WATCH: With time and horses, a soldier's family in Tacoma finds healing
Anguished over her oldest son’s death in Afghanistan in 2012, Charlotte Cox-Turner drove by his grave week after week on her way to the ranch where she could help herself heal.
Her heart hurt when she passed Pfc. Neil Turner at the Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent.
She kept going, knowing the hours she spent — shovel in hand at a Maple Valley farm, cleaning stalls and feeding horses — would get her through the day.
“I noticed every time I came home after working, I’d feel a little better,” she said. “It was like burning off grief. I was working so hard.”
One morning, she felt herself emerging from the depression that hung over her long after Neil’s death. With tears still pouring, she leaned into a horse so big the ground seemed to shake when he walked.
He let her cry on him.
Comforted by her silent friend, she was ready to look forward to her own life again.
“I never thought I would come back,” Charlotte said. “I thought that my heart was shut and irreparably closed, and I thought it wouldn’t heal up. (The horses) taught me my heart still works. Because of their tenderness, it taught me I still have a heart.”
Four years after Neil Turner’s death in a maddeningly reckless accident, his parents and three younger brothers are leaving a dark time behind them as they learn to live without a young man from East Tacoma who once seemed invincible.
Charlotte, 55, found peace with horses and by caring for soldiers who knew her son.
Her husband, Leland, 64, held his family together in moments when he feared sadness would break them apart.
Brother Maxwell, 23, lost a year to his own depression, but found strength in work, music and friends.
Jordan, 19, followed his dad’s lead and tried to look strong for the family. He’s in college and pursuing big dreams.
Youngest brother Tucker, 15, doesn’t like to talk much about Neil. But even he recently wrote an essay about his brother that moved a teacher to tears.
I thought that my heart was shut and irreparably closed, and I thought it wouldn’t heal up.
Neil, born on Memorial Day in 1990 and killed by another soldier before turning 22, remains at the center of his family’s home. Portraits of him with his brothers and in Afghanistan dominate their living room. His medals, uniform and military boots are on display.
Today, those mementos feel more like a celebration of his life than a sign of the family’s mourning.
“It takes time,” Leland said. “You have to realize what the new normal is. Normal was all four boys. Now it’s only three.”
All of the almost 7,000 families who lost loved ones in the nation’s wars since 2001 felt grief and pride in their own ways. For the Turners, the path to a “new normal” seemed especially difficult.
They endured months of waiting until the Army gave them a straight story about how their son died and then traveled to Texas several times to participate in a court-martial for his killer, Spc. Francisco Perez.
Charlotte closely read her son’s autopsy report, stared at photos of his bloodied body and had nightmares about his death. She still managed to forgive Perez when she addressed him in court. He received a sentence of 15 months in jail and a punitive discharge.
“The whole thing is bad,” she said. “Neil is gone. I know for a fact (Perez) did not intend to kill Neil. It was reckless, but wasn’t intentional.
“Fifteen months, three years, it doesn’t matter. There’s a punishment. It’s not going to bring Neil back.”
Invincible big brother
Growing up, Neil was an irrepressible kid who abruptly shed 60 pounds when a doctor told him he might develop diabetes. The Lincoln High School graduate then packed on enough muscle to go toe to toe with older boys in mixed martial arts bouts around Tacoma.
His whole personality, it made me think he was invincible. When he joined the military, I was never worried anything would happen. I was sure he’d come home and be fine because he was such a strong person.
He enlisted in the Army with a plan to get some direction in his life before heading on to college.
“His whole personality, it made me think he was invincible,” his brother Jordan said. “When he joined the military, I was never worried anything would happen. I was sure he’d come home and be fine because he was such a strong person.”
Neil lived up to his reputation when he surprised his family with a visit home from Afghanistan around Thanksgiving 2011. He told his parents he wasn’t in any danger in the war. When his parents weren’t around, he shared some combat stories with Maxwell.
“He lied to us. He didn’t want Charlotte to worry,” Leland said. “He told us he was escorting people. What he was really doing was out on the front lines, shooting at people and being shot at.”
But the Taliban didn’t hit Neil.
Perez shot him on Jan. 11, 2012, in the chest with a tank-busting rocket launcher inside their base in eastern Afghanistan.
The Army initially called it a “training accident” and opened an investigation. Neil’s parents gathered the details of how he died from other soldiers.
Over months, they learned the accident took place inside a building where soldiers stored weapons. Perez was in charge of the inventory.
Neil asked Perez how to fire the weapon. Neil lifted it and Perez urged him to pull the trigger, believing it held only a training round. Neil declined and put the weapon down.
Perez then hoisted the launcher to show Neil how to hold it. He armed it and fired it, sending a round through Neil’s chest.
