Charlie Strange holds the flag given to him by the military after his son’s death. Photography by Neal Santos
Charlie Strange in a rest-stop parking lot at dawn, trying not to cry. Charlie somewhere in Maryland, a few hundred feet from I-95, lighting a cigarette, thinking of Michael.
Charlie is a big guy, six-foot-two and 270 pounds, and when he cries, every inch of him puffs and stiffens. He grits his teeth and seems to stop breathing. People see him suffering and try to comfort him. They say they understand his pain because they’ve also had loved ones die, and Charlie thinks, okay, but it probably wasn’t like this. It wasn’t your kid falling from the sky in a war 7,000 miles away and no one can give you a good answer why.
Charlie’s friends say his name without the “r” and linger on the “a.” Chaaaaaalie. He sometimes writes it that way, too: Chalie. He has a low, serrated voice and a color tattoo of the American flag on his left forearm, designed so that it looks like the flag is bursting through his skin. He dealt blackjack for a while at the SugarHouse Casino on Delaware Avenue, but now he’s on leave. One day not too long ago, he let out a cry so loud at his table that a gambler thought he needed medical attention and shouted to the pit boss, “There’s something wrong with your dealer!” The boss told Charlie, 50, to take the rest of the shift off; he was scaring the customers. Before he worked at the casino, Charlie was in the laborers union for 12 years, breaking things apart at job sites with jackhammers, torches.
Here at the rest stop, he takes a drag on his cigarette. I ask him what brand it is. He grins and says he doesn’t know. “It doesn’t cost $7.40 a pack. These cost five and a quarter, and Marlboros cost $7.40, and they taste the same.” Then he veers back into Michael. Michael was 25 when he died. Sometimes, Charlie says, people start talking about his son and then they stop and recoil and tell him they’re sorry to bring it up, and Charlie’s like, what, you think I forgot? “It’s every day, man.” He pokes my chest above the heart and traces a path down to my stomach. “Your heart goes like this.”
He gets back in his car, taking the shotgun seat. His second wife, Mary, a tall, thin woman with straight blond hair, steers onto I-95 south, heading toward Washington, D.C. Charlie addresses Mary as “Shnookums” and asks how she’s doing, and she playfully pretends to hit him. Michael wasn’t Mary’s son, but she has joined Charlie on his journey to find answers about him. And today is a big day for both of them. Over the past three years, they’ve been pressing journalists and politicians to investigate the nighttime raid into Taliban territory that killed 30 Americans, including Michael, and eight Afghans on August 6, 2011. It was the largest loss of American life in a single incident in the War in Afghanistan. Of the American dead, 22 were soldiers in elite Special Operations units; 17 were Navy SEALs, including members of SEAL Team Six, the same unit that had killed Osama bin Laden 96 days before that. Michael was a Navy cryptologist who worked with the SEALs. They were all crammed inside a low-flying Chinook helicopter when a rocket-propelled grenade flew up from below and destroyed it.
The military later told Charlie and Mary and the other families that it was a lucky shot. Charlie doesn’t believe this. “I just want to know what happened, so it doesn’t happen to somebody else’s son or daughter.” On national talk radio, Charlie has blasted the military and the Obama administration, and he has met with sympathetic legislators, raising questions about the official account of the raid. He has publicly criticized and even sued the government at a time when Americans trust the government less and less. And he has been effective: Today, thanks in part to his efforts, Congress will hold a hearing on his son’s mission, and military staff will answer questions under oath.
As the Stranges draw closer to D.C., traffic thickens, and they start to worry about time. They’re stressed and tired. Charlie only slept for two hours last night, he says, which is normal these days. He took a long walk in the freezing cold, then a warm shower. Mary got 45 minutes of sleep. Now her phone rings. It’s Larry Klayman, their lawyer, a conservative political activist who’s helping the families of four dead soldiers. Klayman wants to know how they’re doing on time. Mary says they’re going as fast as they can.
Half an hour later, they finally thread their way into D.C. They pull over near the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill, where the hearing will take place. Charlie pops the trunk and switches his leather jacket for a blazer, and Mary helps him tie a tie. A friend who has tagged along in the backseat stays with the car to park it, and Charlie and Mary walk to Rayburn. They proceed through a metal detector and into a cafeteria, where Klayman, a sandy-haired man of 62 in an olive suit and an orange-and-blue-striped tie, is sitting at a circular table along with members of two other families who lost loved ones on the helicopter. They talk strategy for a second. Klayman has scheduled a press conference after the hearing. If the families don’t get the answers they want today, they’ll say so. “In a very dignified way,” Klayman says, “we’ll make sure your voice gets heard.” Then Klayman and the families stand and walk into the hearing room together.
WHEN MICHAEL DIED, his aunt, Maggie O’Brien, kept hearing the word “warrior.” Warrior, warrior, our brave warriors. “That’s not my Michael,” she says. “In our lives, he was kind and funny. Oh God, funny funny funny funny.”
