part

After Arlington and the memorial things calmed down a bit. People went home, lives got back to normal for most everyone.

My mom went home and the next week and Terri the week after. School started. Bre and I had talked and she said she was determined to finish. Mike would be mad if she didn't because of him, she said. So she's half way thru her last semester, carrying 19 hours and so far has A's. She's amazing. She's participating in a lot of fundraisers and is focused on running the Shamrock marathon in March or April as that was one of Mike's goals.

I've been trying to talk her and Terri into applying for The Amazing Race. She and Mike had already decided not to have kids and just travel. They'd gone skiing/snowboarding in Montana, spent 2 weeks in Ireland, and numerous other trips around the US. So they were well on their way. I think it would be a good diversion for her for a bit.

But her main goal at this point is getting her application in to USUHS by January 1.

I came back to Oklahome the 12th of October and plan on going back to VAB the middle of November. Just to help her get thru that last push and to settle anything that still needs taken care of as far as Mike's estate goes.

I miss Mike terribly - and my very soul hurts for Bre. Things will never be the same, but I hope that there's a New Normal in her future. One that's happy and full of laughter and though I know there will always be a shadow of sadness I think that it will not be so dark one day.

I can tell you this - Bre is one of the strongest, most loving people I know and I'm proud she's my daughter.

There's probably things I should have added and I might come back and edit a few of these posts but for now this is enough.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Part Three

As I said before - I'm mainly writing this for myself. It's the first time I've really tried to put things in order as the whole first month seemed just a blur.

During this time - my mom was still here, Terri (Bre's best friend had flown in and was staying), Matt (one of Mike's best of friends and Terri's former boyfriend) was staying, Rob had flown in for the funeral and the burial. And I may have the next two ceremonies mixed up as Rob wasn't here for the big memorial but was here for the burial. I'll have to check and then may come back here and correct, or if I don't have the emotional energy it'll just be wrong. It's my blog dammit, it's not like I'm going to be fact checked.

So the Memorial for all 31 in Virginia Beach was originally going to be held on base but it was so big they moved it to the convention center in Virginia Beach. We were gathered up by our CACO's, which I think a little bit of Stockholm Syndrome goes on with CACO's - they deliver the worst news of a persons life but within a week you've learned to rely on them to the point of feeling like they are family - Anyway, we were taken to the base. Bre by this time was on autodrive. But when the buses that were taking us to the convention center pulled up everyone laughed. In big blue letters "Fun Tours" was written on the side of each bus. Mike would have gotten a kick out of it. It was about a 15 minute trip and when we turned that last corner a sea of white lined the road. Sailor after sailor was standing at attention as our bus went by. We all got quiet and I couldn't help but let the tears flow. One young female soldies standing there was crying so hard her shoulders were shaking, I'll never know her name but I'll never forget her face.

We were lead in to where those not related were already sitting. All watching as we walked by to take our seats. A large picture of each one was lined up on the stage along with there medal shadowbox - Bre sobbed upon seeing Mike's picture as I'm sure every widow that day sobbed. There was a bomb dog and his handler on the helicopter. The Memorial included the dog and of course his handler. The Commander of the Navy spoke quite eloquently - the best thing he said was " he imagined it went something like this - there was a bright light, then everyone looked around - someone said "what the fuck", someone else said "where the hell are we" and then someone said "who the hell is in charge here and I want to see them". It was a nice mental image and kind of reassuring to think of them altogether. Because I can tell you that even if Mike had known how the night would end he would have still gone with his teammates. Bre on the other hand would have paid someone to run over both of Mike's legs to keep him from this deployment had she known. I personally would trade spots with him in a heartbeat if I could.

Arlington - I actually think this came before the memorial. But we were planning the trip to Arlington - we had a few choices of transportation to choose from - the Navy was chartering some buses, drive ourselves, or a couple of people that was going up offered seats. The problem was that Irene was coming in. So our plan was to drive up Thursday night and then drive back Friday after the service. But then there was the issue of Schmayze - Bre's 95lb Rhodesian Ridgeback. There was no way she was leaving him behind with Irene coming. My mom offered to stay back with Schmayze but I didn't want her staying in a hurricane. So we chose to take two cars. I can't even remember the name of the hotel we stayed at but they were very dog friendly and upon hearing the story waived the dog fee. I need to come back here and make sure I give them due props! Betsy had a friend that kept him while we went to the burial.

