Charles Kaufman loved to drive.
He didn’t need training wheels on his first bike. By the time he was 7, he was mowing the lawn on a riding mower at his family home. Trucks, tractors, boats, all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles – if it had an engine, Kaufman was zooming around on it.
Charles Kaufman also drove a Humvee as a Wisconsin National Guard soldier stationed in Iraq. He died Sunday behind the wheel of a Humvee while on a mission in Baghdad.
Kaufman, 20, was the 41st Wisconsin service member to be killed in Iraq.
One week after burying Kaufman’s 82-year-old grandfather and namesake, the Kaufman family is preparing for another funeral in the small community of Fairchild, about 30 miles southeast of Eau Claire.
“He loved his family as we all loved him,” his parents, Mark and Celeste, and sister, Samantha, said in a statement. “As busy as he was living the active life of an energetic young man, Charles always had time for his grandfather.”
His family said that even though he was disappointed when he couldn’t attend his grandfather’s funeral last week, “they are together now.”
Charles Kaufman served in Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, which is stationed in Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. His cousin, Kelly Kaufman, is also in Charlie Company, and the two, born only two weeks apart, were like brothers. They went through Osseo-Fairchild High School together, graduating in 2003, and joined the same National Guard unit.
“We’re still all pretty stunned and in shock,” said Tammy Kaufman, Kelly’s mother. “Kelly and Charles were very close.”
The Kaufman cousins were determined to go to Iraq together. After Charlie Company and the rest of the 700-member battalion finished training in Mississippi and California last year, the soldiers returned to Wisconsin on leave before shipping out in November.
Injuries delayed return to Iraq, Charles Kaufman went hunting on his visit home and fell 15 feet out of a tree. He suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung and lost his spleen. It took him an extra month to heal, but he eventually caught up with Charlie Company and his cousin in Iraq.
“His injuries could have kept him safe at home, but Charles insisted on going with his cousin,” his family said.
Maybe it’s not surprising that he would spend some of his precious time off from the military hunting, because Charles Kaufman loved to fish and hunt. His friends sometimes wondered if he lived in the woods, the family statement said. He was good at it, too – he managed to bag a few big bucks and once quit a job so he could go deer hunting on opening day.
On Sunday, Charles Kaufman was driving an armored Humvee from Baghdad to Tikrit when a roadside bomb penetrated the driver’s side of the vehicle, according to Maj. Pat Walsh, a commander of the task force that Charlie Company is attached to in Samarra.
Two Charlie Company soldiers were also injured in the attack, Walsh said. The gunner, Spc. Brandan Macha, of Pittsville, suffered shrapnel wounds and is expected to return to duty in a few days. The team leader, Sgt. 1st Class John Benish, of Wisconsin Rapids, who was riding in the passenger seat, suffered a concussion and minor wounds.
Charlie Company was linking up with buses filled with Iraqi police recruits to escort them from Baghdad to a training academy in Tikrit when the bomb exploded.
“After the (improvised explosive device) went off these soldiers secured the blast area, triaged their wounded comrades and recovered their vehicles to the nearest secure base,” Walsh wrote in an e-mail to the Journal Sentinel.
“These strong-willed soldiers paid their final respects to SPC Kaufman as his remains were handed off to the mortuary affairs unit.
“Once completed, Lt. (Andrew) Johansen understrength with (fewer) vehicle(s) and personnel took charge of the bus escort mission as they pulled their soldiers together to continue their duty and mission of the long road trip to Tikrit,” Walsh wrote.
Walsh praised Charlie Company as one of the best-trained and top-performing companies he has worked with in almost two decades in the military. He noted that the unit was the first sent to the scene of a car bomb and improvised explosive device on Saturday at the residence of an Iraqi police officer in Samarra.
A memorial service in Iraq for Charles Kaufman is scheduled for July 2. Funeral arrangements in Fairchild are pending.