Michael was the kid everyone wanted to hang out with. He grew up in the Northeast with his brother, Chas, and his sister, Katelyn. He went to Catholic grade school, then North Catholic High, where he played rugby. He dated a woman named Santina Mairone. “Probably the funniest person I’ll ever meet,” Santina says. “I mean, I’ll never laugh like that again.” You’d be at a party, nothing would be happening, then you’d see a flash of skin and Michael would be naked, grinning, streaking the room. There are a lot of crazy drinking stories. Michael liked beer and, especially after enlisting, Jameson Irish whiskey. He liked to get a cheesesteak and a milkshake on Torresdale Avenue. You always think of guys in spy work driving black SUVs, but Michael drove a blue Mini Cooper. He worked at Byrne’s Tavern for a while, making sandwiches. He was a handsome kid with short brown hair and two percent body fat.
He went off to boot camp at 18. “He wasn’t sure about college,” Charlie says. “He’d seen other people that were working and getting laid off in the trades, and he said, ‘I’m gonna try this.’” Before long, the military sent Michael to train for five months as a cryptologist in Pensacola, Florida, so he could learn how to decode encrypted messages between terrorist cells. “We didn’t know he was that smart,” Charlie says. “That’s some bad shit, you know?” After Florida, in 2005, the Navy sent Michael to its Naval Information Operations Command in Hawaii, which works closely with the 2,700 Hawaii employees of the National Security Agency. He deployed to Afghanistan for the first time later that year, and then to Iraq in 2006, where he spent nine months embedded with SEAL Team Two, providing crypto support. He’d go into battle with a kind of laptop that could pick up enemy signals and locate snipers and “squirters” — military lingo for people who flee a target area.
Michael eventually left Hawaii for a coveted spot in Virginia Beach, Virginia, home to the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, better known as SEAL Team Six. Michael bought a house in Virginia, had a girlfriend and a dog named Schmayze. All that time, he never let on to his family that what he was doing was dangerous or special. He told Santina he had a “dorky” job. He told his Aunt Maggie he worked in an office. “He said, ‘You don’t have to worry, I’m in the office,’” Maggie recalls. He almost never talked with friends about life in the military. One time, he emailed Santina to say that Afghanistan was a “hell-hole. This place is fucking ridiculous. The people are savages.” Otherwise, all Michael said about fighting was that “he couldn’t wait for his time to be up,” his friend Danny Clayton says. He told friends he wanted to be a firefighter, or maybe a nurse.
Charlie kept in touch with Michael by phone when he was away. Michael never made it seem like he was in any danger. In June 2011, though, something changed.
This is the story Charlie tells more than any other. Often, when he’s talking about Michael and Afghanistan, it can be hard to follow what he’s saying. There are so many strands of the story, so many questions Charlie has about each strand. But he always comes back to June 6, 2011 — a simple moment between a father and a son. Charlie tells it to me for the first time when I visit his apartment in the Northeast. “Michael was sitting right there,” he says, pointing to a spot on a black couch. “We’re talking. And he grabs me by the arm and he talks about a will. I’m like, what? He’s like, ‘Dad, I’m not messing around.’” According to Charlie, Michael also told him, “You wouldn’t believe what goes on in this country,” meaning America.
Michael left for the base in Virginia four days before the end of his leave, en route to Afghanistan. “He never left Philadelphia four days early,” Charlie says. “So something was up, something was different.”
In late June, right before he left for Afghanistan, Michael called Charlie and left a voicemail. Charlie has kept it all these years: “I love you, Dad. I’m taking off. If you get up on email, send me an email, and I’ll see you for Thanksgiving at Aunt Maggie’s house.”
CHARLIE GOT THE NEWS in a phone call from his daughter. August 6, 2011. He dropped the phone, screamed, and doubled over.
He drove to Michael’s mother’s house, where everyone in the family was gathering. Four uniformed guys from the Navy were there. They didn’t say much, just that Michael had died, that they were so sorry. Someone turned the TV to a news channel. Charlie couldn’t take it. He walked outside. He was pacing, banging his forearm on the metal railing on the steps. Mary came running out. She’d just seen on TV that a helicopter with the call sign Extortion One-Seven had been hit by an RPG, killing 30 Americans, including many members of SEAL Team Six.
Charlie learned a few additional details over the next few days. He saw on the news that Extortion 17 had been called in to rescue some Army Rangers who were in danger; that’s what the military had said to reporters. And he heard from his Casualty Assistance Calls Officer, or CACO, that the helicopter had burned up. Charlie says his CACO told him there were no remains. Michael had essentially been cremated.
He didn’t discover much more until October 2011, two months after the crash, when the military invited all the families to Little Creek, a naval base in Virginia, where Brigadier General Jeffrey Colt presented the results of the military’s investigation into the tragic mission. They were all in a big theater, with two projector screens. The military handed each family a folder containing a summary of the findings and a CD that held the full 1,364-page investigative report.