17 families out of the 31 decided Arlington would be the place that their loved one was buried. Bre and Betsy was allowed to go to the funeral home and place something in the casket if they wanted. Bre chose to place the toy stuffed squirrel she always stuck in his bag when he left - he called her many names - Breazle, Breagle, Face and Squirrel are just a few (the squirrel relates back to when he "met" her in Pensacola and she'd rescued a squirrel after Ivan swept thru and kept it in her barracks until it could take care of itself). He had it and the bracelet she'd given him on his bunk - Dan grabbed them and sent them to Bre before the could be caught up in his "personal belongings" that were kept until just recently. The bracelet simply reads "LAMU" - love and miss you. - She now wears it every day.

There's not a word to describe the ceremony at Arlington. If you're not a part of it, it's amazing. If you are it's horrifying. But that doesn't do it justice because there's just so much respect, love and honor in that place. We sat in the small church and listened to the pastor give a short sermon, then a soldier played his guitar and sang a song he'd composed. I don't remember one single word but I remember it made me cry a little.

Then we all filed out and the people that had gathered while we were in the chapel was amazing. Hundreds were lined up in rows. A white horse in all it's regalia was hooked up to a white carriage. We walked over a mile to their burial site passing hundreds of graves as we went. My mom was accompanied by Jake, one of Mike's friends and the JAG officer at the command. She just turned 69, has had two hip replacement surgeries and outwalked most of us!

Mike's casket was at the end of the row. There was another short ceremony and then the family members were each given another folded flag. The picture above probably says more than all of these jumbled words could ever say. We chose Arlington because although Mike would probably be embarrassed with all the pomp and circumstance Arlington is a place of honor. Mike deserves all that comes with that honor, and if some some boy or girl walks by his grave one day and is inspired somehow Mike would be good with that.

We heard the Irene actually had picked up speed and were told we shouldn't head back that night. We decided to hunker down in Washington and ride it out there. The Navy had sent guys over to Bre's place to place sandbags in front of doors and tape up windows. So we just collapsed at the hotel. Bre was imploding, I could tell she just needed some breathing room. I talked to Jake about getting her out of there for a bit. He told Terri and Bre that he was staying at the W in Washington and wanted to get them a room for the night. She didn't want to so I all but shoved her out the door. He took them for dinner and drinks and got them a fantastic room. She texted me later "thank you". Jake's just one more person I owe a ton too.

Rob's flights got cancelled until Sunday so he flew out of Washington and then we headed home. We found not much damage at all from Irene. Thank goodness.

PS - that hand on the right? He was someone's very weird son, I had to rescue Bre a few times because he liked to touch. A lot.

PSS - sometime during all of this I experienced my first earthquake.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Part Two

After Dover was over we flew back to Virginia Beach, where a whole gang of Mike and Bre's friends had gathered at the house. They needed to be there as much as we needed them to be. I think that night is when people started to arrive from all over the place. Some of their friends had since left the Navy so they were broke college kids. By that weekend we had 7 blow up beds filled, the sofas were taken and the upstairs bedroom was filled with sleeping bags. I don't think we ever counted how many people were staying there but it was more than I would have ever thought possible.

Alot of VAB friends opened their homes to people they'd never met, but those closest to Bre and Mike didn't want to leave her.

The funeral was set for the 18th - and I have to say here, Mike's mom was and is a freaking rock star. Since Mike and Bre were married yet, she was the next of kin - so any decisions that had to be made were directed at her. She always picked up the phone and called Bre to include her in any decision - from funeral and burial, whether or not to cremate, songs, ceremonies, ect. I owe her so much. So they decided on the funeral to be held in Philly - ah, let me back up. They decided on cremation as Mike's Page Two said he wanted to be cremated and shot into space - so cremation it was (we're still working on the shot into space thing - he's such a brat). So he would be cremated at Dover and then Bre was to assign one of the Navy personnel to accompany him from the moment he was cremated up to the funeral.

