On June 28, 2005, nineteen U.S. service members perished in the mountains of Afghanistan. The author’s husband, Navy SEAL Jacques Fontan, was one of those killed.
The mission, Operation Red Wings, has become one of the most well-known operations in contemporary warfare. Only one survivor lived to tell the harrowing story, resulting in books, speeches, and a blockbuster movie, Lone Survivor. Perhaps more importantly, the mission created much-needed public awareness and curiosity about the realities of war and survival.
But there have been no books, speeches, or movies written about the other survivors: the women and children whose lives changed forever that summer day. While each widow and family processed the tragedy differently, Char became absorbed in anger and bitterness. Coping with grief was unfamiliar and scary to her. She hated God, whom she had trusted all her life, and blamed Him for losing her husband in such a violent manner.
Before she knew it, she was on the front lines of a battle to regain her own life. When all seemed lost, the kindness and persistence of a neighbor brought renewed hope and restoration to her horribly broken heart in a surprising and refreshing way.
This is her story as one of the survivors of Operation Red Wings.
Tell me a little about your book “A Beautiful Tragedy“
My purpose in writing A Beautiful Tragedy was to share the other side of the loss of a military member, in the hopes that by sharing my struggles, would in turn help others. When I lost Jacques almost 16 years ago I really wished there was a “handbook” to tell me what I was in store for and how long this pain would last and what I was supposed to do. I wanted to show people the other side of Jacques and that he’s not just one of our nation’s military heroes we lost but also the man he was. I tried to be as honest and real as I could with our relationship and my pain. I then shared how I met my now husband and how we went from friends to dating and how he helped me continue living. So many feel you can never have 2 real loves and I wanted to share how you should never settle but finding love again while still honoring your past is possible.
How has writing your book help you through the grieving process?
I will admit that the writing and editing process was both torture on my heart but also therapeutic. As anyone who has suffered such a loss as a spouse or a child knows that a loved one never leaves your daily thoughts you struggle with moving forward with you still live with grief but most don’t share that side of the grief process. So I say this was therapeutic because I feel sharing the real truths allowed me to be vulnerable and I prayed my openness would help at least one person who may be struggling. I not only shared my true feelings of grief but also my struggle in my faith after losing Jacques.
Is there one short story from your book you would like to share?
Not a short story but I hope people see Jacques for all he is and get to learn his personality, so there is more of a connection and understanding of how big of a loss those of us who loved him suffered when we lost him. He’s a hero but he was also a loving and adored husband, dad, brother, son and friend and knew more sports facts on any and all sports and teams than I could ever begin to wrap my head around.
Is there anything that you had to Edit OUT of the book that you wished was kept in?
Andy and Kelly with Ballast Books were actually really amazing and let this be my story. So in a short and boring answer there was nothing I had to edit but looking back I wish I would have actually included more stories and background, which is on me, not Andy or Kelly.
What is the biggest takeaway that you hope a reader will learn from A Beautiful Tragedy?
I pray they see they aren’t alone in their struggles. Grief never goes away and so many give the advice that people need to just “move on” and that’s not how it works. There is also an assumption that if you move forward with life and for some love, that you have left that loved one in the past and that can’t be further from the truth. I made the choice to keep living and that is a hard choice because let us be honest, it would be much easier to just stay in bed and hide, but choosing to keep living doesn’t mean I have stopped loving and missing Jacques. I’m thankful I made the choice to keep living and to be the person Jacques knew me to be and would be proud of and I appreciate that opening up to love again is hard but it was made easier because I have found a man that honors and respects Jacques and our past and is secure enough that he doesn’t feel he is in competition with Jacques or my past.
Were there any books that helped you through this tragedy?
No, but I wish there was. Counseling and getting re-grounded in my faith is what ultimately helped me through my hardest times.
What books had the most impact on you and your development?
I can’t list just one because I feel I have taken away lessons from many different books over the years. Reading on Love Languages, Devotionals (for Women, Wives, Parents), Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation are a few I have noted in my memory due to how they affected me, how I try and parent and how I try and live as a Christian women, wife and mother.
What are you reading right now? Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?
I love to read and have always loved reading! I will read anything from fiction to nonfiction- horror, crime, mystery/suspense, love stories, memoirs. I just finished Educated by Tara Westover, wow that was a great read and amazing what the Author overcame and currently reading 3 different books at once- The Third Gift by J.D. McCabe, The Outsider by Stephen King and Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.
What are your favorite books to give — and get — as gifts?
That can change at any time based on what I am reading and who I’m gifting the book to. But Belly Laughs by Jenny McCarthy was my favorite pregnancy book and what I recommend and gift to first time moms. I love her honesty and real truths which I found way more comforting and informative than any others. And I’ll take a book as a gift anytime, if you feel it was worth the read and give it to me, I’ll read it.
