By Deborah Taylor
For the spouses and families of U.S. veterans killed in war, Memorial Day is bittersweet. The holiday honors their loved one’s military service while underscoring the loss and grief brought about by that death.
Donnella Raible knows those feelings. This year, she and her children will mark their fifth Memorial Day without their husband and father, Lt. Col. Christopher K. Raible, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2012. Raible graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in 1995 with a degree in civil engineering.
“Sometimes, it seems like it was yesterday, and sometimes, it seems like it was actually five years ago,” Donnella Raible said. “It’s a strange place to be, because you move on and you have to keep moving, you have to keep going in order to function in society and function in life, and keep my kids in school and doing their activities. So, you just keep going, and eventually, you’re out of the funk and the weirdness and the sadness of the first year, and you just start building your new life, without Chris. It’s a little strange. It’s a lot strange.”
Raible, a native of North Huntingdon, Pa., was killed in action on Sept. 14, 2012, during an insurgent attack on Camp Bastion base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. He was one of two Marines killed in the attack.
On Sept. 14, 2012, at about 10:15 p.m., Raible, a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps, had finished dinner and was preparing to video-chat with Donnella, at home in Arizona, when he ran toward the sound of gunfire that had erupted at Camp Bastion, a British base located in the Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. Fifteen Taliban insurgents had sneaked onto the base, torching six U.S. fighter jets and attacking the Marines and British Special Forces troops stationed there.
Armed with only his handgun, Raible shouted orders to one group under his command and was on his way toward a second group when he and his men were hit. Raible, 40, and Sgt. Bradley W. Atwell, 27, were killed. They were the only two casualties of the fight.
The battle left 17 coalition members wounded and nine aircraft destroyed or severely damaged. The subsequent military investigation and eyewitness accounts confirmed that the loss of life would have been calamitous without Raible’s leadership and bravery.
Donnella Raible, who is raising her and Chris’ three children — two girls and one boy, aged 16, 14 and 7 — said she is proud of how well her “good kids” are doing and how they continue to cope with their father’s loss.
“Military kids are pretty tough,” Donnella Raible said. “They know when they have to buckle down — there’s work to be done — and they know how to make friends, they know how to work hard to reach their goals. So, they get involved with school and after-school activities, and they make friends, and they move along. But there’s always the sadness of [knowing] our kids aren’t like everyone else’s because dad’s not there at all of the sports banquets and the functions after school.”
Their son was not quite 2 years old when Chris Raible deployed to Afghanistan. Father and son visited via Skype. Today, his bedroom walls are adorned with photos of his father and the jets he flew.
Their daughters display their father’s sense of humor when they deal with their little brother.
“If he does something that would have required a ribbing from their dad, the girls will lay into him, just like their dad would have. It’s pretty funny,” Donnella Raible said.
The Raibles cherish their memories and share them regularly.
“We’re constantly telling the jokes and the sarcastic comments and the funny things, and we’re constantly telling stories,” she said. “His buddies have given us stories of funny things he did or said, and how smart he was, so we tell stories all the time.”
The couple met in 1996 in her hometown of Pensacola, Florida, where he attended flight school.
“He wanted to fly. He went to a Blue Angels air show when he was a kid, and that was it,” Donnella Raible said as to why he joined the military. “I think he wanted to go with the Marines because they were just a little bit tougher and a little bit harder, and there was little more honor in the Marine Corps than in the other branches, according to him.”
As for his years at CMU, Donnella Raible said, “Chris really enjoyed his time there, and he sure loved some of his professors.” One of his favorites was the late Lawrence “Larry” Cartwright, professor emeritus in the College of Engineering and a fellow alumnus for whom Chris was a work-study student.
Since 2013, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) has celebrated Chris’ life by presenting the Lt. Col. Christopher K. Raible Distinguished Public Service Award to CEE alumni who have contributed substantially to the engineering profession.
CMU prepared Raible for his Marine Corps career.
“He went to Kent State University for two years and did pretty well, but then he went to Carnegie Mellon and just blossomed,” Donnella Raible said. “He was so intelligent, but his thinking was on such a different level. He didn’t necessarily excel in high school, but once he got to Carnegie Mellon, it was such an important turning point in his education.
“Then, once he went into the Marine Corps and went to fly jets, he had all these study habits and [ways of] finding a solution. Doing something the correct way, rather than rushing through it and doing it to say you’ve done it — that wasn’t his deal. He would say, ‘Let’s do it, let’s do it right, let’s learn it, and then we know it for future use.’ He was kind of unconventional, and he would find the smart, simplest solution for complicated problems,” she said.
His daughters are considering attending his alma mater, and Donnella Raible acknowledges, “I’ve pushed it a little bit.”
Donnella Raible is a strong woman, but the subject of Memorial Day sharpens the pain she bears as a widow and a single parent.
“What just crushes me is [that] on TV, they’ll show all these homecomings where these dads surprise their kids, and every time, I think I will never get that homecoming," Donnella Raible said.
“Memorial Day is every single day of our lives,” she added.
As the CMU community remembers Lt. Col. Raible and all fallen veterans, remember and salute, too, the spouses and children who remain and endure.