Here’s the official account of what happened, according to military documents. On the night of August 5th, an assault force of Army Rangers flew into the Tangi Valley, in a mountainous region south of Kabul, to locate and kill a powerful Taliban commander named Qari Tahir, code name “Lefty Grove.” Supported by two Apache attack helicopters, an AC-130 gunship and multiple surveillance aircraft, the Rangers searched a compound where Tahir was thought to be hiding. He wasn’t there. A number of suspected Taliban fled the compound. A gunner on one of the Apaches shot and killed six, but others got away.
The Rangers weren’t in danger. They didn’t require a rescue mission, as the military had initially told the press. Instead, what the Rangers needed was an “Immediate Reactionary Force” to catch the squirters.
Extortion 17 was that force. It was a CH-47D Chinook, a workhorse the military has used since Vietnam. Loaded with 30 American soldiers, eight Afghan soldiers and one military search canine, it lifted off at 2:22 a.m., piloted by an experienced National Guardsman. Sixteen minutes after takeoff, as it descended toward its preselected landing zone, a small group of Taliban fighters in a tower atop a mud-brick building fired multiple rocket-propelled grenades at the helicopter. One RPG hit a rotor blade. As a commander told General Colt, “My assessment is that this was a lucky shot of a low-level fighter that happened to be living there. He heard all the activity and he happened to be in the right spot.” The helicopter went into a spin and crashed within five seconds into a creek bed. A subsequent flash flood complicated recovery efforts, washing away some parts of the helicopter.
The military believed the mission was done by the book, General Colt told the families in Little Creek. As a Pentagon official would later testify: “We believe our forces employed sound tactics in planning and executing their fateful mission.”
After Charlie and Mary went home, they opened up the printed report they’d been given. There was no ink on most of the pages. Then Charlie put the CD into his computer and printed out the report. His computer crashed. A friend who works in computer security inspected the computer and told him it had been infected with a virus; the CD had been full of spyware.
Charlie was grieving, of course, as he struggled to process all of this. He was going to AA meetings, as he had for the previous 22 years, and often spoke about Michael there. He was working to build a nonprofit foundation in his son’s name, the Michael J. Strange Foundation, which organizes periodic retreat weekends at which families of fallen soldiers can find healing. He was also seeing a therapist, along with Mary; talking to her was “like taking a Xanax, bro. She’s good.” But he still carried Michael around with him. He requested Michael’s autopsy report, and in December 2011, the Navy sent it to him on a disk. He was expecting to see pictures of a horribly burned body, but instead, Michael seemed mostly intact, except for a badly mangled right ankle. (According to a Defense official, there was “a lot of chaos” in those first days after the tragedy. “I think there was speculation by some people that the bodies would be in really bad shape. Now, whoever said something did not have authority to say that.”)
Charlie started having nightmares about Michael getting ejected from the helicopter, falling to the ground, in pain, calling out. It was hard for Mary, too. “When your spouse loses a child, it changes him,” Mary says. “So I’m mourning part of my husband also.”
Some families who have lost their children in America’s wars have found clarity and some comfort in protesting the wars themselves. This route wasn’t available to Charlie. His son had told him that if the troops weren’t over there holding the terrorists at bay, the terrorists would come to America. “I do believe we have to let our men fight,” Charlie says. Mary adds, “With both hands.”
BY EARLY 2012, though, Charlie was discovering a new way to channel his grief. He was reading through the partially redacted 1,364-page report from the military, often at night, when he couldn’t sleep. The length of the report would come to have a kind of talismanic power for him: the 1,300 pages. It included transcripts of more than 60 interviews with commanders and soldiers, identified only by their job titles. Charlie made notes on what he read, copying down quotes and bits of military argot, asking questions, writing “Bull-Shit” in the margins more than once. He kept in touch with a few other parents of Extortion 17 victims, including Doug Hamburger, father of Patrick Hamburger, an Army staff sergeant, and Tracy and Alan Litman, parents of Nicholas Null, a Navy explosive ordnance disposal technician. And it turned out that the Hamburgers and the Litmans were doing the same thing he was — reading the report, looking for answers. Although the main thrust was that the mission was sound, 1,300 pages is a lot of material. The families found pieces to grab onto, areas of dispute. They started sharing information, and pretty soon they felt like they were getting somewhere.
They had a whole long list of concerns, but most of them can be boiled down to one word: vulnerability. In reading about how the helicopter went in and went down, the families saw how vulnerable their loved ones had been. They were vulnerable, it seemed, because of the choice of helicopter, a bloated Chinook instead of a more nimble Black Hawk. They were vulnerable because the helo had no countermeasures for RPGs — no military helos do. They were vulnerable, the families believed, because of the military’s rules of engagement — rules that, according to Charlie, protect civilians at the expense of soldiers. In the report, one soldier, an aircraft navigator, spoke of seeing two “squirters” and asking to shoot them “or even provide containment fires to try to slow their movement,” and his commander told him no, “just maintain eyes-on.” (It’s not clear from the documents why the commander denied permission to engage.)
