For Marine’s widow, holiday has extra meaning

Marine Staff Sgt. Joseph Fankhauser had been in Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand province for barely two weeks when he stepped on what the military calls an improvised explosive device. He was on his fifth combat deployment.

There had been a rainstorm, the ground had shifted and was soft, and the usual signs of a hidden bomb were not there. It was a joint patrol: Marines, British forces and Afghans. Only Fankhauser, 30, was killed.

“It gives me a kind of peace that it wasn’t a mistake” but rather an accident, Heather Fankhauser, 35, said of her husband’s death. “It wasn’t anything he could have done. Lots of other guys, guys with families, were there that day, and they’ll be going home, and that’s how my husband would want it.”

Joseph Fankhauser was a technician with Explosive Ordnance Disposal -- an elite unit within the U.S. military whose goal is finding and defusing the buried bombs that are the enemy’s weapon of choice. It is an especially tight-knit fraternity that has seen 111 of its members killed from 9/11 through January, according to a listing kept by the privately run E.O.D. Memorial Foundation.

Of those, 41 were Marines, 34 were in the Army, 20 the Air Force, and 16 the Navy.


At his funeral in Oceanside on May 7, Fankhauser was praised for being a perfectionist and helping bring home hundreds of Marines from his earlier deployment to Afghanistan by finding the bombs that were meant to kill and maim.

More than a hundred EOD Marines attended the service at the Eternal Hills Memorial Chapel. Marines in their dress blues stood along the walls of the chapel. Their wives, many with tears in their eyes, sat in the pews.

“He was fanatical about everything,” said Robert Luke, a former Marine who is now a bomb squad detective with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and served as one of Fankhauser’s pallbearers. “He made sure everything was in order, no short cuts. He never made mistakes. In EOD when you make a mistake, people die.”

Heather Fankhauser had arranged a video montage of pictures of her and her husband at Disneyland and Balboa Park, their “second” wedding (their first was by proxy while he was deployed) and Joseph playing with the family dogs.

There was some laughter at some of the playful pictures. But the chapel fell silent at a picture of the flag-draped casket arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

At the end of the funeral, as Marines, one by one, walked slowly to the front of the chapel, they left their EOD badges on the top of the casket, the ultimate sign of respect. Some were limping from combat injuries.

Gunnery Sgt. Brian Meyer, who lost his right leg and several fingers in Afghanistan in March 2011, did not know Fankhauser but still wanted to show his respect. “He was EOD,” Meyer said, as if no further explanation was needed.

Fankhauser, who grew up in McAllen, Texas, and enlisted in the Marines just days after graduating from high school, was assigned to the 7th Engineer Support Battalion, 1st Marine Logistics Group. He was killed on April 22.

“Two days later four men came to my door telling me that my life was over,” Heather said. “I have to move forward, but I don’t want to.”

Heather wears a bracelet bearing the names of 18 Marine EOD techs killed in Afghanistan in 2010. She used to have a bracelet with the names of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but then the names grew too numerous for one bracelet.

Like several EOD widows, Heather got a tattoo in her husband’s honor after his death. Hers says “4-22-12. Forever.” Other widows have chosen tattoos in the design of the EOD badge. There is also a tattoo that says simply, “EOD Wife.”

Joseph Fankhauser had three deployments as an infantry “grunt” before switching to Explosive Ordnance Disposal.

Heather had alerted him to the plea from Marine Corps headquarters for more volunteers for EOD as the two wars thinned its ranks. She knew the risks.

“We live with death in EOD,” she said. “When your husband goes to EOD, you know there’s a good chance you’ll lose him.”

Heather and Joseph had met the modern way: online. She was living in San Diego and he was deployed. When he came home, their first date was in the Gaslamp District.

When they decided to marry, he was deployed again. They married in a proxy ceremony, seven years ago this October.

Heather said she will never regret her husband’s choice to become a bomb tech. He was happier and felt more challenged and more vital than he had in the infantry.

Her biggest regret is that their attempts at having a child were unsuccessful. “We had wanted a baby forever,” she said.

Heather does not think she will attend any of the picnics or other social gatherings that are common ways many Americans, civilian and military, will celebrate this Memorial Day. She said she wants to spend her time with people who remember that the holiday is meant as a day of reverence for those who have worn their nation’s uniform.

She may attend the Memorial Day ceremony at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, where the keynote address will be made by a Marine general.

“I want to see it,” she said of the ceremony. “I want to feel it. Maybe if I see the love and support, it will feel right again, because now nothing feels right. I don’t want to go to a pool party or barbecue.”

Heather was at the Dover base when her husband’s casket arrived. She was accompanied by a casualty assistance officer from Camp Pendleton. Four other Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians were on the tarmac, along with the white-gloved Marine “carry team” to lift the casket gently from the cargo plane.

Days later, when her husband’s body arrived at the mortuary in Oceanside, she stayed with the casket all night. “I couldn’t leave him alone,” she said.

When his unit returns from Afghanistan later this year, there will be a ceremony and his ashes will be interred at Rosecrans.

Until then, they are in an urn that she keeps in her bedroom. “It’s like he’s somehow still with me,” Heather said. “There’s no right way to do this; there’s no right way to be a widow.”

She could stay in her Camp Pendleton home for another year, but she may leave sooner. The Fankhausers had a plan in case he did not return from deployment: She would buy a home in San Diego and go to college, maybe become a therapist or counselor.

“When your husband is EOD,” she said, “you have to have a plan.”