Love after Loss with Gold Star Wife Charissa Fontan Westfall
It was an ordinary day for Charissa “Char” Fontan, other than the fact that she hadn’t heard from her husband.
Jacque was deployed in Afghanistan. On a typical day he could call her pretty easily, and Charissa appreciated that peace of mind. Her phone never left her side – well, almost never. She’d left it on the table when she’d excused herself from a meeting the previous night, for a trip to the Ladies room. As luck would have it, those few minutes apart from her phone caused her to miss Jacque’s call.
She was disappointed but knew he’d call again tomorrow, and she would not make the same mistake twice.
Tomorrow came and Charissa went about her routine, keeping her phone tucked tightly to her side. The morning passed with no call from Jacque. “That’s weird,” she thought. That night was the night she’d promised her autistic student she’d take him and his brother out for grocery shopping and then to dinner. The pizzeria she chose had the TV on. She couldn’t help but see a story about a helicopter being shot down in Afghanistan.
“Oh my gosh, I feel terrible for those families,” she thought. Doing her best to be in the moment with the boys, Char also paid close attention to her phone. No way was she going to miss Jacque’s call again. Her phone finally rang as she drove the boys home -but it wasn’t Jacque.
“Char,” her friend and fellow military wife told her, “there’s a chance that something happened with our guys.”
Immediately, Char’s mind replayed the news footage of the helicopter being shot down. “It cannot be… I just can’t…” she thought as the pit in her stomach swelled.
Jacque still hadn’t called by the next day when another call came in. This was an official call to the families letting them know that the helicopter had definitely been from SEAL Team 10. Who was on that helicopter and what their status was remained unclear at the moment.
Perhaps it was shock, or denial, or fear, or all of the above, but Char moved forward through her day in spite of the glaring hints of the nightmare about to unfold. For a few more hours she was able to cling to being a military wife, one of the lucky ones who sent thoughts and prayers to the unlucky widows and breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t her husband coming home draped in a flag. But Time stops for no one, and Time soon revealed the awful truth.
Char was hosting the weekly dinner for couples on base. The men who were not deployed usually attended with their wives. “We get so little time with them,” Char explains, that couples spend as much time as possible together in between those long times apart. Together, they did their best to enjoy a BBQ while they awaited further news.
The sound of car doors slamming caught her attention. The sight of three men in uniform made her world spin.
“Get upstairs!” her friend yelled to her as he grabbed her arm. “We’re not doing this in the parking lot.”
Char’s husband Jacque had been one of the 16 men on the Chinook helicopter that was shot down the day before. Operation Red Wings was a mission to disrupt Taliban’s operations. One part of that mission consisted of an elite team of SEALs being sent in to capture a prominent Taliban leader. The team was spotted while hiding in the mountains. A decision was made to let the goat herder and the little boy with him go. That decision to show mercy makes the saying “No good deed goes unpunished” ring true – the team was immediately reported by the souls they’d spared, and the Taliban responded by raining hell down on that mountain.
One of the teams sent to aid the Navy SEALS on the mountain was on board the Chinook. Jacque was part of that team.
When it was all over, Marcus Luttrell was the only survivor.It was a miracle he made it off that mountain and into the home of a brave Afghan who risked his own life and that of his family’s to shelter Marcus while he awaited rescue.
The details, heroics, and tragedies of that mission became widely known through massive media coverage followed by Marcus’s book, Lone Survivor, and the blockbuster movie of the same name. Lesser known are the stories of the men on that Chinook, and the people they left behind – like Char.
Until recently, Char moved forward through her grief and into her new life quietly, out of the spotlight. She was just 29 years old when she lost her first love. It was hard enough for her to manage her pain and anger. She was angry at herself for missing Jacque’s last call. She was angry at God for letting this happen. She was angry at Jacque for not getting out of the military like he’d told her he was going to when they met. She had no intention of publicizing her pain.
“I never set out to write a book,” says Char. Her path through grief was private. She’d finally managed to emerge from that anger and pain, and wrap herself in new love. She’s remarried – she’s now Char Westfall. She’s a mom of three young children. She had no desire to revisit that pain or to be judged by people for writing a book.
The SEAL community is small. She’d already experienced the demise of some relationships and the shifting of others once she moved from the wife to the widow community. Why would she dredge up a time she wanted to leave behind her just when everything was finally falling into place?
In between work and family, Char had begun mentoring other widows through their early stages of grief. She’d remain engaged in giving back through volunteer work with Marcus’s Lone Survivor Foundation. Word spread that she was open to helping, and Char’s inbox began filling up with requests to spend some time talking to one person or another. Finally, her husband Drew pointed out that Char could help more people by writing a book. Her friend joined in, and the two of them regularly prodded Char to start writing.
It didn’t take long for Char to recognize the value of treating her pain as an ally in battles other people waged against grief. “If I don’t use this in some sort of good way, what’s the point of going through it?” she thought.
Char knew she could write her book without exploiting the SEAL teams or Jacque’s family. Unfortunately, the publishers she contacted disagreed. Repeated requests to include more information on the SEAL teams and their missions frustrated Char to the point she snapped back “I’m not a SEAL! This is not going to be a SEAL story! He’s the SEAL.”
Her frustration grew so great that Char put her writing on a shelf and let it go. It wasn’t meant to be, she figured. But then a publisher from Ballast Books reached out. He’d heard about Char and her book and recognized the gem in both. “I really think you should publish this,” he told her after she sent him her draft.
“Beautiful Tragedy” launched on August 25th with a forward from Marcus Luttrell.
Char isn’t sure where her path will take her next. She hopes her book will serve as a resource and hope for others facing the uncertainty and pain of grief. She’s also committed to launching a 501(c)3 with her husband.
Drew, says Char, is not in the military, but he is as patriotic as they come. He’s her best friend and her partner in every way, who’s just as committed to supporting those who serve as she is. Fore Honor centers on an annual golf tournament that donates all proceeds back toward other foundations. With tens of thousands of nonprofits already out there, Char and Drew decided rather than provide a specific service themselves, they will support those already doing that work. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” says Char, “we just want to help them.”
Char’s faith is what carried her through her struggle. Faith still holds a top priority spot in her life but her husband and children are also her number one priority. Char has a personal connection to the blessings not just in life but in this country- and the cost they carry. She knows the most important things 0 the one that define her own version of the American Dream – are a happy family and a happy life. When asked what she plans to do from here, Char sums it up with this;
“I’m just flying by the seat of my pants right now, waiting to see where God takes me next.”