Many of us look up to our nation’s military members and we admire them for their bravery and selflessness. Often we see them as heroes, but it can be easy to forget that behind every American soldier is potentially a kid you grew up with.
In 2016, Gold Star mom Krista Keating-Joseph tragically lost her Navy SEAL son who was defending the values and freedoms we hold dear every day. Now she wants the country to see the son, brother, and friend he was behind the uniform.
The memory of her son’s thirst for life and his “huge goofy smile” always remain with her. Charlie Keating IV was an active, energetic kid who loved to play in the outdoors, and she had always encouraged him while growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona. He loved to paraglide, spearfish, and scuba dive. It wasn’t until his freshman year in college that he got a computer.
“He was just an all-American kid, and that’s the greatest thing. That’s what I miss the most because he was so enthusiastic and had the biggest smile. Everyone will tell you that. And the biggest heart,” Keating-Joseph said.
A Warrior’s Heart
Growing up, Charlie was an excellent coach and motivator, and strived to get groups to work together. He always befriended disadvantaged children at school, and would often invite them over for dinner, knowing that a meal was far from certain for them.
He was also a competitive athlete and ran cross country and track in school. He worked diligently and spent summers running up the mountains in Aspen.
Charlie continued to train, ate a balanced diet, and kept a healthy sleep schedule. As a result of his efforts, he became an all-state runner and would eventually run competitively at Indiana University. After he broke the four-minute mile during his sophomore year, he called his mother and told her he was in the best shape of his life. Not only that, he was going to become a Navy SEAL. To Charlie, becoming a Navy special warfare operator was the toughest goal he could attempt.
“He always had this 150 percent gusto,” Keating-Joseph said.
Charlie ultimately realized his dream and was deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Inherent Resolve to fight ISIS extremists. His mission was to guard a strategic dam from the enemy. On May 3, 2016, a group of his fellow SEALs was pinned down in a village by 200 ISIS fighters, and he volunteered to be part of the quick reaction force that came to their aid. Charlie was shot between his body armor plates and mortally wounded. He continued to fight until he collapsed and lost consciousness. Tragically, he succumbed to his wounds.
“When you lose your child, you go through this shock, and then the first month, you’re still dealing with people sending you things and cards and all that. All of a sudden everything just stops,” Keating-Joseph said.
Charlie the Kid
Following Charlie’s death, she found a box full of childhood items such as his pottery and handprints. As she pored through the box, she realized that she had written a book about Charlie when he ran track as a kid. Keating-Joseph’s mother had done some of the illustrations for it.
Keating-Joseph and her mother started working on a children’s book series in Charlie’s honor, along the way telling each other many fond and funny stories about Charlie.
The first book in the series, “Big-Hearted Charlie Runs the Mile,” recounts how Charlie was smaller than the other competitive runners around him. His freshman year he often came in last place, but instead of quitting, he applied himself, pushed himself, and ended up becoming a state champion. The second book, “Big-Hearted Charlie Never Gives Up,” describes the characteristics that led to Charlie becoming a Navy SEAL. The third book in the series is about how to make friends. Though Charlie was bullied in elementary school, he was eventually able to make friends with the bully.
“The whole thing was therapeutic because the minute we finished one book and there was some quiet time, all of the sudden, I was like, ‘I wonder what else we could do?’ because it really distracts you. It also makes you feel like you’re doing something for someone else,” Keating-Joseph said.
One of the most rewarding parts of writing the series is the response she’s gotten from children at the schools where she reads. They look up to Charlie and run around the classroom trying to emulate him. Keating-Joseph hopes children learn to never give up and never quit on their dreams and aspirations. Parents write to her frequently and tell her how powerful the stories have been for both them and their children. Some parents tell her their child wants to become a track runner. Others tell her how their kid now wants to become a Navy SEAL like Charlie.
“It just makes me smile and laugh and realize that there’s little Charlies everywhere, and big-hearted kids everywhere,” Keating-Joseph said.
Mother and Son
After the “Big-Hearted Charlie” series, Keating-Joseph wrote a memoir entitled “Charlie, Don’t Be a Hero: A Mother’s Story of the Extraordinary Life of Her Son, U.S. Navy SEAL Charles Keating IV.” The book details his life from childhood through his career as a Navy SEAL, and what it was like for her to raise a child who would end up making the ultimate, courageous sacrifice.
Not only does Keating-Joseph want young people to appreciate the sacrifice our service members make, but she also hopes readers see the American boy that her heroic son was before he became one of our nation’s most elite operators.
“Nobody knows what’s behind those beautiful eyes—those beautiful blue eyes and that smile. Nobody knows he was this awesome little boy,” she said.