When our country’s service members are killed in action, they aren’t alone in making the ultimate sacrifice. Their families also bear the burden. Char Fontan Westfall continues to carry the loss of her late husband Navy SEAL Jacques Fontan, but she’s learned how to grieve and how to live again.
Westfall met Fontan when he was serving at the Navy base in Jacksonville, Florida, as a rescue swimmer instructor in 1996. She was home from college that summer working as a lifeguard and swim coach, and their paths crossed almost daily.
“He was an absolutely wonderful man. He was funny, very into his family, his friends, very loyal, loved sports—I have never seen or heard a man who could recite so many facts about all different sports teams, not just the teams he liked but across the board in general. It was crazy,” Westfall said.
Fontan pursued his dream of becoming a Navy SEAL as Westfall finished her last year of college. After he proposed to her, she moved to Coronado, California, to be with him, and the two married in 2000. She was very much in love but wasn’t initially aware of the challenges of being married to a SEAL. He traveled often and could be called away at a moment’s notice. When he was on deployment, communication and contact were limited.
Getting the News
Westfall worked as a private tutor for an autistic child, and she would take him out as part of their lessons. One evening when they were out having dinner, she noticed a story on television about a helicopter that had been shot down in Afghanistan, and that it was unlikely that anyone had survived.
“I remember thinking: ‘Oh my gosh. That’s so sad. Let me pray for those families,'” Westfall recalled.
As Westfall drove home that evening, she received a call from a friend and fellow SEAL wife telling her she was trying to get as much information as she could about the incident. Westfall immediately thought back to the news footage she had seen earlier at the restaurant and felt something visceral in her stomach.
The next day, she heard that those who had been killed were part of SEAL Team 10, her husband’s unit. She was used to hosting a weekly dinner that night, and her friends began arriving earlier than usual.
She went to the garage with one of her friend’s husbands to get some charcoal for the grill when they heard car doors slam shut outside. They turned and saw three men in full Navy uniform walking toward them. The men asked everyone to leave and informed her that Fontan was missing in action.
She asked if there was a possibility that he was still alive but couldn’t get an answer. The next day, they confirmed he had been killed in action when his helicopter was shot down trying to rescue his fellow SEALs during Operation Red Wings. The mission was made famous by the book and later the film “Lone Survivor,” by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell.
“It was definitely rough. I had a feeling leading up to it once the information started coming in, but it’s still just not something you want to fully believe until they actually tell you,” Westfall said.
Learning to Grieve
The year following Fontan’s death was a tumultuous one. They had sold their house and moved back to Florida, and were in the process of buying a new home for their future family. They had been waiting to start a family until Fontan returned home.
Just five months following Fontan’s death, Westfall attended her brother’s wedding. Fontan was supposed to be a groomsman.
When Fontan’s team returned from deployment in Afghanistan, Westfall witnessed her friends welcoming their husbands home. She felt utterly alone, but a friend from her parents’ Bible group down the road befriended her. He was someone she could always depend on; she could call him when the grief became unbearable, and he would check in on her regularly. Yet she was still traumatized and began to question her faith.
“I grew increasingly angry with God in that first year, too, just because I didn’t understand,” Westfall said.
Westfall wished that someone would crash into her car to make all of the pain stop.
Her friend encouraged her to join him at church, but she would sit there in anger with her fists clenched during the service. But as she continued to go to church, her rage dissipated little by little, and she began speaking with her pastor who directed her to a Christian counselor.
At first, she was skeptical about how talking with a counselor would help. How could they tell her anything that she didn’t already know? But once she discovered that talking through her various emotions was helping her heal, she began to value the counseling. She realized that there was no handbook for grief and gradually learned how to cope with her emotions.
Over time, she learned to love God again. She also found love and happiness again when she started dating her friend. The two are now married and have three children. He is respectful, supportive, and attuned to her past.
“I can definitely look back and see where God was just there for me the whole time,” Westfall said.
Honoring her late husband, she has continued to live her life and give back. Westfall now works with the Special Ops Survivor Foundation, the Lone Survivor Foundation, the Boot Campaign, and Team Never Quit. She also speaks with other spouses of fallen service members and shares her story to help them heal and encourages them to keep living. The process has helped her heal as well, and in an effort to expand her mission she wrote the book “A Beautiful Tragedy: A Navy SEAL Widow’s Permission to Grieve and a Prescription for Hope.”
“Just being able to give back in Jacque’s memory to me feels like I’m keeping his memory alive,” Westfall said.