There was more. The soldiers were vulnerable because the Tangi Valley was a dangerous area, a “historical hotspot” for Taliban activity, according to one soldier in the report. They were vulnerable because the Rangers on the ground had already been searching houses for three hours, eliminating the element of surprise, and because the Apache escorts, distracted by their search for Taliban fighters, didn’t check Extortion 17’s landing zone for enemy activity until the last minute — facts that unsettled the commander, navigator and sensor operator on the AC-130 that was flying overhead at the time, as they later told General Colt. And the soldiers were vulnerable because they were pursuing a target, Tahir, the Taliban commander, who wasn’t there.
There also seemed to be no way for the families to learn why their loved ones had been so helpless, because the black box was nowhere to be found. In the report, one commander said the black box had washed away in the flash flood. Charlie found that unlikely: How often did it rain in Afghanistan?
To Charlie, all roads seemed to be leading to the same place. He’d been reading about Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and the rampant corruption in his government. He’d also read about the numerous deadly “green on blue” attacks by Afghan soldiers against American troops: The Afghans were our partners in the War on Terror, but from time to time, an Afghan soldier would open fire on a U.S. base; insider attacks killed more than 50 in 2012. No Afghan commanders had been questioned in the report, only U.S. commanders. Charlie thought he knew why: The Afghan soldiers, in some kind of suicide mission, had leaked the helicopter’s route and position to the Taliban. If this was true, though, I once asked Charlie, why would the U.S. military try to cover it up? He replied, “They don’t want to show weakness.”
BY EARLY 2013, Charlie and a few of the other families had come to agreement on a set of suspicions. But they didn’t really know what to do next. None of them had any experience with political activism. That changed when they started talking to Larry Klayman.
Klayman is a famous anti-government litigant. Starting in the ’90s, while heading a group called Judicial Watch, Klayman repeatedly sued the Clinton administration — 80 times, he says — and he doesn’t seem any fonder of President Obama. Klayman believes, in the face of all evidence, that Obama was born outside of the U.S. and is a Muslim. In a column last September, Klayman called for Americans to tell Obama, “Mr. President (to use the term loosely), put the Quran down, get up off your knees and come out with your hands up!”
All of which is to say: Klayman is a fringe character. But the Stranges took a liking to him. He was a fighter, an underdog with local ties (he’s from Narberth), and they identified with that. More than anything, what galled them about dealing with the military was their sense that all these educated generals thought they were stupid. “They weren’t betting on he and I fighting for what’s right,” Mary says. “They thought we were just a couple of schlubs from Philly.” It was also undeniable that Klayman had a lot of connections in Washington — something the Stranges lacked. And while some of Klayman’s crusades were kind of “off the wall” (Charlie’s words), Klayman and the Stranges basically got along. Charlie says, “I’m not a big fan of the President.” Adds Mary, “Larry says what everybody else thinks but they’re afraid to say. He’s not afraid to say it.”
In May 2013, Klayman called a press conference at the National Press Club to push for a Congressional hearing and to introduce the families to lawmakers and the media. Several prominent Republicans showed up, including former Florida Representative Allen West and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Charlie spoke for 16 minutes. He said a lot of stuff. He said the Obama administration had broken the sacred silence of SEAL Team Six by mentioning the SEALs’ role in killing bin Laden: “Where did it all start? Joe Biden in Delaware, in a tuxedo, with half a load on, telling everybody it was an elite Navy SEAL team.” (One day after bin Laden’s death, on May 3, 2011, at an awards dinner in Washington, Biden twice praised the SEALs, and then-CIA director Leon Panetta confirmed the SEALs’ involvement in an interview that same day. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized these disclosures at the time, saying he was worried about the SEALs’ safety.)
Charlie went on. He said that a drone should have taken out the squirters in the Tangi Valley, and that the only reason a drone wasn’t used was to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people. “To win the hearts and minds of them people? They hate us. My son told me they hate us.” A few minutes later, he broke down crying.
He wasn’t done putting pressure on the government. As Charlie continued to push for answers about Extortion 17, he opened a battle on a new front. Last June, after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed to the world that the U.S. government was gathering “metadata” on the phone calls of millions of Verizon customers, Klayman called Charlie and talked to him about it. Was Charlie a Verizon customer? Charlie said he was. Would he like to sue the government to stop this kind of data collection in the future? He said he would. “So we don’t become an Orwellian society,” Charlie says.
The suit was a long shot. Klayman made himself a plaintiff, along with Charlie and Mary. In his complaint, he listed the following as defendants: “Barack Hussein Obama II,” Attorney General Eric Holder, director of the NSA Keith Alexander, the CEO of Verizon, a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Verizon, the NSA and the Department of Justice. The complaint seemed more than a bit grandiose, especially given that no judge had ever rebuked the NSA the way Klayman and the Stranges were demanding. And Klayman’s style attracted some ridicule. In oral argument, he told the court about some unusual text messages the Stranges had gotten, texts from Michael’s old number that contained only ones and zeroes, and said he’d gotten some bizarre messages himself; he also talked about the disk that Charlie thought contained spyware. The government, Klayman said, was “messing with me.”
