Doria Alecksen and her son, Charles, learn to cope after war and grief claim half their family.

A family fractured

Doria Alecksen and her son, Charles, learn to cope after war and grief claim half their family.

EATONTON — Doria and Charles Alecksen chose their clothing carefully. She reached for an ivory gown — not the traditional attire for someone recently made a widow, but Doria never considered herself traditional. Charles, her son, put on the JROTC uniform that identified him as an aspiring soldier.

It was a perfect morning, serene and bright, the first day of September. Folks idling outside the sanctuary at Eatonton First United Methodist Church, waiting to pay their respects, moved aside as Doria and Charles stepped inside to see Lars.

For most, it was the second Alecksen family funeral in less than two months. In July, townspeople filled the church sanctuary to pay their respects to Erica Alecksen, the family’s 21-year-old daughter. She returned from Afghanistan in a flag-draped coffin, the third Georgia woman to die in combat.

Now Lars was dead, too. People had come to bid him farewell — and, yes, to see for themselves what a broken heart can do to a man.

Doria and Charles stopped at his open casket. Their shoulders brushed as if each propped up the other. Then Charles pinned an Eagle Scout lapel pin on his dad’s jacket. Doria laid a hand on her husband’s chest. “Goodbye,” she whispered.

At 11 a.m. sharp, two men in dark suits from the local funeral home stepped silently to his casket. On the last note of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” they closed his casket. Lars, like Erica, was gone.

Death comes in its own time. Sometimes it comes too soon. And people like Doria and Charles are left to work through the grief and figure out a way to go on. Doria was forced to confront her conflicted emotions about her husband, a hard man who doted on his only daughter.

For his part, Charles faced the truth of a father who played favorites and the loss of his only sister.

Inside the church, three ladies sat in a back pew, fanning their programs to stay cool. They looked at what was left of the Alecksen family and sighed.

“How can this poor family take any more?” one asked.

2. Afghanistan:‘I’m scared, mama’

Erica was born on Jan. 30, 1991. She was late and little: two weeks overdue and 5 pounds. Lying in bed after giving birth, Doria watched her husband lean his 6-foot-2 frame over the tiny creature that was theirs. He wrapped the child in his arms and smiled.

From that moment, they were inseparable. You saw Lars, you saw Erica. By the time she was a toddler, she was growing in her father’s image.

Returning from work one afternoon, Doria saw Erica hustling a wrench to her dad, his head stuck in an open car hood. The child was 4.

“She doesn’t know what you need,” Doria called out.

“Yes I do!” the little girl piped up. Her dad called for a socket wrench. Erica got it, waving it in her pudgy hand.

By the time Erica was 13, she had her own toolbox, a red, multi-drawer, rolling model that professional mechanics prefer.

She grew into an energetic young woman, graduating from Putnam County High School in 2009. After a year of trying to find work in Eatonton, Erica decided to follow her dad’s advice. She went to the U.S. Army recruiter’s office in Milledgeville and signed up to be a soldier.

Erica also did something that didn’t have her dad’s blessing. She and Tim Bailey, two years her senior, slipped off to the Putnam County Courthouse one February 2010 day and got married. For two weeks, it was their secret until Erica revealed all during a family dinner at her grandparents’ home.

For a moment, no one said anything. Then Erica sniffled. A moment later, her old man did, too.

“All you could hear,” said Doria, “was her crying — Lars, too.”

The Army shipped Erica off to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., in March 2011, where she trained to be an MP, a military police officer. When she finished, she was transferred to Fort Bliss in Texas.

There, she got her next orders: Afghanistan. Erica, who’d always been afraid to shoot her dad’s .22-caliber rifle, was going to war.

As the days dwindled toward her daughter’s departure for Afghanistan, Doria traveled 1,500 miles to Texas to say goodbye. She went alone; Lars had visited Erica at the base before, and someone needed to stay home with Charles.

“Truth be known,” said Doria, “he didn’t want to see her get on that plane.”

On Feb. 22, the day before her departure, they were riding around El Paso — Tim at the wheel of his pickup, Doria at the window, Erica between them. Erica placed her head on her mom’s shoulder. A tear rolled down Erica’s cheek.

“I’m scared, mama,” she said. “I never wanted to make this trip.”

The next night, she left for Afghanistan, the military transport plane lights winking in the dark until they vanished in the distance. Doria watched it go.

