OWEGO — Charles Bilbrey Sr. had tried to take in stride the news that his son, Charlie, was to begin Army duty in Iraq this past January.
“Maybe I was a little naive, thinking, ‘He’ll be fine,'” he said.
His wife, Barbara, hadn’t been as optimistic.
“It’s when I got his date of deployment that I had a terrible sense of foreboding,” she remarked.
That feeling didn’t improve during their first-born child’s return to Tioga County in April while on leave. Bilbrey, an Army Spc. 4th Class, had already survived two vehicle bombings during the first three months of his tour.
“My boy had never liked to hug, never liked physical contact. For 15 days his arms were around me,” Barbara Bilbrey recalled. “He made me talk about his funeral, which is a horrible thing for a 20-year-old to have to do.”
Bilbrey’s visit home was the last time his family saw him alive. On July 26 he was victim of another bombing, and this one he did not survive. Bilbrey, 21, was among three American soldiers killed in the blast.
Bilbrey died while engaging in a career that he pursued passionately since he was 10, when his grandfather took him on a tour of West Point.
“He was amazed at the museum, the monuments. He said, ‘I want to be in the Army,’ and started putting up posters,” Barbara Bilbrey said.
Throughout his youth, Bilbrey was highly involved in Boy Scouts, and his focus on the military was a constant.
“Just shy of his 18th birthday he said told me, ‘You realize I’m going to enlist.’ I said, ‘We’ll support you,'” his mother said.
Bilbrey enlisted the day after his 18th birthday in May 2004, then completed his final year of high school at Owego Free Academy. He was senior-class treasurer and his mother noted that “he gave up lacrosse his senior year to run track, so he’d be in better shape for basic training.”
Bilbrey’s active duty began after his graduation in June 2005. He was deployed to Iraq in January 2007 with the Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team. Bilbrey’s father said he was known for volunteering for dangerous assignments.
He was killed on July 26 when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle in Saqlawiyah, a central Iraqi town near the City of Fallujah. Also killed were Sgt. William Howdeshell, 37, of Norfolk, Va., and Spc. Jaime Rodriguez, 19, of Oxnard, Calif.
Bilbrey was given a full military funeral on Aug. 4 at his home church, St. Patrick in Owego. The church was packed with hundreds of people, and at the end of Mass Brig. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr. presented the Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals to Bilbrey’s parents.
“The funeral came together so beautifully,” his mother said. Charles Sr. observed that military personnel in attendance did their best to remain stoic, but it was apparent in their eyes that “they had lost a family member.”
Many more folks paid their respects by lining the streets as a motorcade processed to St. Patrick Cemetery. Bilbrey’s plot has remained easy to spot; on an early October morning there were 13 small U.S. flags surrounding the headstone along with wind chimes, symbolizing Bilbrey’s love of music, and a tiny pumpkin with the words “Love you Charlie!”
His funeral had a special significance for the clerical staff at Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parishes: Father John DeSocio, first-year parochial vicar, celebrated the Mass and is a U.S. Navy Reserve chaplain; Father William Moorby, pastor, is an Army veteran; and Deacon Gary DiLallo, director of faith formation, is a retired brigadier general with the Army Reserve.
Bilbrey’s parents acknowledged that their son was involved in a highly controversial war, saying there had been talk among antiwar groups to demonstrate at the funeral, although this did not occur. Yet Barbara Bilbrey observed that her boy had given his life for the very right to be able to air differing viewpoints.
“Charlie fought for freedom of speech. People are allowed to disagree here, where in other countries they’ll take you out in the street and shoot you because you don’t agree,” she said.
Another item on display at Bilbrey’s grave is a placard stating, “To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven,” from Ecclesiastes 3:1. Along those lines, Barbara Bilbrey said she believes her son’s fate was a product of God’s will.
“Very firmly I believe God’s plan for Charlie was going to be fulfilled, period,” she said.
“Charlie’s death actually strengthened our faith. We don’t believe God gives us anything we can’t handle,” Charles Sr. added.
Yet the going remains rough for Bilbrey’s parents as well as his siblings Brianne, 20; Shannon, 18; and Patrick, 9. Barbara Bilbrey said that although she believes God gave them a veil of strength to deal with the immediate shock of their son’s death, “things are a little harder now. That wears off.”
“We hope that nobody ever goes through this. (But) if Charlie’s death led to somebody coming home alive, then he didn’t die in vain,” Charles Sr. said.
Barbara said she seeks comfort by playing the soundtrack from the movie “Saving Private Ryan” even though she knows it will make her cry. Her husband, meanwhile, looks at scrapbooks of Bilbrey and cards of condolences, “and that makes me feel better.”
Bilbrey’s parents also make frequent stops to St. Patrick Cemetery, where Bilbrey had opted to be buried rather than in a military cemetery out of state.
“He knew I’d need to be close to him,” his mother said.