Klayman won, though. In a 68-page opinion, a federal judge wrote that while the Klayman/Strange claims about being “messed with” were irrelevant, the plaintiffs did have standing to sue as Americans, given that “everyone’s metadata” in this country “is analyzed, manually or automatically.” The judge called the NSA’s technology “almost Orwellian.” The decision was a crucial victory for civil libertarians, opening the door to future legal challenges against the surveillance state. Says Klayman, “Not to toot our own horn, but it’s the biggest decision in the history of government litigation.” Charlie puts it a little differently: The government “got their socks whacked.”
CHARLIE WAS CHANGING. He wasn’t just some Philly guy anymore. A union dude, a blackjack dealer. Chaaaaalie. Now he was Charles Strange, plaintiff. Charles Strange, the guy who took on the freaking NSA — and won. He was a public figure now, and getting more public all the time, because even as the NSA case was winding its way through the courts, Charlie was acting as a kind of unofficial spokesman for the families of the soldiers killed on Extortion 17. And this was becoming an important role, because the right-wing media was chasing the story.
The first to pick up on it were talk-show hosts and bloggers, mere hours after the helicopter went down. On August 7, 2011, blogger Pamela Geller suggested that the loss of Extortion 17 was related to the Obama administration’s earlier naming of the SEAL team involved in the bin Laden raid, and that it had been done as some kind of unspecified “payback.” The next day, Michael Savage, famous for once telling a caller that he should “get AIDS and die, you pig,” said on his radio show, The Savage Nation, “Did somebody in the Defense Department tip off the Taliban that it was SEAL Team 6 in that helicopter? Not exactly the same men who killed Osama bin Laden, but their brothers in arms. Who tipped off the Taliban?” In other words: Not only were the American soldiers betrayed by the Afghans; they were betrayed by their own government. By the Obama administration.
There was, and is, zero evidence to support this absurd claim. But inflammatory words like these established the tone for what would follow. And if Charlie was sympathetic to the narrative of enemies within, you can understand why. Through 2012 and 2013, his world was becoming more and more bizarre. He was in regular communication with a lawyer who didn’t think Obama was born here. He was reading documents produced by a military that had been caught lying more than once in recent years, most prominently in the sad case of Pat Tillman. (Tillman was the former NFL player and Army Ranger killed in Afghanistan in 2004. At first, the military said he was hit by Taliban fire; officials promoted that heroic story for a month before finally admitting that Tillman was killed by friendly fire from his own buddies.) He was mourning a cryptographer son who had worked closely with the NSA, the agency that had secretly been gathering data on all of our phone calls. And all the time, people in the media, people who seemed to matter, were amplifying some of Charlie’s deepest suspicions. He didn’t know what to believe, but it seemed safest, somehow, in weird surveillance America, to believe the worst.
Charlie did The Savage Nation last July. The show reaches five million people on hundreds of stations. Charlie told the story of how his son grabbed his arm in June 2011 and spoke about a will. Savage asked him, “Your son knew he was being sent to his death?” Charlie said yes, all the soldiers knew. Savage said, “So, you’re saying they” — meaning the Obama administration — “planned to execute your son and the others on purpose?” Charlie said, “One hundred percent, sir.” Charlie said much the same thing on The Alex Jones Show.
When I ask Charlie about his interactions with the media, he turns out to be conflicted and decently self-aware. He says he wasn’t sure what to make of these radio hosts a lot of the time. They were willing to give him a microphone to get Michael’s story out, so he was willing to take it. He once asked me what I thought of Michael Savage and Alex Jones, genuinely wanting to know. He disliked Sean Hannity of Fox News, who was always bashing unions; after a while, Charlie stopped responding to Fox News interview requests.
At the same time, it was tough for him to keep any interested party at arm’s length. People were fast becoming invested in the story of Extortion 17, hoping to use it as a crowbar to pry loose damaging facts about their political enemies. Since those first gusts of speculation on blogs and talk shows in August 2011, the establishment arm of the right-wing media had picked up the story and done actual reporting, particularly the Washington Times, which published a long investigation last October. The Times concluded, “The helicopter’s landing zone was not properly vetted for threats nor protected by gunships, while commanders criticized the mission as too rushed and the conventional Chinook chopper as ill-suited for a dangerous troop infiltration.” However, the newspaper did not conclude that Extortion 17 was the victim of a green-on-blue attack, or that the military had covered anything up.
The more stories Charlie read, the more he soured on journalists. They didn’t seem able to get deep enough. But maybe politicians could, with their subpoena power and their ability to view classified material.
Last year, Klayman helped Charlie set up meetings with two House Republicans, Darrell Issa and Jason Chaffetz. Issa, 60, from California, is a conservative who prides himself on irritating the Obama administration. He runs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which he has shaped into a kind of catapult for launching anti-Obama narratives over the castle walls of the media, particularly regarding the killing of four Americans by Islamic militants in Benghazi in 2012. Benghazi has since become a favorite topic of Obama critics, shorthand for broader concerns about America’s ability to fight terrorists, and Issa, from his committee perch, has driven the debate. As for Jason Chaffetz, he’s an up-and-comer on Issa’s committee, a 47-year-old Utahan with a cherubic face.
