FALLEN SON: Cherishing the memory through the pain

Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010



From the moment he could talk, Michael Finke wanted to be a Marine.

He admired the leadership and drive of those in uniform and wanted nothing more than to reach that goal.

"It wasn't any other branch," his mother, Sally Rapp, said. "It was a Marine. It was also his dream, his goal -- something he had his heart set on, so you come to accept it. It was his niche, something that defined him."

After serving his country as a Marine for 10 years, Sgt. Michael Finke, a graduate of Huron High School, died at age 28.

Finke was one of 31 soldiers who died Jan. 26, 2005, in a helicopter crash in a desert sandstorm near Ar Rutbah, Iraq.

He was scheduled to return from his tour of duty Feb 5, 2005.

Rapp said her son was assigned to a third helicopter, but his leadership instinct kicked in, and he traded aircraft to make sure his men got to where they needed to be.

"I talked to him on Tuesday about a family issue," Rapp said. "I remember hanging up the phone and feeling like that was almost like a closing conversation. It was a feeling like he was wanting some loose ends tied up on some family issues.

"Wednesday morning when I heard on the news that there was a helicopter crash, I knew. I just knew. The night before he died he must have visited me in my sleep, prepared me. ... I remember being antsy. I didn't have a good feeling about it."

Rapp came home, and her husband met her at the door -- something he rarely would do.

"I remember the look on his face," she said. "He said, 'Michael is ... gone.'"

Finke's family crumbled.

His siblings, Tonia Pocztar and Tim and Trisha Rolling grieved alone, not wanting to interrupt the healing process they assumed each was beginning.

"The first couple of months, maybe six months, it was more making sure if Mom and Dad were OK," Pocztar said. "Once I processed what had actually happened, it was horrible. We didn't want to call each other because if the other one was having an OK time, you don't want to bring the other one down."

Rapp said the family has little to no contact with Finke's wife of two years, Heather, whom they had only seen four times.

Tim Finke said many people approached them after his brother's death, cursing the war.

"I was against the war while he was there," he said. "I think I told him that ... As I talked to him more, I started to see we were doing good over there. The people who are there are seeing the progress, the changes being made."

"For us to sit here as a family that has lost their brother and lost their son, to degrade the purpose for why he was there would just be very disrespectful toward Michael and what his goals to accomplish there were," Pocztar said.

Going through pictures of Halloween -- Finke's birthday -- his birthday party at Chi Chi's and high school graduation, Rapp said she'll always remember her son and the neighbor boys running around in their Underoos pretending to be superheroes.

"He was very caring and compassionate from day one," she said, tearing up. "He had a huge heart and really would reach out to people in need. He planned to start a family when he came home from Iraq. He was really excited about it. But he'd always say, 'God willing I come home, God willing we have children.'"

Rapp said Finke's last letters questioned why the military was in Iraq. He went on to say he'd come to the conclusion that the children were why they were there, to make a better place for the next generation.

"He said, 'I have so much to tell you. I've learned so much,'" Rapp said. "There's so much we'll never know because of the obvious."

Every year the family celebrates Finke's birthday and gathers for the anniversary of his death.

"Memorial Day -- it's every day for me," Rapp said. "From the moment I get up to the moment I go to bed."

"It affects your everyday life," Poctzar said. "There will be times you'll think, 'Oh gosh, I shouldn't feel happy because Michael won't get to experience that.' That's not right either. You have to find that balance of fondly remembering Michael but still give yourself that freedom to be happy."

"I go along feeling pretty stable emotionally, and then ... you know, when another soldier or Marine is killed and it's on the radio, I go into what the parents are now going through now, almost step by step," Rapp said. "I just kind of replay that whole process."

Rapp said she now realizes that in the beginning she wasn't OK as she thought, but in a state of denial.

"For the first months, you think you're functioning, you're going though your daily routine, and you think, 'OK, I'm doing this,'" she said. "I think about nine months later mentally I clicked into this, 'Well, I guess he's not really going to call.'

"I realized the last thing Michael said to me -- besides, 'I love you,' was, 'I'll call you when I get to where I'm going.' It was like I'd realized I ... was still waiting for this phone call. I woke up one day and thought, 'He's gone. He's not going to call.'

"Looking back I feel like I was more of in a fog for those months, just going through the motions, doing what I had to do."

Rapp said she has the feeling people forget that men and women are still serving over there.

"We still need to be aware of why we're there, whether we agree or not," she said. "Families are still grieving. It doesn't ever go away. I gave birth to this child to have him be killed. There's still a hole in the family, the phone call that doesn't come.

"You laugh, but you know the laugh isn't quite as free as it used to be, but we know Michael would want us to."