- Navy Lt. Cmdr. Chong "Jay" Choe describes being a widower of war
- His wife, Navy Lt. Florence Bacong Choe, 35, was killed in Afghanistan in 2009
- The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left about three dozen men as widowers
- "When you go through something like this, it crosses all barriers," Choe says
It was only natural for Kristin Choe to begin drawing. Even at age 3, she expressed herself through art.
And that's exactly what she did in the months after her mother, Navy Lt. Florence Bacong Choe, 35, was killed by an Afghan army soldier in March 2009.
The little girl took out crayons and a sheet of paper and began coloring in some green grass. Her father, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Chong "Jay" Choe, thought Kristin was drawing the family's home.
But the final sketch proved to be much more: a symbol of their new life and a little girl's loving memory of her mom. Dad didn't know what to make of the drawing. It left him speechless.
Yet he kept the picture as a reminder of everything that changed the moment Florence was killed.
"When I think about what's next -- how do you press on? how do you live your life? -- I think of Kristin first and foremost."
As the nation marks Veterans Day, the sacrifices of men and women in uniform come into focus. Over the past decade, 4,421 U.S. service members have died in Iraq; another 1,822 have given their lives in Afghanistan.
The burden of moving on when parents are killed in action almost always falls on the women, the wives and mothers who must raise their children alone.
Support groups have long been established for widows. Among them is the American Widow Project, created by 2011 Top 10 CNN Hero Taryn Davis, which has provided support to more than 900 military widows since 2007.
But the changing landscape of the U.S. military, with more women deployed to war zones, has created a tiny fraternity: the widowers of war, like Choe, who are linked through tragedy.
Of the 142 U.S. service women who have died or been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, only about three dozen were married. The husbands they left behind range in age from their early 20s to mid-50s. Many are fellow service members. Some are parents who must take on the responsibilities of being a single father while still mourning their wives and working around the clock.
"I was thrust into a role I wasn't familiar with," Choe said. "Being a single father, I initially found it very difficult in terms of emotional support that I felt I could provide to a little girl.
"There is no magic formula. There's no recipe for parenting in general. But as a single father, I feel that it's brought more awareness in terms of the need for that nurturing role, even more so in my life.
"In a way, through hardship, it has made me a better man because of my child, because I realize there are roles that I need to take on."
Navy in her blood
Florence Bacong had Navy running through her blood. Her father was a career sailor, and she was born at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego.
Her focus had always been on health care and helping people. She earned a bachelor's degree in biology at the University of California, San Diego and a master's degree in public health and health care administration at San Diego State.
Days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, Florence went to a Navy recruiting office and signed up -- anything to serve her country and follow her father's footsteps.
Her patriotism came as no surprise to family and friends. She was always like that, they said, with an enduring love of country and a willingness to help others, no matter the sacrifice.
Her first stint, as a medical service corps officer, took her to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
An avid snowboarder and runner, she would meet her future husband, a 1998 graduate of the Naval Academy who was training to become a doctor, through exercise.
Jay Choe worked as an intern at the Bethesda facility. One morning in 2003, he woke early to work out at the hospital's small gym. Florence was exercising that morning, too. Her beautiful smile and jet black hair caught Choe's eye.
Every day for the next month, he'd wake up early and go exercise before his hospital rotation, hoping to see her. The mysterious woman was always there. She never glanced his way, never said a word. She was too focused, headphones on, in laser-like exercise mode.
Choe's rotation schedule changed, and the encounters ended. But about six months later, he saw Florence walking through the hospital. This time, he asked around: Who is she? Armed with her name, he also got her number from friends.
He paged her. She called. He explained he was the guy from the gym a few months earlier.
"I was wondering if I could take you out to dinner," he said.
"No," she said, apprehensively.
"Well, how about I take you to lunch, then? I'll swing by after church on Sunday," Choe said.
Recalling that conversation, he says, "And the rest is history. Not only was she just beautiful, but there was something else about her: a spark, an inner drive."
The couple had a whirlwind courtship. Within months, he took her to an overlook at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. It was his parents' favorite spot whenever they visited during his college years: a gorgeous expanse with a view of the famed naval sailing center.