Issa and Chaffetz sat together with Charlie and listened to his story. Chaffetz floated in and out of the room, but Issa stayed for an hour and a half. They said they’d try to help. Charlie pinned his hopes on Congress.
HERE WE GO. February 27, 2014. A hushed hearing room in the Rayburn Building. Big-ass paintings of former committee chairmen on the walls. Video screens that say “Afghanistan: Honoring the Heroes of Extortion 17.” A large wooden dais, security guards at the door.
Charlie’s sitting stiff-backed in a long row of seats facing the dais. Mary is next to him, and Klayman, and Hamburger and the Litmans. Chaffetz is running the show today, as head of the national security subcommittee. Issa isn’t here.
Up on the dais, Chaffetz introduces himself and begins his opening remarks. He says he’s not going to air any classified information, as much as the families might want that. He says the purpose of the hearing is to “dispel potential myths and to learn from the events so we can ensure that proper reforms are implemented.” He thanks the five witnesses. The highest-ranking witness is Garry Reid, a middle-aged guy in a dark suit. He’s a deputy assistant secretary of defense. The four other witnesses handle casualty and mortuary services for different branches of the military.
After his statement, Chaffetz yields to the ranking Democrat, John Tierney of Massachusetts, who says that “there are other families and their representatives who have contacted the subcommittee and expressed grave concern about today’s hearing. They’ve asked for privacy and they seek closure.” It’s true that the four Klayman families are only a subset of the families who lost loved ones. The rest would rather let it be, and grieve in private.
After this initial skirmish, the hearing settles into a long gray stretch of calm questions and even calmer explanations. The exchanges don’t feel partisan, or for the most part even all that adversarial.
Reid takes point. On the issue of the black box, he says there was no black box. “The aircraft is not a digital — it does not have a suite of digital electronics. It has gauges — analog gauges.” Why, then, does it say in the military’s report that one commander thought the black box had washed away in a flood? Reid says the forces were trying to recover bodies and wreckage in a “hostile environment,” and the commander was confused. And what about that flood? Did it really occur? Yes, Reid says; he studied the climate data. Off to the side of the room, a large photo is mounted on an easel, showing a wide expanse of mud — the flood’s aftermath.
Reid continues to address criticisms and discrepancies. Was the Chinook the appropriate aircraft for the mission? Yes; a Black Hawk couldn’t have been used, he says, because it’s not designed for high elevation, in the mountains, where Extortion 17 was flying. What about the Afghan soldiers? Did they leak the flight route or landing-zone location to the enemy? Reid says they were all highly vetted and had trained with the Americans for seven months, and there was no possibility of a leak, because no one outside of the U.S. command was even told about the mission. “We do not believe the mission was compromised,” he says. (In his prepared statement, Reid also addressed concern about the rules of engagement, denying that the rules “restricted our forces” and arguing that the Apache teams tracking the fleeing Taliban exercised “sound judgment.”)
It’s easy to see why Extortion 17 hasn’t become as politically salient as Benghazi, even with its much greater loss of life. The picture Reid is painting here is of a legitimate mission in a difficult war. Commanders may have made judgment errors, but only because they were operating in the heat of battle with imperfect information. Classic fog-of-war stuff. Which may be why Chaffetz and the other Republicans aren’t making any sharp accusations about green-on-blue attacks, or the black box, or the military’s choice to use a Chinook. Instead they’re mainly asking about ancillary issues, like the logistics of the soldiers’ burial. It turns out that when the bodies were flown from Afghanistan to Dover, some were draped with American flags and some were draped with Afghan flags, but the military didn’t know which bodies were which, raising the possibility that some American dead were draped with Afghan flags. Also, at a brief ceremony for the dead on the base in Afghanistan, a Muslim colonel had said a prayer for all the dead. Chaffetz tells the witnesses there should have been two different ceremonies, one for the American dead and one for the Afghans. “I don’t want some Afghan saying something about my son,” he says. Charlie and a few other parents let out an approving whoop.
A little before the two-hour mark, Chaffetz goes on a brief riff about soldiers and war. Through sniffles, visibly weeping, he says he hopes the families of the dead soldiers “feel the love of this nation.” Then he turns off his mic and adjourns the meeting.
Charlie and the families stand. Chaffetz walks over to thank them. Klayman asks Chaffetz for another hearing where the families can speak; Chaffetz smiles and shakes his head no.
The families file into the hallway and huddle with Klayman, deciding what they’ll say at their press conference. After 10 minutes of private discussion, they walk out together onto the Rayburn steps, where five or six reporters are waiting. Klayman introduces Doug Hamburger, who says, with restraint, that he still has questions the committee didn’t answer. Then it’s Charlie’s turn, and the mood changes. “The panel was horrible,” Charlie says. “Is there a difference between a Chinook helicopter and a Black Hawk? Well, I’m going in the Black Hawk.”