No one in her family would see Spc. Erica Alecksen alive again.

Bailey will always recall the knock on his door July 9. It was 4 o’clock, already hot and two hours from a Texas sunrise. He opened the door, saw two officers and slammed it. A moment later, he re-opened the door. One, a captain, spoke. “You’d better sit down.”

Erica and five other MPs were heading to a base in the Wardak province of eastern Afghanistan on July 8 when their armored vehicle ran over a buried improvised explosive device, the officers said. No one had a chance. An autopsy report would show the blast fractured her right arm in three places. It broke her jaw. It blew off part of her left leg. Erica probably died immediately.

Bad news travels fast anywhere, but it travels fastest in a small town. Eatonton, with less than 7,000 residents, qualifies. State and federal highways come together, briefly, in a central business district comprising a handful of restaurants, antique shops and lawyers’ offices. Eatonton’s main claim to fame: It’s the hometown of Joel Chandler Harris, author of the “Brer Rabbit” tales. A statue of America’s original rascally rabbit stands permanent vigil outside the Putnam County Courthouse.

And, like any small Southern town, Eatonton prizes patriotism. An estimated 3,000 people lined the streets July 18 to say farewell when Erica’s body returned to Putnam County. Nearly 500 people turned out for her funeral at First United Methodist Church, held in a sanctuary that seats 225. Ushers directed the overflow into Sunday School classes. Thunder cracked the sky and wind scoured the streets. Did God share Eatonton’s anger at what happened?

It was a closed-casket service.

3. He died of a broken heart

On the day Erica’s parents learned of her death, Dave Hinson hustled to his car. His wife gave him the news and moments later, his daughter did, too; it was all over Facebook, she told her dad. Driving to the Alecksen home in rural Putnam that July 9 afternoon, Hinson repeated a prayer that must be in every preacher’s repertoire.

“Lord, give me strength,” Hinson, pastor at First United Methodist, prayed to himself as modest homes and single-wide trailers slid past. “Help me.”

He arrived to find two adults still in shock. It was a warm day. They unfolded lawn chairs in the driveway and sat under an enormous oak as Hinson again prayed — this time, out loud — for strength. For peace. For Erica and those who loved her.

Lars, his eyes red-rimmed and tired, raised his head. “I have not done a lot of good things,” he said to the pastor. “I have not lived a good life.”

That’s not true. Lars Alecksen, like many of us, lived his life in chapters; some were just better than others.

In 1975, a boy stumbled and fell into the chilled waters of the Manitowoc River in Wisconsin. Hearing his cries, a 15-year-old yanked the child out of the river, laid him on the ground and performed CPR. The little boy survived, and the teen who saved him became, briefly, the toast of Manitowoc, Wis.

Newspaper accounts of the time show a lean, slightly embarrassed-looking Lars Alecksen accepting accolades for his heroism that spring day. Thirty-seven years later, Tove Alecksen can recite the facts of that long-ago rescue.

He was a “stand-up guy,” said Tove, Lars’ younger brother.

Lars was best known as a mechanic. Everyone in Doria’s extended family called on Lars when cars broke down, refrigerators got warm or water heaters went cold. Over the years, he held a series of maintenance jobs.

But the economy of east-central Georgia was capricious: one job after another dried out, leaving Lars to hustle to find work. In 2007, Lars turned his part-time passion into a full-time business. He began buying, refurbishing and re-selling cars — always Chevys, usually Monte Carlos.

In the summer, when the days were long, Lars would roust his family at sunup and put everyone to work. He and Erica tuned the engine, Doria cleaned the glass and T-tops, and Charles removed and refurbished the interior. A tower of impatience, Lars was relentless. Wasted time was wasted money. The family could have a car ready for resale in less than two weeks.

Once, Charles grumbled about the pace of work. Bad move.

“I’m putting food on your plate and a roof over your head!” Lars roared at his son.

He was a walking contradiction. He’d be remote, arriving at the last minute to attend family dinners and bolting when the meal was finished. At other gatherings, he’d openly express his love for his wife’s extended family.

He was capable of breathtaking thoughtlessness and bouts of generosity. Everyone remembered the time he made Doria clean up the Kool-Aid he spilled when she was eight months pregnant with Erica. They also recalled Lars routinely sharing with them food he’d bought on sale at the local Ingles grocery.