Choe got on bended knee and pulled out a diamond ring.
Her immediate reaction was to squint at the diamond, a memory that leads Choe to laugh now. Florence had Lasik surgery earlier that week, and her eyes hadn't fully adjusted when he popped the question.
Ultimately, she said yes. For the daughter of a career sailor, it was a perfect union, the joining of a Navy family with one of the Navy's finest, an Annapolis grad. They wed on June 21, 2004.
Shortly after the wedding, they were assigned to Okinawa, Japan, for a general medical officer tour. Even with the United States fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the assignment seemed like a three-year honeymoon: crystal blue waters, the beach and the birth of their only child, beautiful Kristin, who carried her mother's radiant smile.
"I will never forget those times," Choe said. "Okinawa will always and forever hold a special place in my heart."
After Okinawa, the young family was transferred to San Diego. Florence served as a medical service corps officer assigned to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. Her husband worked as a urology resident.
Yet Florence wanted to do more, even if it meant being away from her family. She volunteered for a yearlong tour in Afghanistan to help set up and run a medical station for U.S. troops and Afghan soldiers, as well as civilians.
Florence reported to Camp Mike Spann in northern Afghanistan in May 2008 and immediately got to work. She helped get the medical station up and running, formed a library and set up the camp's United Through Reading program, which allows military personnel to read stories to their children on DVDs.
After his wife deployed, Choe and Kristin moved in with Florence's parents.
'Murdered in cold blood'
Florence Choe set out for a jog with three other comrades in the afternoon of March 27, 2009. The camp perimeter was guarded by Afghan soldiers who had been trained by U.S. forces.
While the four U.S. service members ran down a well-worn path, an Afghan soldier guarding the base pulled out an AK-47 and opened fire.
Navy Lt. j.g. Francis Toner IV, who was running with the group, rushed toward the shooter, ordering him to stop firing. Unarmed, the 26-year-old junior grade lieutenant was shot and killed. (Toner was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the third highest combat medal, for his valor.)
Florence Choe, 35, was killed in the initial hail of bullets. Another sailor was wounded in the attack. The Afghan soldier turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.
"The simple fact is that they were murdered in cold blood," Lt. Michael Lucrezio, a medical service corps officer assigned to the base, told the Navy Times.
"The guy who shot them wasn't some random bad guy who snuck on base wearing a stolen uniform; he was an army soldier who had been vetted through the (Afghan National Army) recruiting process and trained to their basic standards."
More than 8,000 miles away, Choe was summoned from his clinic at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. He was told to go immediately to the admiral's office.
It never crossed his mind that something might've happened to his wife.
Choe began walking to the office.
"Whatever I did, I'm sorry," Choe told the chairman of the urology department, who was escorting him.
"Don't worry. It'll be OK."
When Choe entered the admiral's office, about a dozen people were gathered. He didn't recognize most of them. He glanced around. He looked at their faces -- and their tears.
"I remember seeing a chaplain. I remember sitting down and seeing the evidence of eyes having cried in many, if not all, of the people there," Choe said. "And that was when I knew. I felt sick and nauseated."
"I'll never forget those faces and crying eyes. I remember crying, asking repeatedly, 'What am I going to tell Kristin? What about Kristin? My poor Kristin!' "
Choe left for his in-laws' house, where he and Kristin were living. He arrived with a chaplain on one side and an officer in uniform on the other. Florence's parents opened the door, fell to their knees and wept.
Choe scooped up his daughter. "There was so much grief and sadness that I picked Kristin up and took her outside. I recall being several houses away, and I could hear my in-laws crying."
He held his young girl. "Mommy went to heaven," he told her, "and she'll always be in our hearts."
"Is Mommy OK?" Kristin asked.
"She is now, and she'll forever be an angel watching over us."
The girl gave her dad a giant hug.
A fear of 'bad men with guns'
With Florence gone, Choe and Kristin have moved into his mother's house in nearby Coronado, California.
Choe kisses his daughter every morning before he leaves, around 5:15, for his urology residency. He hopes to complete his residency this summer. Choe tries to make it home every evening for dinner and bedtime stories.
