FALLEN SONS: Memorial Day's new meaning for Odums' family

Annie Zelm
May 24, 2010



Four years ago, Memorial Day took on a new meaning for the Rev. Charles Odums and his family.

After a trip to the grocery store to prepare for a family barbecue, the pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church arrived home to find his wife, Annie, teary-eyed on their living room couch as she sat beside a military chaplain and commanding officer.

Now, as the family reflects upon the loss of their son, the pastor said there are no single reminders that evoke the memory of 22-year-old Charles "Chuck" Odums II -- it's a constant presence.

"He is always with me," Odums said on a recent morning at Stein Hospice, where he is a full-time chaplain. "It's a void -- it's a hurt that can never be filled."

As a counselor for Ohio Veterans Home, interacting with others who served their country is a privilege that offers some comfort, he said. Prayer, always a crucial element in his family life, has become more important than ever.

The day his son died, another soldier from the Columbus area was killed, so the chaplain had another stop to make after the Odums' home.

"At that time, the only thing that came to mind was to have prayer with the chaplain and commanding officer," Odums said, "because I feel they have the hardest job of anyone in the military ... we just let him know we was thinking about him, and God was gonna give him strength."

An Army medic credited with saving three lives, Spc. Odums was killed in Baghdad after the Humvee he was driving hit a roadside bomb.

He left behind a younger brother, Robert, four older sisters and a wife, Melanie Santiago -- whom he met at the University of Toledo and married Dec. 23, 2001.

In the weeks following their son's death, Charles and Annie Odums were bombarded by telephone calls and media. Charles said they initially welcomed the opportunity to speak out because it allowed his wife to begin the healing process.

"Her way was to talk about it, and it helped her tremendously," he said. "It was a time of reaching out, of talking about what his life meant to us, and how proud we were of him."

Annie Odums declined to be interviewed for this story, saying only that talking about the loss of her son "hasn't gotten any easier" with the passage of time.

Odums said he struggled at first with his son's decision to join the military rather than finishing college -- but eventually he came to realize the military was his calling.

As he flipped through a scrapbook of photos and letters from his son, Odums sees the boy who loved to ride his motorcycle and the boot camp trainee who excitedly wrote of conquering the gas chamber and of mastering a new weapon. He sees the family man who doted on his nephew and talked daily with his younger brother, Robert -- who avoided talking about the tragedy until a few months ago.

While the soldier's parents and siblings continue to turn to memories of his life for solace, his widow concentrates on moving forward.

Melanie graduated May 8 with an associate's degree in business administration. She works for a company that guides students through the process of applying for financial aid.

It was Charles' dream for her to finish school -- among several wishes he expressed when the couple discussed the possibility their vows of "till death" could become a reality sooner than expected.

"I didn't finish school because I got married and I moved, and it took awhile for me to go back -- it took something bad like this to happen to realize that I did need to go forward," Melanie said in a telephone interview.

Having already suffered the loss of her mother while in high school, she said she felt more prepared to accept death than others might have been at her young age. Still, there were times when she considered moving back to her family in Ohio because she had come to associate many of her Texas friends and surroundings with Charles and the military.

"The hardest thing is you try to move on, but there's always something that brings you back to that time, that brings you to think about it on a constant basis," she said. "Even hearing about another soldier dying or hearing about certain things brings it back."

She still keeps photos of them in her home and doesn't hesitate to discuss her late husband when those reminders prompt questions from visitors.

"I'm at a point where I can see those things and keep my composure, where probably two years ago that wasn't the case," she said.

Maintaining contact with Charles' closest friends also helps, she said.

More recently, she allowed herself to begin dating again.

"It has taken me some time to move on and realize that I can be in another relationship -- and that it's OK, and not always feel like something is going to be taken away from me, which has happened," she said.

"It took some time of just being with friends for awhile, because I was trying to find myself again so I could determine what was best for me -- and the majority of my adult life I had spent in Texas, so in that aspect, it was comforting."

Charles Odums said he still makes an effort to stay in contact with Melanie, though their communication is not as frequent as it could be.

"The family dynamic did go through a change, and we're still going through a change," he said. "The grieving process is still in progress, and it will take time ... but I'm still reaching out."