After answering some questions from reporters, Klayman and the families hop in taxis and ride to a nearby lunch spot, and as they eat and talk about the hearing, they grow more and more disappointed. Klayman says he thinks the hearing was “an orchestrated attempt to placate the families,” a “disgrace” and a “cover-up,” and that the witnesses were some of the military’s “most ignorant people.” He adds, “Look, 95 percent of the American people do not trust the government. So we’re not way off here.”
The day is over for Klayman and the others. They had their shot, and it didn’t go the way they wanted it to. But Charlie has another meeting today, another chance at satisfaction.
BOB BRADY LEANS BACK behind his desk, hands clasped around his belly, and invites Charlie and Mary to sit down.
Brady: nine-term Congressman. Head of the Philly Democratic Party. Friends out the wazoo. Former union carpenter, with silver hair and a thick Philly accent. He first met Charlie two years ago, at a ceremony honoring Michael, and has spoken with him multiple times, but they’ve never gone into detail about Extortion 17. Brady’s office is a large room with purple carpet and two brown leather couches. A pair of boxing gloves that say BRADY hang from a bookcase, and a Louisville Slugger rests against another.
As three aides look on, ready to take notes, Charlie starts telling Brady the story of his son, but it’s like he tries to tell the whole thing all at once. A 1960 helicopter, he says. Refurbished in 1985. Somebody leaked something out. It was a green-on-blue. “I’ve got the proof. Just want to show you a few pages real quick.”
“Sure, show me anything,” Brady says.
Next, Charlie talks about his son’s body, and being told his son was cremated, and then getting the pictures of his body intact. He talks about the black box, and being told that a flash flood washed it away, and then being told there was no black box. “It was an ambush, it was a setup,” Charlie says. “Where’s my papers at?” He puts on his glasses and riffles through a blue Modell’s bag.
“You still down at the casino anymore?” Brady says.
“No, I’m out.”
“I was down to see you at the casino. You weren’t there.” Brady grins. “Good excuse to go to the casino.”
“They knew,” Charlie says. “It’s in the paperwork.”
“How would … ” Brady says, uncertain. “How would they know?”
“Who told Karzai, who told the Taliban?” Charlie says. He hands his handwritten notes to the aide on the couch, then starts listing a number of generals who left the military or retired after the Extortion 17 disaster; Charlie thinks they’re part of the cover-up.
“Ten months later, Benghazi happened,” Mary says.
“Who are these people?” Brady says, frowning. “People investigating?”
“There’s so many questions,” Charlie says.
“They’re not giving you any answers,” Brady says softly. “What was the result of the hearing?”
“It wasn’t nothing. It wasn’t even a hearing, I don’t think. They said a Chinook didn’t have a recording device. Chinook has three kinds of recording devices … three different, you can Google it … 1,300 pages. My son’s dead. Fought for this country. Loved Philadelphia … after the bin Laden raid, he came home, he said, ‘Yo Dad, I got a will. … ’
“This is bullshit, man,” Charlie says, his voice growing louder, the anger starting to lift him out of his chair. “Thirty guys. Twenty-two of the best guys in the world. And you tell me it’s a lucky shot? You’re lucky I — ”
Brady cuts him off with a quick question on an unrelated topic, and Charlie puts his papers back in the Modell’s bag.
“I’m going to shut up,” Charlie says. “I know it’s getting late.”
Brady is the first guy to interact with Charlie today who seems to understand that what he’s dealing with here is a political activist and a dutiful military parent but also a human being who is suffering. “You need some closure,” Brady tells Charlie. He says getting another hearing might be tough — he understands secrecy and clearances, understands why the hearing had to go the way it did — but he might be able to set up a private meeting with some folks in the Pentagon. “If you can’t find out what happened, at least you can get in front of some people and speak your piece,” he says. “You’re not just doing it for your kid, you’re doing it for all the kids who come after. And there are a lot of kids who come after. Too many kids.”
Charlie thanks him, shakes his hand, and goes outside to get some air. Mary stays behind in Brady’s office for a minute. She tells Brady her husband is “a good fucking man” and he doesn’t sleep.
Out on the sidewalk, Charlie is sobbing. Brady emerges and sees. Mary takes a couple of pictures of Brady and Charlie together. Charlie seems boosted by this, and regains his composure. “If you have a bad night, call me,” Brady tells Charlie. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 2 a.m. I don’t sleep.” Then he gives Charlie his cell number and his AOL email address.
Charlie and Mary walk back to their car and steer it into the thick late-afternoon traffic. Mary puts on a Kid Rock CD, rolls down the window, turns up the volume.
BRADY MOVES QUICKLY. By the time I see Charlie and Mary next, three weeks later, at Tony Luke’s in South Philly, the Congressman has already reached out to the Pentagon. Charlie and Mary are just waiting on a date and a time for their meeting.