Family members recall the time Lars sat in his car as classes let out at Putnam County High School and counted the drivers who ran a nearby stop sign. One teacher, he complained to the schools’ superintendent, ran five stop signs on her way home.

How did he know? The superintendent was curious.

“I followed her home,” he said.

After Erica’s death, Lars pined for his daughter. Instead of turning to his son or wife for solace, Lars spent his final days alone. Charles was at school, and Doria worked the evening shift at the local Wendy’s. A family friend, stopping by to say hello one morning, found Lars staring at the computer screen. Thinking he was shopping online for cars, she peeked over his shoulder. Photos of Erica filled the screen.

Doria turned to siblings and parents for support following Erica’s death, but Lars isolated himself. She thinks Lars should have joined her; maybe it would have saved his life. “He just stayed home,” she said.

Hinson, who presided over funeral services for Lars and his daughter, thinks Lars lost his emotional foundation when Erica died, and it killed him.

“Lars should have loved God first,” said Hinson. “He got his priorities out of order. Unless you put Christ first, there’s no way you can properly put the love of your family in your heart.”

Atlanta psychologist Susan Rudnicki, a specialist in grief counseling, offered a more secular assessment.

“It’s like his daughter dying took away his will to live.”

4. Ashes and memories

On a recent afternoon, Doria unlocked the shed where her husband kept his ’64 Chevrolet Chevelle Super Sport. Clad in old jeans and a sweatshirt, she ran her right hand across a long fender.

“I’ve always had a thing about men with cars,” she said.

It was the car he drove when she met him 27 years ago. Her dad was an executive for Newell Rubbermaid, and the company sent him to a plant in Manitowoc, a city of 34,000.

For Doria, Manitowoc was OK — well, maybe a little boring for a 23-year-old. When friends asked her to join them at a park one weekend, she accepted. There, she ran into a 24-year-old with curly hair, blue eyes and a big smile. Doria took note — he was handsome — but the world’s full of hunky men. She thought no more of him.

A few months later, her friends left her stranded at the park. “Need a ride?” It was that good-looking guy with a cool car. Doria got in.

Harold Huggins retired from Rubbermaid and moved with his wife to Eatonton. Lars and Doria soon followed. On Aug. 20, 1988, they exchanged vows in the front yard of her parents’ home in downtown Eatonton. Lars and Doria bought a house on a country road six miles west of town. It was a manufactured structure, little more than a double-wide mobile home, but that was OK: it came with 13 acres, including a pond. Plenty of room for a family.

By 1996, it was home to two children — Erica, born in 1991, and Charles, who came along five years later. Those years could have been the best of times, but weren’t. Doria, who’d always liked a party, tried crack cocaine. “I didn’t think one time could hurt, but it is a very powerful and addicting drug,” Doria recalled, “and one time had me back the next day for more and so on.”

She’s been drug-free for 10 years, but the damage done to their relationship was permanent. Lars, she said, never forgot the lies she told him when she was using the drug, and he never forgave them. That period of her drug abuse was like a pebble in a shoe, grating all the time. Lars insisted that she turn over all her paychecks. He doled out money grudgingly.

In 2006, authorities charged each with family violence following a fracas at their home. Court officials dropped the charges after the spouses said they didn’t want the cases to proceed. Doria also petitioned the court for a protective order against Charles; that, too, was dropped.

Six years later, those memories still sting. The kids saw that fight.

“We lived through the part that says, “For better or worse,’” said Doria. “And we made it to ‘Til death do you part.’”

Now Doria and her family are struggling with mixed feelings over Lars’ death.

“One side of me says I’m happy as a lark,” said Huggins, Doria’s father. “The Christian side of me says I shouldn’t celebrate a death.”

Lars, like Erica, was cremated. His cremains are in a box on the living room floor, not far from those of his daughter. In quiet moments, Doria looks at the ashes and thinks about the lives they represent.

“I’ll always miss Erica,” said Doria.

And Lars? Doria paused, looking at the home where children ran and yelled and grew up, where she fought and laughed and cried and smiled, where she came to terms with her life and the man with whom she’d shared it.

She only wishes he’d shared more of his.

“I’ll always miss their father,” said Doria. “I’ll always love him, regardless of the fact that he probably hadn’t told me ‘I love you’ for 15 years.”

She has that Chevelle, too. Lars planned to give it to Erica when her deployment in Afghanistan ended. Now, his widow will give it to their son.

