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‘It hurts so bad’

The mourning is widespread for U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Strange.

Strange, who was among 38 killed Saturday when their helicopter was shot down by insurgents in Afghanistan, is being remembered by those in his native Wissinoming, his classmates at St. Bartholomew and North Catholic High School and his parents, brother, sisters and other family members.

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“It hurts so bad,” said Charlie Strange, his father.

Strange, 25, grew up on the 6100 block of Algard St. He was a typical kid, playing football for Wissinoming Boys Club and baseball for the Mayfair Shamrocks.

He enjoyed fishing and crabbing with his dad and brother in Rehoboth Beach, Del. He worked a couple of years at the popular Byrne’s Tavern in Port Richmond, serving at times as “the wing guy” and “the crab guy.”

By his senior year at North Catholic, where he played rugby, he was talking about joining the military. He signed up in August 2004, two months after graduating.

In his seven years, he was deployed once to Iraq and three times to Afghanistan.

“You always worry,” his dad said Monday from his Academy Road apartment.

Strange had dreams beyond the Navy, where he expected to spend another three years. He was engaged to be married to Breanna Hostetler, an Oklahoman and fellow Navy recruit who left the service after her four-year commitment. The two bought a home in Virginia Beach, and she was studying psychology at Old Dominion University. He was pursuing an associate’s degree in the Navy, taking online courses, and planned to become a nurse.

Not too long ago, Michael and “Bre” visited Philadelphia.

“He was sitting right here in June,” his father said from his sofa. “He came home for his birthday.”

While he was home, he liked to eat at Nifty Fifty’s and talk about sports and the military in general. He had an informal going-away party at the Ashton Pub last time he was in town.

Away from home, Strange often communicated with his family and friends through e-mail, always assuring them that he was safe. He welcomed their visits when he was stationed in Hawaii and treasured the care packages from loved ones.

In the Navy, he was a member of the prestigious SEAL Team, a special operations force known for its ability on the sea, in the air and on land. His father recalls him recently breaking a 25-year record in a triathlon that required him to run, swim and navigate an obstacle course.

“He was in tremendous shape,” his dad said.

Of course, the SEALs are best known recently for killing Osama bin Laden in a surprise raid on his compound in Pakistan.

None of the SEALs killed last week were part of that operation. When family and friends would ask Strange about that incident or other specifics about his job, he’d change the subject and ask, “Did the Phillies win?”

On Saturday, Strange was among 30 American troops, seven Afghani commandos and a civilian interpreter who were on a Chinook helicopter traveling to a remote location in eastern Afghanistan.

The men were en route to assisting special operation forces in search of a Taliban leader and engaged in a firefight with insurgents. A rocket-propelled grenade hit the copter as it was landing, killing all on board.

The American casualties consisted of 22 SEALs, three Air Force special operations airmen and five Army aviators. It was the biggest single loss of life for U.S. forces since the war in Afghanistan started in 2001 following the terrorist attacks on America on Sept. 11 of that year.

Military personnel traveled to the 7900 block of Marsden St. in Holmesburg, where Strange’s mother Betsy, 22-year-old brother Chaz and 21-year-old sister Katelyn live, to deliver the sad news.

Betsy Strange is a police officer in North Philadelphia’s 22nd district, and a patrol wagon sits outside the rowhome as well-wishers come in and out. The home’s exterior is adorned with American flags.

Charlie Strange, who deals cards at SugarHouse Casino, welcomed many family and friends into his home following the tragedy.

The grieving father also received telephone calls and text messages. He appreciates the outreach by friends from his native Feltonville, former classmates at St. Ambrose and Cardinal Dougherty and current and former co-workers at SugarHouse and the Laborers union.

“It’s been unbelievable,” he said.

Maggie O’Brien, Michael Strange’s aunt, recalled her nephew’s intelligence and nice smile.

“Everybody was extremely proud of him,” she said.

Eileen Mahoney, his great-aunt, remembered a young man who liked to ski and snowboard and was an all-around good person.

“Whatever he did, he did to the best of his ability,” she said. “Michael was very wise for his years. He was a very moral kid and very protective of his younger sisters and brother.”

Among those who visited Charlie Strange on Monday were SEALs who served with his son.

“They loved him,” he said.

Strange’s family — the fallen soldier also has a 7-year-old sister Carly and a 9-month-old niece Juliana — traveled to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Tuesday for what the military traditionally calls “dignified transfers.”

Typically, the somber military ritual is open to the news media, as long as families do not object. However, the Department of Defense kept the event private because the remains are unidentifiable until a closer examination by the mortuary at Dover.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta attended.

Funeral plans for Strange were incomplete as the Times went to press.

Charlie Strange was happy to see his three oldest children, so close in age, remain a tight-knit group, even after Michael joined the Navy.

When asked what he’ll miss most about his son, he replied, “Just hanging out with him.”

“He loved Philadelphia and cheesesteaks,” he said. “He fought for his country and loved what he did. He loved being a Navy SEAL. He didn’t die on a street corner or in a barroom brawl. He gave the ultimate sacrifice.”

Charlie Strange understands that U.S. military troops need to be in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq to keep enemies of the nation from bringing the war to this country. He favors much more assertive action.

“Wipe them all out,” he said. “Kill them all, the kids, everybody. You’ll never change them people.”

Strange is being honored in many ways.

A wreath and American flags have been placed on the doors of North Catholic, which closed last year.

Mick’s Inn, a bar in Port Richmond, has named its softball team “SEAL Team 6 Michael Strange” for this weekend’s Freddy Adams Sports Tournament in Fishtown.

Two Facebook pages have been created to honor the fallen soldier. Almost 12,000 people “like” the pages “In Memory of Navy SEAL Michael Strange” and “R.I.P. Hero Michael Strange.”

“Family will never be the same without you,” his cousin, Gina McGlynn, wrote on one of the pages.

Kevin Flynn wrote, “Fair winds and following seas Michael. Thanks for your service from a grateful nation.” ••

Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215–354–3034 or twaring@bsmphilly.com

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