Creating a cause to be thankful for

The fath­er of a fallen Philly ser­vice­man is work­ing to cre­ate a sup­port sys­tem for oth­er griev­ing vet­er­ans’ fam­il­ies.

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

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

Re­port­er Sam Ne­w­house can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at sne­w­

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