She’s never driven it.

5. A community rallies to put ‘arms around him’

John Williams stared when he saw the skinny guy join his peers on the track at Putnam High School. Charles Alecksen had lost his sister, then his dad. After a week away from school, he was back for afternoon practice with the cross-country team.

“I didn’t think he’d come back,” said Williams, who coaches the squad. Teammates were so impressed they named Charles the team captain.

That’s just one accomplishment on Charles Alecksen’s growing resume. A junior, he plays on the school’s golf team; can bang a ball 230 yards. He’s finished requirements for Eagle Scout. He’s chaplain for Troop 310. He makes “pretty good” grades, too — would be better, if not for pre-calculus.

Charles looks like his mom and moves with her slender grace, but he has Lars’ drive. Charles wants to enter the U.S. Military Academy, a long-time goal. After his sister became an MP, he set his sights on becoming an officer in the military police.

Like a lot of sons, Charles repeats phrases he heard his old man say. “Take it to the next level” is one. He also refers to his dad in the present tense, as if his spirit lingers in the house.

When Lars put his family to work on cars, Charles got started on the bottom floor, so to speak, by cleaning every part inside the car. Meantime, Lars and his firstborn worked under the hood, a space reserved for father and daughter. Charles accepts that.

“I was always left with my mom” while Lars did things with Erica, Charles said. “I understood that she’d … had five more years of experience than I’d had with my dad.”

But it was Charles, not Erica, with whom Lars spent his final moments.

They had a routine after Erica joined the Army. Charles would do his homework at school. If his mom was working, he’d swing by the restaurant to see her. Then he’d go home, draw a bath for his dad and cook dinner while Lars watched TV.

That’s how events unfolded Aug. 28. Lars stepped into the tub, then called for his son. His chest hurt, Lars said, and his arms tingled; could Charles sit by the tub for a few moments? Lars took a pain reliever and told Charles he felt better. Charles left, but came back four minutes later. He took one look at his dad’s ashen face, dialed 911 and began CPR.

An autopsy said Lars died of a heart attack. Charles, like everybody else, thinks it was a simple case of broken heart.

Still, Lars’ spirit lingers in their house, a battered old structure crowded with mementos of better days — photos and car-show awards and scrapbooks. It feels different, these days.

“We’re still trying to get stuff situated,” Charles said.

He may not know it, but Charles probably has more people watching out for his well-being than any 17-year-old in Eatonton.

“Everybody is putting their arms around him,” said Williams, who’s coached Charles for three years. “He’s just a good kid.” Doria keeps a worried watch as her son grows, knowing he may very well get into West Point. “I can’t discourage him. I won’t,” she said. “No matter what, I will be right there behind him.”

But that’s something to worry about next year. For now, Charles runs track and frets about pre-calculus. There’s this cute girl, too, but that’s another story. His mom is taking life as it comes. “I’ve been with a man, one way or the other, since I was 18,” she said. “I think I’ll try the single life for a while.”

She also remembers her old life, so recently ended.

Some nights, Doria sits on her back porch and watches the stars. When one glows especially bright, she imagines it’s Erica, lighting up heaven.

Yes, Lars is there, too. If God has a Monte Carlo, Doria is sure they’re working on it, together.

About the reporter and photographer

Mark Davis came to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution nine years ago after working in Philadelphia, Tampa and in his native North Carolina. A graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Davis has reported on heroes and bums, on creatures that walk, swim, crawl and fly. Once, on the sly, he touched a panda’s nose. His greatest accomplishment is a project still in the works – Reuben and Sam, the sons he shares with his wife, Sylvia.

Hyosub Shin was born and raised in Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States about 10 years ago to study photography. Shin has worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2007, covering the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series. Prior to that, he worked at the Korea Times in Los Angeles. He feels lucky to be able to do what he loves and provide valuable information to the community through his camera.

How we got the story

Reporter Mark Davis learned of the death of Army Spc. Erica Alecksen and wrote about a visitation her family held to remember Erica, killed at 21. Seven weeks later, Erica’s grandmother emailed Davis, telling him that the soldier’s father had died of a heart attack — surely, she wrote, from a broken heart. Visiting the family several more times, Davis learned about a family that had endured much, and will prevail.

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Coming next week: A reporter juggles motherhood and deadlines on the presidential campaign trail.