Give us three “Good to Know” facts about you.
Competitive, I mean, really competitive, even playing kickball with kids, I have no problem “hitting” a kid with a ball to get them out (embarrassing I know- haha), I DON’T like to lose. I’m emotional and though some people may see that as a negative I feel it shows my true loyalty and love of others and as a counselor recently told me, a double feeler, meaning I will give my family and friends all of me but love to feel loved and needed in return; probably a little exhausting for some I’m sure. I’m loyal and at times loyal to a fault. I wear my heart on my sleeve and will fight for my friends and family and fight to keep them. I don’t give up easily. I’m proud of being a Christian and will openly admit, I have a lot of faults and fall short on the daily being a good mom, wife and friend but I will always work on being better. Outside of starting to babysit at the age of 12 my first real job was lifeguarding on Jacksonville Navy Base and it was such a FUN job! It kept my extroverted self in constant contact with people throughout the day, I constantly had a tan, learned how not to treat a public restroom after having to clean the women’s room at the pool (women are GROSS!!!) and it ultimately led me to meeting Jacques so I have nothing but GREAT memories of my first job.
Writing a book is tough, were there any surprises as you set out on that journey?
Yes! For me the biggest hurdle was the fact I was a military spouse, writing about becoming a military widow who was married to a Navy Seal but not writing about his service and missions. For years we sent it off to publishers and it was always the same thing- We want it more about your Seal husband and the missions he was on and I wasn’t willing to compromise my integrity or Jacques’s to become an author. This was my story of love, loss, faith and finding love again.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author? Is there any advice they should ignore?
Believe in yourself and stay true to the message you are wanting to share. I didn’t write this book to become rich, I wrote it because I wish I had a story to relate to and read about when I first lost Jacques. It sounds so cliche but if it’s meant to be it will be. This book journey started back in 2011 and publishing didn’t come to be until 2020, during a nasty virus that shut our lives and country down as we could have never imagined and it was a light and 9year dream come true during a crazy time. Don’t compromise yourself or your story just to publish it, it’s YOUR story, no one else’s.
What is next for you?
Haha, I get asked this a lot and honestly I don’t know. I never thought I’d write a book let alone have it published so I never thought passed now. My only consistent dream since childhood was to be a wife and mom. So if it’s “just” to continue to be a mom and wife, then I”m good with that and happy to keep living, loving my family and honoring Jacques and keeping his memory alive. I love my family and friends and I will just let God lead me to what is best for me. (Well, I’ll do my best to let God lead, I still struggle not having control and knowing the “plan.” haha)
Any additional words?
Although I hate having this story to share, I’m grateful God has shown me how to use my struggles and successes to help others. What’s the point in going through hard times and making it out of the dark if you don’t find a way to use it for good? I don’t take for granted the gift of finding amazing love twice but don’t confuse my happiness with moving on. I live with my grief every day but I made the choice to move forward with life and love and grateful to have found a man who allows me to honor Jacques and keep his memory alive. God loved me through even my darkest days and I’m grateful our parents raised me knowing God and His love and through my hardships, I have grown stronger in my faith. I may not ever understand “why me” but I will cherish the years I had with Jacques and what I learned from him and loving him and be grateful God helped me see all the reasons to pick myself up and keep going. My husband now, Drew, is a true blessing and one amazing man and I would not be where and who I am 15 years later without his friendship, encouragement, love, and respect.
Charissa Fontan Westfall is a wife, mother, Christian, and surviving widow of Navy SEAL Jacques Fontan, who was killed in action during the rescue mission depicted in the book and movie ‘Lone Survivor’. Char’s life was turned upside down the day her husband was killed in service to his country. Her dreams of being happy on earth and having a family with Jacques were crushed, leaving her seemingly without hope or a future. Over the years, she tried to cope with her enormous loss, but to no avail. With her vision of the future crushed, she began a downward spiral that manifested itself in extreme anger. She was mad at everyone, even God., who she’d always had such a strong relationship with. Through the help of family and friends and several survivor foundations, she began to seek help for her anger and grief. Char turned to counselors who helped her process all the questions she had. While she does not hesitate to admit that many questions remain unanswered, she is the first to also admit her biggest mistake was not seeking therapy right away and choosing instead to deal with her loss alone.
Today, Char’s life is a picture of restoration and hope. One of her favorite things to tell people is that God blessed her life twice with love. She married Drew Westfall in 2008, and they were blessed with their first child in 2009 and their third child in 2014. It was because of Drew’s encouragement to share her story and support with other surviving spouses that she began involved in several foundations that help those dealing with loss. Her involvement has included work with the Special Ops Survivor Foundation, being on the board of the Lone Survivor Foundation, in addition to working with the Boot Campaign and Team Never Quit, all of which have made a difference in both her continued healing and that of others.