Ian is Mike's best friend. Ian's wife Christine is friends with both Bre and Mike, but she has some social issues that makes it hard to be close to her. Plus she has a rivalry issue that puts pressure on the friendship. Plus, she's insecure so she sees slights where no slights exist. So prior to Mike deploying Christine got her feelings hurt because there was a get-together with some of the girls and she didn't get a personal invitation - long story short - she deleted the 5 from her facebook page, including Bre and Ian got irritated with Mike. So the four always got together before one of them deployed - Bre tried calling and Christine wouldn't answer - then Mike tried calling Ian with the same result. Mike finally texted Ian "dude, if something happens to me you're going to feel like the biggest douchebag". Mike left and Ian usually checked up on Bre while Mike was gone but nothing. Bre was pissed, she called me one night and told me the whole story and said "I swear to God if anything happens to Mike Ian better not show his face". Ian and Christine were the first ones over. Ian did feel like a douchebag. Bre named Ian as the person that would look over Mike. Ian sobbed. It was probably the kindest thing Bre will ever do for someone.

On the second Sunday after Mike died people started showing up to the house with grills, steaks, beer (lots and lots of beer), tables, tents, chairs, ect. Bottles of Jameson were opened. Toasts started flowing. It was as close to an Irish wake that I'll ever come. Mike's life was celebrated to the max, and those Seals and Support Teams can celebrate! My mom even took a few shots of Jameson. :)

So the Navy flies Bre and I up to Philly on the Tues before the funeral. The rest of the bunch is caravaning up the next day (Rob was getting into VAB the night we left). The Philly police pick us up at the airport, I can just imagine what people were thinking when we were escorted to a waiting patrol car. They took us to the downtown Sheraton, where the Sheraton had given us the Presidential Suite thru the weekend. I can say this, Philly loves their boys. We were treated like visiting royalty. Our rooms looked out over the church, Cathedral Basilica of SS Peter and Paul - a very old and beautiful church. We were told that Mike wouldn't be there until the next day. Bre was holding up, but very haunted. I played with her hair that night until she feel asleep.

We were also told that the idiots of Westboro were making plans. I think the Warriors Watch Riders, the Philly PD AND Mike's Command were all hoping they would. :) They never showed. Cowards.

Mike was escorted to Philly by the Philly PD, Warrior's Watch Riders and Ian. The closed down the highway along the way. It was very touching. The Philly FOP donated their building for a reception afterwards.

The morning of the funeral it was raining. It felt like even the heavens were crying. We had walked to the church at 8:30. Tons of pictures were placed around the church, few flowers as we had asked for the Neads Foundation to receive donations in lieu of flowers and Mike, in a plain wood box with a brass plack on top. They asked the family along with Bre to form a greeting line and for 4 hours they stood in line greeting the hundreds that came to pay their respects. I pulled up a chair behind Bre and had her lean against me. Then their came a time that I made her take off her heels and slip on some flats I had in my purse. (I'd actually been thinking I'd need them later :) ). At 1 the mass started. It was not as emotional as I had expected, I think ceremonies are a bit numbing.

There was a bit of levity when Mike's aunts cell phone went off. She dug it out of her purse and it said "Mike". Her boyfriend's name is Mike, but Bre and Mike's sister Kaitlyn swears it was Mike interrupting his own funeral, especially after Mike the boyfriend says he didn't call.

After the ceremony we walked out to the fountain area in front. People lined the streets, most with video going so who knows what's on youtube out there. The military had filed out first and were standing at attention, Ian gave a eulogy that was sad, funny and very touching. And then they gave the 21 gun salute and played Taps. I always cry during that part in a movie. I sobbed that day.

The Philly police transported us to the FOP lodge where they had dinner being served upstairs and the liquor and beer was flowing downstairs. Not too many people stayed upstairs very long. We actually left pretty early but the stories we heard the next day - we'll lets just say Mike was famous for dropping his pants when he got drunk - there was much pant dropping (including my husband's I heard) in Mike's name that night. I don't think anyone was feeling very good the next day. As it should have been.

Next up was the memorial for the Gold Team and the burial at Arlington.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Wow - it's been a while

So I ventured into blogland and saw that my last post was way back in January. Long before my world changed. So I figured I'd post a little bit, maybe a lot once I get going.

I thought during the last post that we were going thru one of the worst possible things ever. I laugh now at how wrong I was.

I'm happy to report that Kayla is doing well. Her hair has grown back, she's now back in school and she's still doing maintenance chemo. Next July she should be having a "cancer free" party. Yay!

