Camano Island mother devoted to memory of son killed in Iraq

The war may never be over for Dedi Noble.

During the first two Christmases after her only child, Army Sgt. Charles E. Matheny IV, was killed in Iraq, Noble sat in the front room of her Camano Island home and sobbed.

“Charlie’s body came home. The funeral and burial came. The blackness came,” she said. “I asked God to take me, too, because my main purpose in life was to be Charlie’s mother. Then I realized if he was gone, perhaps there was another purpose for me.”

As they did last Dec. 25, Noble and her husband, David, plan to load up their car on Christmas Day with gifts for 60 wounded warriors and drive to the regional Veterans Administration hospital in Seattle.

Noble, a member of the Washington Gold Star Mothers association, will spend the day visiting with veterans in the spinal-cord injury, brain injury, post-traumatic-stress disorder and psychiatric units.

Noble is friendly, generous and willing to share her story, said Myra Rintamaki of Lynnwood, president of the Washington Gold Star Mothers. Her son, 21-year-old Marine Cpl. Steven Rintamaki, was killed in Iraq in 2004.

“Dedi is a walking witness to survival, and the epitome of someone who offers Gold Star Mother care to veterans,” Rintamaki said. “She will never forget.”

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Noble, 54, grew up on military bases during the Vietnam War. Her father served in the Air Force.

“When the van carrying the noncommissioned officer in charge turned down our street, all the kids playing outside just froze,” she said. “We waited to see which household was getting the bad news.”

Noble and her first husband, Charles Matheny III, met while they were serving in the Army at Fort Hood, Texas. They didn’t stay together long, but the birth of their son was the highlight of their lives.

“I’ve worked since I was 13 and I went to college, but the only thing I ever wanted to be was a mom,” Noble said. “Charlie used to call me Double Mother because I was so devoted.”

Growing up, Charlie, an intelligent and good-humored boy, spent time between his mother’s house near Stanwood and his father’s place in Arlington.

Military life seemed almost predestined for Charlie. Along with his parents and his maternal grandfather, his great-grandfather, Charles Matheny Sr., served on a submarine in World War I, and his paternal grandfather flew missions over Europe during World War II.

Even as a child he talked about following in the family footsteps and joining up.

“Oh, no, you’re not,” Noble remembers telling him.

Charlie graduated from Arlington High School in 2000 and enlisted in the Army in August 2001.

“A few weeks later the World Trade Center was burning,” Noble said. “I was sick because I knew there could be some sort of war and Charlie could be killed.”

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As a member of the 4th Infantry, 704th Maintenance Battalion out of Fort Hood, Charlie Matheny’s first tour of duty in Iraq earned him his sergeant stripes, but left him with a serious knee injury.

Granted some extra time off, he spent Independence Day with his family. Charlie showed up to the big July 4 barbecue in his red Mustang convertible. He was a good-looking kid in a hot car, his mother said.

When it came time to leave, Matheny gave his mom a big hug.

“As his car rounded the corner, I wondered if it would be the last time we would see him,” said Noble.

Back in Iraq at the end of 2005, Matheny volunteered to serve at a forward-operating camp where he was involved in training Iraqi army personnel.

Matheny, 23, returned to the nearby Army base only once, to get his insurance and legal papers in order and to call his folks.

“I love you, Mom. I am sorry for any heartache I have caused you. I am a single guy. I don’t have kids. I have to stay,” Noble remembers him saying.

A few days later, Matheny volunteered to drive in a caravan on a mission that made his colleagues nervous. They had no armored vehicles and, as it turned out, the device used to block the signals of explosives in their path wasn’t working.

Matheny’s vehicle hit a mine near Sadr City. The two men riding with Matheny sustained life-changing injuries. Charlie was cut in two.

—-

On the morning of Feb. 18, 2006, Noble was up early to catch the news on TV. An American soldier had been killed near Sadr City. She recorded the newscast in case the victim was one of her son’s friends.

“I decided to take a walk,” Noble said. “It was a crystal-clear day with a beautiful view across Port Susan.”

On the way back, she noticed a van in her driveway. A uniformed Army officer began walking toward her. Noble screamed in the middle of the street.

Her life would never be the same.

“The next day my husband woke up with a new wife,” Noble said.

—-

Noble doesn’t remember much about the months after Charlie was buried at Tahoma National Cemetery. She began grief counseling on the anniversary of his death. She kept in touch with Charlie’s combat buddies and his commanding officers.

A longtime employee of the city of Everett, Noble applied for a new position at the Everett Fire Department.

At the interview, Noble was relieved to hear that she was free to cry about Charlie.

The chief understood the loss, she said.

“My son died doing what he believed in, not necessarily in the war, but in the troops he trained and cared for,” Noble said. “His death resulted in changes. Soldiers don’t have to drive without armor like they used to. I can’t be bitter and angry.”

After joining American Gold Star Mothers, Noble committed herself to serving wounded veterans. Her first trip to the Veterans Administration hospital in Seattle on Thanksgiving 2008 was difficult. A former combat medic also volunteering there told her she wasn’t allowed to cry at the hospital.

At Christmas, she went back, and she’s visited on nearly every holiday since. She likes to talk with World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans. She chokes up a bit when she recounts her interactions with those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“My son died, but the mother in me did not. Whether they are 17 or 77, I am mom to my guys at the VA. They matter and I love them,” she said. “I honor my son by living my life this way.”

—-

When Noble left the hospital after her first Christmas visit, she felt good.

“Holidays used to be like driving by a stinky sewage plant,” Noble said. “You just hold your breath and hurry through.

“When the day was over last Christmas, I realized I had not held my breath at all. No matter how sad life can be sometimes, I am better. My son would be proud.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427, gfiege@heraldnet.com.

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