Final Gift

February 16, 2017

Courtesy of Reader’s Digest – March 2017 Issue


This Military Mom Was Murdered in Afghanistan. But the Final Gift She Left Her Daughter Will Last Forever.

With a handful of videos, Lt. Florence Choe helped shape her daughter’s life–even after she lost her own.

When the package arrived in the mail, Cdr. Chong “Jay” Choe stared at it in shock. This was the fifth delivery since his wife had been shipped overseas. On previous occasions, he’d brought the padded envelopes to his three-year-old daughter, Kristin, as soon as he saw the return address. She would eagerly help him open the seals, and they’d watch the DVDs together right away. But this delivery was different. Florence must have sent the disc shortly before the gunman opened fire, he thought. He wondered what she’d chosen for the reading that would be her last gift to her daughter. He could feel the square plastic case inside the pouch. But he couldn’t bring himself to pull it out, let alone watch it. So the package sat on his desk for weeks, unopened.

Jay and Florence had met at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where he was doing his internship in general surgery. Shy and unassuming but fiercely disciplined, Jay hit the hospital gym nearly every day early in the morning before beginning his rounds. The only other person in the room at that hour was a small, beautiful woman who always wore headphones and seemed intent on avoiding eye contact. He ran into her again at a staff meeting and learned that she was a medical service corps officer named Florence Bacong. When he gathered his courage and asked her to dinner, she blurted, “No!” and told him she had other plans. Sensing wariness, he tried another tack: “How about lunch this Sunday after church?” To his amazement, she agreed.

Over sandwiches, he learned that Florence was the daughter of a Navy cook; her parents were from the Philippines, and she’d grown up in San Diego. She was the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree, which she had topped off with a master’s in public health. Two days after the 9/11 attacks, she’d followed her father into the service. Despite her manicured nails and well-coiffed hair, she shared Jay’s taste for camping and hiking. Their romance bloomed on the trails of Virginia’s Great Falls Park.

They were married in June 2004 and were deployed to Okinawa, Japan, soon afterward. At Camp Hansen, Jay was assigned to the Third Marine Logistics Group as a general medical officer, while Florence became an officer in charge of the Headquarters and Service Battalion, overseeing nearly 100 sailors and Marines.

Kristin was born in November of the following year. The joys and stresses of parenthood—compounded by the demands of their jobs and the challenges of living abroad—tightened the couple’s bond. Jay marveled at Florence’s gung ho performance as a mother and an officer, but it stung him when the strain of balancing both roles made her cry. In 2007, as their tour neared its end, he applied to do his residency at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, where his in-laws could provide a support network. And then, in May 2008, Lt. Florence Choe was called for duty in Afghanistan.

Florence and Jay’s immediate concern was how she could remain in her little girl’s life from more than 7,500 miles away. Soon after landing at Bagram Airfield, she found the answer: United Through Reading (UTR). Run by a San Diego–based nonprofit, the program enables military parents to be recorded on DVD reading storybooks to their faraway children. UTR was founded in 1989 by Betty J. Mohlenbrock, the wife of a naval flight surgeon who was deployed when their daughter was a baby; after his return, the child didn’t recognize him, and their relationship had to be painstakingly rebuilt. Mohlenbrock, an educator who’d seen children lagging at school because no one read to them at home, designed the program as a way to sustain family closeness while boosting literacy.

For her first DVD for Kristin, Florence selected Cinderella. When the package arrived in San Diego, it was as if the Fairy Godmother herself was inside. Jay popped the DVD into the player and settled on the floor with Kristin while her grandparents sat on the sofa, craning their heads toward the TV. When Florence appeared on the screen, Kristin yelled, “Mommy!” and ran to kiss her face. Kristin sat rapt throughout the performance, then demanded a replay. Over the next few weeks, she begged to watch the video every evening—and sometimes several times a day. Florence and Kristin had, indeed, been united through reading.

From Bagram, Florence flew to Camp Mike Spann, a coalition outpost within an Afghan National Army base near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Her assignment was to help organize administrative logistics at a new medical station for troops and civilians. In her off-hours, she got to work establishing a local branch of UTR. She lobbied camp authorities to set aside a small room for a library, which she furnished with handmade shelves, donated recording equipment, and books collected through an e-mail drive.