They order steaks and fries. Charlie says he lost a tooth two or three weeks ago. He grinds his teeth from stress, and a tooth fell out.
Now he mentions a conversation we had a few weeks ago, on the car ride home from D.C. That afternoon, I asked him if he ever thought, even fleetingly, that maybe it really was a lucky shot that killed Michael. What if there are innocent explanations for some of this stuff? For instance, what if Michael talked to Charlie about a will in June 2011 simply because he realized Afghanistan was a dangerous place, not because he feared betrayal? What if the moments Charlie finds so ominous — hearing that Extortion 17 was a rescue mission when it wasn’t, being told his son’s body was cremated when it wasn’t, receiving a report with no toner — were simple human errors and miscommunications, not evidence of conspiracy?
In the car at the time, Charlie had good-naturedly told me no, he never considered that it might have been a lucky shot. There were too many odd things about the official story, too many red flags. Now he shoots me a look. There’s confusion and hurt in it.
“Do you really think it was a lucky shot?” he says.
I tell him I don’t know. I think the military miscalculated, exposing his son to great danger without adequately supporting or protecting him. That much is clear from the documents and from the tragic result of the mission. As for the other stuff Charlie talks about, I can’t say. The truth may be hanging out there beyond my ability to reach it.
Charlie leans back in his chair and scowls. He seems baffled and a little wounded, so I change the subject and ask to see the tattoo on his back. Charlie says sure. He pulls up his shirt, revealing a black-and-white picture of Michael drawn by Mary’s son, a tattoo artist. Michael is wearing a headset, holding a rifle, smiling. “So Michael’s always looking over Charlie’s shoulder,” Mary says.
Their meeting at the Pentagon comes three and a half weeks later, on April 30th. Charlie and Mary get up early, drive down to D.C., park near the Pentagon. Two aides meet them there and lead them through the building’s elaborate security system. Charlie carries a bunch of exhibits from the 1,300 pages in his black-and-red SugarHouse Casino duffel bag. They enter an office where four defense personnel are waiting for them.
Charlie asks the defense folks if they read the 1,300 pages. According to Charlie, one official tells him no, he read the executive summary and watched Charlie’s appearance at the National Press Club. Charlie stands up. You didn’t read the 1,300 fucking pages? He walks out of the room. “Had to get some air. Had to breathe, you know?”
After a few minutes, he returns, sits, and starts asking questions from a list he’s brought. The official answers as best he can. “He was honest,” Charlie says. “He said, ‘I don’t know, I didn’t hear that.’” It goes on like this for at least three hours, Charlie pulling exhibits out of the bag, the official parrying, until Charlie and Mary have had a chance to ask every question on their list. Finally, Charlie makes his demand: He wants a new investigation.
“Somebody should be held accountable,” Charlie says. “Tell me it was a lucky shot, maybe bad planning? Whoa whoa whoa whoa. My son, my 25-year-old son, isn’t here. I don’t want to hear that. I want to hear a guy got fired.”
The official who led the meeting with Charlie and Mary agreed to speak to me on background. He said his goal for the meeting was to bring the Stranges “some additional comfort” and “to help them understand the info they have been given.” In preparation, he said, he did read the full classified investigation, not just the summary, though Charlie was frustrated that he couldn’t cite chapter and verse of specific exhibits; the official also spoke with a number of key military personnel. He told me he had trouble following Charlie’s argument about how the deaths of his son and the SEALs on Extortion 17 were linked to the earlier SEAL raid on bin Laden — Charlie and Mary’s theory of betrayal. “I don’t quite understand the logic: Somehow we accommodated Karzai by serving up the helicopter in a valley … but in their mind, it’s true.” No amount of explanation could convince the Stranges otherwise. “They are obviously having a very difficult time,” the official said, “and — completely understandable. Look, and I understand the more I say, I have the potential to make it worse.”
I asked him how the military could say that Extortion 17’s mission was tactically sound, given that some of the people involved in the fight that day — the AC-130 crew, for instance — were clearly uncomfortable with it. He said, “If the procedures were wrong that night, they were wrong quite a bit, because [commanders on the ground] followed the templates. … Units in command learn from every operation. We’re not saying we would do it identically the same next time.” The military, he said, did ask one of its task forces to study new technologies for protecting helicopters from RPGs, but the task force concluded that the technologies weren’t ready yet. He added, “The enemy prevailed in that piece of battle. That happens in war.”
Charlie’s journey has hardly been futile; by forcing the military to testify before Congress, he added important facts to the record, and along the way he spawned a legal decision, in the NSA case, that impacted the whole country. But here’s my sense of it: Even if the Pentagon did fire all the commanders responsible, even if some official did come out and say in plain language what seems obvious from the mere fact that America in 2011 dispatched 30 young humans into the sky in a faraway country and failed to bring them back alive — look, we fucked up — there would still be no answer to Charlie’s fundamental question. Michael was fit and full of life. He was 25 years old. He was Charlie’s son. Where is he now? Where is Michael Strange?
Originally published as “Grief in the Age of Paranoia” in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.