His mother pitches in on the daily routine, taking Kristin, now in first grade, to school. Florence's brothers and parents are active in her life, too.
Every day brings different challenges.
At birthday parties, playdates, even trips to the playground, other parents will ask Choe where his wife is. He fumbles awkwardly, searching for the best way to respond.
Kristin often overhears these conversations and rushes to her father's side. "Mommy's in heaven," she tells the strangers.
"Is that normal," Choe asked, "for a 5-year-old girl to help her daddy answer a tough question? No, but because our bond has been forged through fire, we can tell how the other is feeling without speaking. And likewise, I can tell from her body language and her typical shyness when she feels a little uncomfortable, and I adjust to become as motherly as possible."
Kristin sometimes says she remembers her mother's smile but forgets what her voice sounded like. She'll then watch videos of her mom reading children's stories to her, part of the program she established in Afghanistan.
One of the DVDs arrived shortly after her death. Kristin, then only 3, would watch that video and wave at the screen. "Hi, Mommy!"
Father and daughter cling to photographs, videos and memories. The two plan to return to Hawaii with extended relatives in February. It was there the family last vacationed in February 2009, just weeks before Florence was killed.
Kristin still says it was the best vacation. Her dad agrees.
Their final goodbye came at the San Diego airport after they returned from Hawaii and Florence prepared to head back to Afghanistan. Military members can get special passes to escort their loved ones to boarding gates, but Florence asked that they part at the security checkpoint because she didn't want to inconvenience her husband and daughter.
"To this day, I would give anything in this world to go back to that moment and to have gone to the ticket counter to get the special pass so that we could escort her all the way to the gate, to have those few last minutes together," Choe said. "I will never forgive myself for that.
"I'd give anything to have those few more minutes with her, to tell her just how much I love her and how Kristin will be such a loving, joyful, beautiful and happy girl."
He added, "How do I put into words her actions and how proud I am of her? But I do know, deep in my heart, I think of her, and I just feel a sense of warmth and an immense sense of pride."
At night is when Kristin misses her mother the most. She has a fear of sleeping alone because "she's afraid that the bad guys will come and take her away." Choe and his mother do their best to bring comfort.
"Most kids are scared of ghosts and monsters," Choe said. "But Kristin is afraid of bad men with guns. ... It is so sad and so tragic for a little girl to have such a dreadful and visceral fear."
Sharing brings healing
Choe has attended seminars to help military spouses cope with losing a loved one at war. Initially, he feared going because of the simple fact that he's a man.
"I thought there aren't too many guys like me and what's it going to be like when I go to these conferences."
He's met only two or three other widowers, compared with hundreds of widows, over the past two years.
"I had just presumed I would feel awkward or different, but I think when you go through something like this, it crosses all barriers. It crosses all boundaries."
The more he shares, the more healing he finds.
"When I talk with other widowers or widows, yes, the sadness binds us, the tragedy binds us, but really it's how do we keep their memories alive and how do we help our children progress."
When he's alone, he likes to visit his wife's Facebook tribute page. Even two years later, people still post on her wall.
Florence's brother, Ruffy Bacong Jr., recently wrote: "Despite all the pain and sorrow from your absence in our lives, we can't forget the many blessings that we all have. Especially the one in our lives -- your daughter. She is the bright sun on our dark days and the angel that gives us hope and love."
Choe reserves every Sunday as a special father-daughter day. Choe's mother says the two are like best friends: the way they laugh together, the way they smile at each other, the way they bicker.
"We have the strongest bond that a father and daughter could have. We've been through so much together and in so many uncharted territories together."
At her mother's funeral at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, Kristin asked her father whether her mother was inside the coffin.
"It's only her body, but she's up in the heavens, watching over us," Dad said.
Many weeks later, Kristin began drawing. While many children draw rainbows, happy homes and stick figures with smiles, Kristin drew something more profound.
It was initially difficult for Choe to look at the picture. His young daughter had sketched the green grass of the cemetery and her mother's coffin.
"Although it may not seem like part of the norm, it's a part of our lives now," Choe said, fighting tears. "It's a part of who we are."
The two don't need to be reminded of the sacrifice of those in uniform. Father and daughter feel it every second of every day.