St. Mary's Mourns Young Soldier Who Started Over

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By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2004

One by one, people filed into the funeral home in Leonardtown yesterday afternoon and knelt by the flag-draped coffin and the Army jacket pinned with medals. People stood along the walls to listen to the room rumble with Catholic prayers. They hugged Crystal Faulstich, Raymond J. Faulstich Sr. and Linda Faulstich, who kept smiling, through tears, glad that so many people had come.

When everyone is gone, after Army Spec. Raymond J. Faulstich Jr. is buried today, the family will go home -- to his white truck in the driveway, to his Yorkshire terrier trotting around the house, to his portrait on the wall smiling down at them -- and start over.

It's easier with people around.

Hundreds mourn with them for Ray Faulstich, who died Aug. 5 in Iraq after his convoy was attacked. He was 24, a blond, blue-eyed charmer who fell into trouble, then joined the Army to redeem himself.

For more than a week, people have filled their big white house in the woods south of Leonardtown, bringing flowers and plates of food, sitting on the porch talking about his big smile, his easygoing nature, how handsome he was. Cars filled the driveway and parked on the grass. The phone never stopped ringing.

He was the first soldier from his unit, the 7th Transportation Group at Fort Eustis, Va. -- and the first soldier from St. Mary's County -- to die in Iraq.

And so the crowds have come: People from their parish at St. John Francis Regis Catholic Church, where he was an altar boy. People from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, where his younger brother, Gregory Faulstich, works and where his father leads a large division of engineers and technicians. People who knew Ray from St. John's School or from Leonardtown High School, friends who liked to go night-fishing with him. Relatives, neighbors, even strangers who had just seen a "welcome home" sign for another St. Mary's soldier, then heard about Ray's death. People who know what it's like to make a mistake and fight to make things right again. People mourning not only what was lost, but also what could have been.

Ray Faulstich had started over.

When he was in high school, "if there was a bad kid around, he'd find it," his father said. He started using drugs, dropped out of school the spring of his senior year, his father said, and just drifted.

Then he met the younger sister of a friend and set about proving himself to her and her family. She helped him through it: quitting drugs, going back to school to get his high school equivalency degree. He took classes at a nearby college, getting A's and B's, to earn a spot driving trucks for the Army.

He and Crystal Wathen were married last August at the St. Mary's County courthouse and planned to have a big wedding when he came home. She had her dress, all pearly and lacy and white, a long veil and satin shoes. Her mother had just ordered the invitations for the bridal shower. He went to Iraq in June, after a long and tearful goodbye with his family. "When he left, he said to me, 'I'm going to prove to you I'm a good man,' " said Dorothy Miller, Crystal's mother. " 'I'm going to prove it to you.' "

He was earning money for college, his wife said, so he could get a good job on the base like his father and brother. "He was just so in love with her," Linda Faulstich said. "He told me he was going to make a wonderful life for her."

On the evening of Aug. 6, his father was working on the dirt road that leads to their house when a van with government tags turned the corner and two men in dress uniform got out. They told him they would have to go inside to talk.

Since then, the family has heard several stories about how he died, they said: that he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, that he drove over a land mine, that he was shot. The incident is under investigation, according to the Army's public affairs division.

But at a memorial service Wednesday at Fort Eustis, soldiers told the family that after he was hit, he kept driving, for nearly a mile. His was the lead truck in a convoy traveling a narrow road, and if he had stopped, everyone would have been in even greater danger. Five other soldiers in the convoy were wounded.

A man came to the service Wednesday to tell the family that Ray saved his son's life: He had been in the next truck back, badly wounded in the legs, but he had survived. Hundreds of soldiers packed into the chapel and told them that everyone liked the relaxed, always-smiling private from St. Mary's. Faulstich was promoted posthumously from private first class to specialist and honored with medals including a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his courage.

"We are so proud," his mother said. "We want everyone to know what my son did for his country."

On Thursday, the coffin with his body came back to Leonardtown, and his relatives learned they wouldn't be able to see him and say goodbye. They asked the funeral director to look for the tattoo with his wife's name and a heart. They tried to keep busy with people, with details. "We've got to sort out food for after the thing," his father said, "and the flowers."

For now, they're alone only after 9 p.m. or so. "I take sleeping pills," his mother said last week, arms around her knees, rocking. "The only time when I'm not in pain is when I'm asleep. It's just so bad inside. It never lets up."

They chose not to have him buried at Arlington National Cemetery -- it's too far away.

After everyone leaves, after the Mass at St. John's ends today and he is buried at the church cemetery in Hollywood, they will go home. They dread being alone.

His father sat on the floor Thursday afternoon to rub the Yorkie's tummy. Crystal Faulstich fingered her husband's dog tags, which she wears around her neck. His mother kept rocking, staring at the photos of her older son spread out on the coffee table: his first steps, his first bite of birthday cake, his last kiss with his wife. And the one that would hang over his coffin at the funeral home yesterday: Ray Faulstich Jr. in his desert camouflage uniform, turning back to smile his big confident grin just before he went on his last mission.

Linda Faulstich turned to Ray's wife. "You're going to live with me, Crystal, aren't you?"

Crystal Faulstich nodded. She'll stay in Ray's old room, with her new family, and start over somehow.

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