Florence’s next DVD, reading Good Night, Gorilla, was an even bigger hit. Kristin watched it over and over; she made Jay or her grandparents read her the book at bedtime as well. Several weeks later came The Cat in the Hat, followed by Llama Llama Red Pajama. Between deliveries, Florence checked in via Skype whenever she could, but the connection was often wonky, and Kristin would drift away mid-conversation. The readings, however, held the toddler’s attention with an almost hypnotic force. Like any young child, Jay thought, she thrived on repetition and ritual; the comfort of these virtual visits with her mother was heightened by their utter predictability and the gentle rhythms of the stories. The element of control was another factor: Instead of waiting for a call, Kristin could summon Mommy’s face and voice whenever she chose.

The DVDs were a balm to Jay as well. The tenderness of Florence’s gaze, and the avidity of Kristin’s response, provided a countercurrent to the worries that come with military life. It felt deeply soothing to tap into that circuit of love.

In January 2009, when Florence came home on leave, Kristin climbed into her lap as if she’d never been away. The family spent a week in Hawaii, reveling in the sun, the sea, and one another before Florence boarded a plane back to the war zone.

Two months later, on March 27, Jay’s department chair told him the admiral wanted to see him. Jay’s first thought was that he’d bungled some task and was due for a dressing down. But when he saw the faces of the dozen people gathered in the wood-paneled office, he knew the news would be infinitely worse. “I’m so sorry,” the admiral said.

It had happened when Florence and three friends were on their afternoon run. As they jogged along the base’s perimeter fence, an Afghan soldier swung his AK-47 toward the group. The first bullet passed through Navy Captain Kim Lebel’s arm; the second struck Florence’s thigh. Navy lieutenant junior grade Francis Toner, 26, charged the shooter, giving his life in an attempt to save the others. The assailant stood over Florence and finished her off before turning his weapon on himself. No one knew whether he was a Taliban infiltrator or had some other grievance.

A chaplain accompanied Jay to his in-laws’ house. As Florence’s parents wept, Jay carried Kristin down the street. “Can we visit Mommy in heaven?” she asked.

“No, sweetie,” Jay told her. “She’s an angel now, watching over us.” Kristin hugged him tighter and buried her face in his shoulder.

Florence was only 35 when she was buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, on a hillside with a view of the sea. The last DVD arrived a few weeks after she died. When Jay finally mustered the strength to watch it, he discovered that the disc had been damaged in transit. He stared through his tears at the blank blue screen—an emblem of all he and his family had lost.

For a long time, Jay and Kristin visited Florence’s resting place frequently, bringing a blanket, snacks, and cards that Kristin had drawn herself. But inevitably, life began to pull them in new directions. They moved in with Jay’s mother, who relocated from Maryland to lend a hand. The DVDs wound up stashed in a closet. Jay couldn’t bear to watch them anymore, and Kristin eventually stopped asking to.

Today, Jay is married again to a fellow surgeon. Kristin, now 11, has two younger sisters—a 23-month-old, Dana, and a newborn baby. Yet Florence remains a presence in the lives of the family members she left behind. Like her mother, Kristin is outwardly prim, with a tomboyish streak just below the surface; on fishing trips with her dad, she insists on being the one to gut the catch. She also inherited Florence’s studiousness, her focus, and something of her toughness and adaptability. She recently won the local Rotary Club’s “Character Counts” essay contest with an entry that described her time of bereavement. “Losing my mom made me feel different from the other kids,” Jay remembers Kristin writing. “But it taught me perseverance.”

As for the storytelling DVDs, Jay keeps them tucked away on a shelf in the closet. He plans to present them to Kristin as a keepsake someday. “The time will have to be right,” he says, “for her, for me, for the family. I have no idea when that will be. But when she’s older, I want her to have those treasures. None of us ever knew how significant they would be in our lives.”

Yet in a sense, the legacy of those DVDs—of the gift that a soldier-mother created for her daughter—is right there in the family living room. In the evenings, when the adults take out their medical journals, and Kristin cracks a volume of Harry Potter, little sister Dana invariably climbs into her elder sibling’s lap holding a picture book. “Kristin loves to read to her,” Jay says. “When Dana is old enough for Good Night, Gorilla, we’ll really have come full circle.”

The Reader’s Digest Foundation, via its R.E.A.D. Together campaign has joined forces with United Through Reading to promote the benefits of parent involvement in childhood literacy. 

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