It was the second loss for Charlie Company. Six months earlier to the day of Charles Kaufman’s death, Staff Sgt. Todd Olson was hit by a roadside bomb while on a foot patrol in Samarra. He died the next day.
Flags were lowered Sunday as word spread that one of Fairchild’s 511 residents had been killed in Iraq, said Village Clerk Patti Bertrang, who noted that Charles Kaufman was part of a large family in the community.
“I see flags out on people’s houses that didn’t have flags before. Everybody is kind of in mourning,” Bertrang said.
JoAnn Wampole remembered her high school classmate as a friendly guy who loved to laugh and loved being in the National Guard.
“He would do anything for anybody. (He was) just a big teddy bear,” said Wampole, a National Guard recruiter in River Falls. “It’s an honor to serve your country. I know Charles felt the same way.”
Charles Kaufman told his family he thought the work he was doing in Iraq was important and that he was making a difference in the lives of Iraqi children, the family’s statement said. He was known for his big smile – a smile that made his family members wonder what he was up to – as well as a grin that told everyone he was about to tell a joke or a good story. He loved patty melts and cheesy potato soup. He was a great pool player.
“Words cannot possibly convey the emptiness in our family right now. We loved Charles very much and we will miss him forever.”
I sat inside Anderson Funeral Home in Augusta, witnessing firsthand the grief of a mother and a father whose 20-year-old son had died fighting in Iraq.
I had driven to eastern Eau Claire County on a warm early July day six years ago to write a story about Charles Kaufman, a specialist in Company C of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, who was killed June 26, 2005, when a roadside bomb exploded next to the Humvee he was driving near Baghdad.
I struck up conversations in the funeral home parking lot with several of Charles’ relatives. Eventually I worked my way inside the funeral home and talked to more people. Then I asked to speak with his parents and was told Mark and Celeste Kaufman didn’t want to talk with me.
A moment later, I understood why. A man and woman, wracked with grief, walked slowly into the room and toward a nearby casket with military personnel stationed at each end. Charles’ parents clasped hands and bent over the casket, the enormity of losing their son hitting them full force. Celeste turned away and hugged her husband, a tear streaking her cheek.
Memories of that July day in Augusta flooded my brain as I read a story about the death of 22-year-old Michael Nolen, a Marine from Spring Valley who died Monday from wounds he received while fighting in Afghanistan. The story prompted thoughts about Charles, another soldier from another small town in this part of Wisconsin who also was killed while fighting in the Middle East.
Charles died after his family, who then lived in Fairchild, had tried unsuccessfully to convince Army officials to let him and his cousin, Kelly Kaufman, come home on leave to attend the funeral of their grandfather, for whom Charles was named. Had that leave been granted, Charles would have been home instead of driving the Humvee.
One day after Charles’ visitation service, I attended his funeral at which his mother, Celeste, spoke eloquently about her son. Later she spoke with me, describing Charles’ zest for life, how he often exhibited a blustery, can-do attitude that earned him the affectionate nickname John Wayne. But Charles had a shy, quiet side too, she said, and he valued time with friends and family.
Charles didn’t have to go to Iraq. In fact, his relatives told me, he wasn’t the gung-ho military type. But once Kelly signed up for a stint in the Army, Charles decided to go too, in large part to watch out for his cousin. An accident while deer hunting in the hills of rural Fairchild shortly before he and Kelly departed could have excused Charles from going to Iraq. He went anyway.
For a couple of years after our initial meeting, Celeste and I stayed in touch. She shared with me the dark days she spent coming to grips with the fact that Charles wasn’t coming home. She and other family members struggled mightily with their grief.
However, as time progressed Celeste discovered a sense of peace with her loss. The pain of Charles’ death always would be with her, Celeste told me, but she found a way to remember the good times while dealing with the bad. She even began to talk with others about how to cope with the loss of loved ones.
In recent years I’ve lost contact with Celeste. Now, with the death of another soldier from this part of Wisconsin, I am reminded of Celeste and the toll of war on soldiers’ parents.