The rocket did not explode, but at least two soldiers near Neil experienced traumatic brain injuries from its blast, according to records reviewed by The News Tribune.
Many more soldiers knew about the accident instantly because they were in the building. A lieutenant later told Army investigators that he saw Perez handling the rocket launcher and was about to order him to put it down.
“Before I could say anything, Perez fired the weapon,” the lieutenant wrote in a statement to his command.
Soldiers told Neil’s parents Perez had been reprimanded earlier that day for his loose handling of other weapons. The family’s anger swelled while senior Army officials remained tight-lipped.
“Everything came out slowly,” Leland said. “It seems like every time we heard something, it was something worse than we knew before.”
A soldier who was next to Neil when he died told the family his last words were about his mother. Somehow, he lived for 21 minutes with a rocket-sized hole in his torso.
“Neil was a lot stronger than anyone thought,” Leland said.
At home after Neil’s death, the five Turners seemed to go their separate ways as they grieved alone.
Jordan remembered the family suddenly stopped eating dinner together, a custom they’d upheld for years.
“For a really long time, we’d never really gather as a family,” he said. “The way I felt about it was, if we were all together we would remember that someone as absent.”
Maxwell went to college in Minnesota. He came home after a semester when his parents worried he was too depressed to focus on schoolwork.
“I was just kind of there,” he remembered.
Charlotte at times did not want to leave her bedroom.
“The grief is so deep,” she said.
I was just there when she needed me. I could not fix her, but I could be there for her.
Leland, a Navy veteran, took two months of bereavement leave from his job at Boeing. He’d send Jordan, then a student at the Tacoma School of the Arts, to check on Charlotte during the day.
Leland didn’t hesitate to cut short his shift if Charlotte wanted him near.
“I was just there when she needed me,” he said. “I could not fix her, but I could be there for her. I did not want the family to fall apart. I’ve seen other families break apart.”
The family pursued counseling together through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The boys attended grief camps offered to the children and siblings of fallen troops. They hung together.
Maxwell found a job at a Fred Meyer. His friends and Neil’s friends wouldn’t let him be alone. He started making movies and music with his buddies.
“I’m in a better place than I was,” he said. “We all are. We went through one of the lowest periods that any of us have experienced.”
Jordan traveled to China with his high school, embarking on an eye-opening journey. He persisted in his studies and bought himself a car.
Tucker had a lull in schoolwork for a year, but got back on track.
Leland kept smiling, looking after his three boys.
“I could not let them fall by the wayside,” he said.
Soldiers who served alongside Neil made their way to Tacoma, often spending holidays with the family.
Some stayed for months at a time. Their presence soothed Charlotte.
“That made a huge difference for me,” she said. “I’m used to taking care of people and bringing up my boys. It’s not a really a replacement for Neil, but it was, having that fourth son in the house.”
One of Charlotte’s sisters in Minnesota suggested she find time to volunteer with horses, hoping the physical activity would provide a kind of therapy.
Charlotte had not been around horses much in years, but liked the idea.
She knew she found the right place when she visited Serenity Equine Rescue in Maple Valley. It’s a nonprofit ranch Patrica Clark runs to nurse abandoned and neglected horses back to health.
Charlotte took to the horses and wanted to care for them.
I feel like he’s telling me, ‘Mom, the grief was so bad you couldn’t feel anything. I was always there.’
Dante, a heavy-footed black Friesian, stood out to her. Someone in California had tried to adopt him before it was safe to separate him from his mother. Dante got sick and wound up at Serenity when the buyer decided to go with another horse.
Charlotte liked his history. They became friends.
“Dante is the first horse I connected with,” she said. “He’s heard a lot of my grief.”
Other volunteers noticed Charlotte showed up three or four times a week, but mostly did not want to talk to them. Instead, she silently minded the horses.
Today, she’s a favorite friend to the farm and to her fellow volunteers.
“You were pretty closed off then, and you’re a whole different person now,” Clark told her on a visit this month.
Charlotte always felt an almost psychic connection with Neil. She worried tremendously when he joined the Army. She had a bad feeling, like a premonition.
In her nightmares after his death, she felt as if she was in Neil’s place when the rocket fired.
“As a parent, when it happens to your child, it happens to you. It was hard not to be there in his last moments,” she said.
Those dark dreams faded as she spent more time on the farm. Surprisingly, she began to feel Neil’s presence with her as she grew stronger.
“In that first couple of years, I felt extremely distant,” she said. “There was this impassible gulf with my son.”
“Now, I actually feel closer to Neil, and I thought, ‘How could that be?’
“I feel like he’s telling me, ‘Mom, the grief was so bad you couldn’t feel anything. I was always there.’ ”