But as most of you know in August Mike, our Mike, was on the helicopter August 6 that was shot down in Afghanistan. The week before Bre and I had been talking about my 50th birthday next October and how I would most likely be on Tybee Island watching my kid get married. I wanted Mike to wear his dress whites and she was adamantly against it. The morning of August 6th we'd been texting about the Glee Project, I told her I was jumping in the shower getting ready for a cousin's surprise birthday party. I'd just gotten out of the shower and gotten dressed when the phone rang, it was a number I didn't recognize and I ignored it as someone had posted my number on craigslist as selling a large parrot cage and I was not answering strange numbers. They called twice more. Then the phone rang with Bre's number coming up - I answered it with my goofy Hellllooooo thinking she had another thing to add about the Glee Project. A man (whom later I would meet and be introduced to as her CACO, Matt Bieker) asked if this was "Dawnya" and my heart stopped as I could hear Bre wailing in the background. Instantly I thought she'd been in an accident. I answered yes, is that Bre is she alright. He replied that Mike Strange had been killed in Afghanistan and he was there with Bre. My mind froze for a minute and I told him that wasn't possible. Then I told him to let me speak to Bre. He handed her the phone and all she could do was whimper. I told her I was on the first plane out, asked for Matt and told him that somebody better stay with her, I was on my way. I think Delta kicked someone off when I called to make flight arrangements, they were awesome. That was the longest trip of my life. Bre met my mom and I at the airport and when I dropped my bags and ran to her she was shaking like a leaf. I'd worried all the way out what to say, what to do - the reports were on every television in each airport and it just got bigger and bigger. I just whispered that I was there.

Over the first days that passed it was like moving thru water, everything slightly out of focus and very robotic. My main focus was making sure she ate and keep track of everything that was happening. Matt gave us info on what was happening, how it had happened, when they would bring the men home and set up an appt for her with the Command's psychologist.

Three days after the downing they brought them home. We were flown to Dover where the repatriating of the men happens when someone gets killed over there. There usually one suppose to be 3 family members there but this was such a big deal they eased up on that. When we got there the Secret Service and dogs were all over the place. We were held in a large room with all of the other families. Mike's family was one of the last to arrive, they'd been escorted by the Philly PD from Philly as Mike's mom is a police officer. We were suppose to be meeting for the first time at a wedding, not this way.

Obama walked into the room and talked to each individual person with either a shake or a hug. I found myself with my nose in his armpit and wished I was anywhere else for any other reason. I have a picture of us that looks like I'm crying but all I remember saying was I wanted the son of a bitch that did this head on a pike. He said he could promise the pike but they'd get them and we'd know. He also said "if there's anything he could ever do". We'll see.

After that we were lead to a large hangar. It took 2 large transport planes to bring them all back. We sat in folded chairs as the President, Leon Panetta and others stood at attention as each coffin was solemnly taken off the plane and transported to a waiting white ambulance-like vehicle. Four coffins per vehicle. It took three hours and the President never moved except to salute each coffin. At first it was hard as you didn't know which was Mike as no one had been positively identified, so you imagined each one as Mike but then as with time went on you just became numb. Bre held up well, well - let's say she mentally checked out for a while, it was her way of coping.

We were told that Mike was one of the most recognizable, but we also knew that one of the caskets held remains from numerous men and they would most likely be buried like that. She was told that viewing would not be an option, so most recognizable took on a new meaning.

She had received a note from the last guy that had seen Mike - that was still alive - Dan. He said that he was on watch and that when the call came in for the mission that Lou - the CO told him to grab Strange - "tell him if he can be ready in 5 he's with us tonight". Mike had been on missions for the past 3 nights and was suppose to be down that night. Dan found him in his tent reading his English text - he was taking an online class - and said if you can be ready in 5 Lou wants you. Mike's response was "hell yeah". Dan helped him get his gear on and put him on the bus taking him to the helo.

The report says that the rear rotor was hit by an rpg upon take off after successfully completing the mission. That the blast would have either knocked them unconscious or that the spin of the helo would have stopped their hearts and they probably never knew anything. I hope this is true. They were only 300 yrds off the ground. Mike once told his mom, don't worry about me over there, I'm the guy that goes in after the shooting has stopped. The only place I'm really in danger is on the helicopter. --

I'm stopping for now - I'm writing this more for me I guess, so if you've read this far I'm sorry it's so jumbled.