Navy officer, wife are remembered on Memorial Day

Sara Regelbrugge never imagined that her father, Navy Cmdr. John Regelbrugge, would be among those remembered this Memorial Day, the day we honor our military dead.

Nor did she imagine that she would be without her mother, Kris Regelbrugge, on her mom’s birthday, on Easter and on Mother’s Day.

Sara Regelbrugge, 19, is just beginning to live through the calendar’s special days after her parents died in the March 22 mudslide that obliterated their Steelhead Haven neighborhood, off Highway 530 east of Oso, and caused the deaths of 41 other people.

She graduated from Darrington High School in 2013 and loved celebrating any event with her parents, even “Taco Tuesdays.”

The last Regelbrugge family gathering was March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. Corned beef, cabbage and Irish ales were on the menu. Laughing around the fire pit was the activity.

John and Kris Regelbrugge loved life, Regelbrugge said.

They were the sort of folks who used any excuse to invite people over for supper. They volunteered at school. They helped their neighbors. They loved to dance to 1980s rock and roll. They wrote love letters to each other, always signed SWAK — sealed with a kiss or KOTW — kisses on the wind.

They loved their motorcycle trips, drinking sangria and working around the house.

“My parents were not from money. They were so proud of their home. It was the place where they would grow old together,” she said. “But if my dad had known there was an earlier slide across the river in 2006, I don’t think he would have bought the house.”

On the morning of the slide, the couple planned to drive to the Bremerton area, where Regelbrugge attends community college and lives in the cottage that once belonged to her great-grandmother.

“My parents were coming over to help me with chores,” she said. “My mom was supposed to text me at 11 a.m. to say they were leaving. When she didn’t, I called my dad, who always answers his phone. He didn’t pick up. I knew something was wrong.”

One of her three brothers, Scott Regelbrugge, 23, was at work at the Hampton lumber mill in Darrington. When word of the slide got out, he left work, got to where his parents’ house had stood and began digging in the mud.

He alerted his siblings. The American Red Cross flew two brothers home, Brian Holleran, 25, who serves with the Navy in Japan, and Kyle Regelbrugge, 20, who is in the Navy in Virginia. Sister Shante Daugherty, 26, and her husband flew up from California.

A few days later, brothers Scott and Kyle Regelbrugge, and their uncles, Greg and Dan Regelbrugge, found John Regelbrugge’s body, along with his Navy sword.

The body of Kris Regelbrugge remains lost in the debris field, which Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin has called “sacred ground.”

“I know Darrington needs that highway open, but I hope that when people drive by the slide they remember my mom is still out there,” Sara Regelbrugge said. “She wasn’t just a Navy commander’s wife. She was a big part of our community.”

A body was recovered from the slide site Thursday, and the person’s identification is pending.

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Cmdr. John Regelbrugge, 49, served 32 years in the Navy, 20 of those at sea.

The native Californian joined the Navy in 1982, right out of high school.

Later, with his wife’s encouragement, he worked his way up from seaman to commander. He was considering trying to make the rank of captain.

Kris Regelbrugge made flash cards to help him study and held his feet to the fire, Shante Daugherty said.

“She was the wind under his wings,” she said. “They were passionate people. Everything, whether fighting or loving, was 100 percent. Nothing phony.”

What brought the family to Snohomish County was John Regelbrugge’s service aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, when the ship was based in Everett. In 2013, he completed his 13th overseas deployment, this time aboard the Bremerton-based carrier USS John C. Stennis. In March, Regelbrugge began serving as the officer in charge of the Everett maintenance detachment of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.

Among the medals on his uniform were the Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal and the Navy Achievement Medal, all of which he earned many times over.

“My dad had no college degree, but he was the smartest man I’ve ever known. He taught us to be leaders. He wore his dress blues to school assemblies,” Sara Regelbrugge said. “He loved history and he wrote poetry for my mom and he knew how to tie a good knot.”

At a memorial service in late April at Naval Station Everett, Capt. John A. Swanson, a Navy chaplain and good friend of the Regelbrugges, talked about how John Regelbrugge loved going to sea.

“He was the consummate professional and his expertise was unparalleled,” Swanson said. “He had a quick wit and a good sense of humor. But above all he genuinely cared about his sailors. They were his extended family. He never asked anyone to do what he would not do himself.”

Kris Regelbrugge, 44, also served her country for many years, holding down the fort while her husband was at sea.

“She was dedicated to us,” Sara Regelbrugge said.

“She taught us manners, to appreciate other cultures and that our family came first. She was tough,” she said. “She also shared my dad’s good sense of humor. She was funny and playful. She was a memory maker.

“My mom was the world’s best mom.”

Kris Regelbrugge loved Halloween and Christmas, and “if you didn’t believe (in Santa or the Easter bunny), you didn’t receive,” Daugherty recalled.

She volunteered in her kids’ classes and made snacks for her sons’ wrestling teams and the football team when Sara was a cheerleader.

When Sara was class president and student body president in her senior year, and her mother quit her job as the office manager in an optometry practice to help with fundraising for Darrington High School.

“She made the best blackberry cobbler and cookies for bake sales,” Sara Regelbrugge said.

Mayor Rankin said that whenever he saw the Regelbrugges in town, he liked to congratulate them.

“They raised their kids right,” Rankin said.

The thing that keeps their kids going right now is that they have each other and a strong belief that their folks are together in heaven.

“They would not want us to feel self-pity,” Sara Regelbrugge said. “My folks are with me each day.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427;

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