On May 3, 2016, Naval Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Charles Keating IV, age 31, died in Iraq of combat-related injuries sustained during a hail of gunfire against over 100 Islamic State militants in Operation Inherent Resolve (targeted operations to defeat ISIS). Less than two months before, in March of 2016, Charles was awarded the Silver Star Medal. In the citation for Charles’ medal, it read that his “personal bravery inspired his comrades to vigorously defend their position and repel the enemy assault.” His Silver Star Medal was posthumously upgraded to the Navy Cross, the second highest decoration awarded to Navy personnel. The Navy Cross is awarded for extraordinary heroism during combat operations.
While the nation mourned an American hero whose life was cut short way too soon, his mother, Krista Keating-Joseph, set about making sure her Navy SEAL son, posthumously promoted to Chief Petty Officer, was remembered for his big heart both on and off the battlefield. To the thousands who lined the streets the day of his funeral here in Coronado, he was Charles Keating IV, but to his mom, he was “big-hearted” Charlie.
Big-Hearted Charlie Runs the Mile is Krista Keating-Joseph’s tribute to her son, the bravest person she ever knew. Published by Legacies & Memories Publishing in April 2017, Krista channeled her heartbreaking loss into an inspiring picture book for children. A true story that includes beautiful illustrations done by Charlie’s maternal grandmother, Big-Hearted Charlie Runs The Mile, is about Charlie’s experience when he joined his Arcadia High School track team in Phoenix, Arizona. Smaller than most of the boys he competed against, it was Charlie’s perseverance and unwavering dedication that led to his ultimate success.
Krista Keating-Joseph’s Background
Krista lives in Ponte Vedra, Florida, but while Charlie was growing up, she lived in Phoenix, Arizona, where she was born and raised. She attended the University of Arizona on a track and field scholarship, and went on to found the Arizona Track Club. After college, Krista worked in the medical marketing field.
As Krista grew up, she attended the same school district where her father taught, and as she raised her three children, Krista knew she wanted to be present in her children’s lives at school just like her dad had been there for her. Krista became the coach for the girls cross country team at Arcadia High School in Phoenix, the same high school Charlie attended. She says, “I had three in high school at the same time. I was trying to be part of their lives in a way where I could teach them running skills as well as keep an eye on them.”
Young Charlie Keating
Krista’s expressive eyes light up as she talks about Charlie as a little boy. “I love talking about Charlie! He was always a kid who gave 150% no matter what it was. If he went into a classroom, kids were always drawn to him. He was a leader with a huge smile and twinkling blue eyes, and he was the golden boy, the kid who everyone wanted to be friends with,” Krista remembers.
Krista recalls daredevil Charlie’s endless energy and active imagination. “Kids just followed him,” she remarks. As she tells the story of how he made track training fun for his fellow track runners in spite of the oppressive Arizona heat, she says, “There are just so many stories I could share.”‘
When Charlie was 14 years old, he tried out for the Discovery Channel’s Outward Bound: Australia series (similar to Survivor in concept but with no one getting voted out.) Even though he wasn’t selected for the Australia excursion, producers didn’t forget about him, and contacted him to personally ask him to participate in Outward Bound: Costa Rica. Like Charlie’s mom, they saw something special in him.
In the video clip below, it’s evident that Charlie’s positive attitude and spirit of adventure were already a huge part of his personality at such a young age. As students were first thrust into Costa Rican culture before heading off into Latin America’s wilderness, Charlie embraced the journey with a zest to try new things. Like Krista said, he gave it 150%.
Of Charlie’s experience with Outward Bound: Costa Rica, Krista says, “He left me for a month. He fell out of a boat, went hiking in caves, and more. He always wanted adventure and a challenge.”
Even Charlie’s family nickname C4, which came about because he was the fourth Charles Keating, seemed to sum up young Charlie’s exuberant personality. Krista laughs as she asks, “You know what C-4 really means, right? Plastic explosives! It was perfect for Charlie; not only was he the fourth, but he had a lot of energy!”
A Shared Love of Running
Krista, a lifelong runner, shared her love of running with her children, including her first born, Charlie. She recalls how some of her favorite running moments with Charlie occurred when they were here together in Coronado. “We always came and watched him go through BUD/S, and I remember running down the beach with him. To this day, every time I’m here I go over to the Del, and as I run all the way to the end and back, I just remember him running next to me. Those were some of the best times of my life with him.”
As Krista and Charlie would run along the beach side by side, she remembers how he would talk to her, telling her about everything going on in his life. As they turned around to run back, Krista would take in the beautiful view of the beach leading back to the Del as she continued listening to Charlie, still right by her side. She recalls how those moments were “heaven on Earth” for her. “Running together was something the two of us really enjoyed,” she says, grateful of the quality time they spent together.
Krista and Charlie, along with the Arcadia High School track team, would come to the San Diego area to compete in major track events, but their connection to Coronado went beyond running. Even before Charlie came to Coronado to begin his Navy SEAL training, Coronado had already become a second home to him. Escaping the summer heat of Phoenix, Charlie would visit for a month each summer with his father. As Charlie became an avid surfer, he enjoyed family time with his cousins, and quickly made friends with locals, who looked forward to his return each year.
Sarah Hunsaker, a third grade teacher at Village Elementary who’s from Coronado and still lives here, always looked forward to Charlie’s visits each summer. Hunsaker, a mother of twin boys, remembers Charlie with great fondness, and knows that reading Big-Hearted Charlie Runs the Mile with her sons will be special to her as it helps remind her of Charlie’s larger-than-life persona. She says, “I haven’t read it yet, but I look forward to reading a story about a hometown hero to my boys.”
Charlie’s Quest to Become a Navy SEAL
While Charlie visited the same place summer after summer where Navy SEALs do their training, Charlie had made up his mind to become a SEAL even before he started coming to Coronado. At just eight years of age, Charlie already had a Navy SEAL poster hanging on his bedroom wall, saying that’s what he wanted to be when he grew up. With an active family who appreciated the great outdoors, the activities they enjoyed together, including mountain biking, running, roller hockey, hiking, and backpacking, were instrumental in shaping Charlie’s physical fitness. Even from a young age, Charlie knew he needed to be physically strong and in shape to make his dream a reality.
As Charlie got older, his determination to become a SEAL only intensified. Krista recalls, “One of the weirdest days of coaching was 9/11. We had a morning run at 5:30 am, which was 8:30 New York time. We had just finished and were all standing in the parking lot when someone said, ‘We’re being attacked.’ We all gathered around one car as we listened to the radio. It truly affected Charlie. He was very cognizant of everything that happened that day.”
“Charlie was the kind of kid who did his research, and while he was in Coronado he became friends with Lance Mann,” Krista says. Mann, a former SEAL, answered all of Charlie’s questions about being a SEAL. “After thoroughly doing his research, Charlie began training for BUD/S in earnest,” she shares. He watched Navy SEALs: BUDS Class 234, and would even tie himself up underwater, and try to break out.
It didn’t surprise Krista at all when she found out her son decided to leave Indiana University after just two years so he could enlist and become a SEAL. “At eight years old, I didn’t necessarily think he was going to do it, but as he got older, he was doing things that would lead to that. Even when he became a student athlete at Indiana University, studying was not his high point,” she says. While she was proud of Charlie for his dedication to his country, she had hoped he would finish college first, following in the footsteps of everyone else in his family. She reflects, “You know what though? He did what he wanted to do. Even though studying at college wasn’t what he wanted to pursue, he spent year after year studying to become a SEAL.”
No one would ever accuse Charlie of being lazy academically; he had instead chosen to focus his tremendous energies on preparing to become a SEAL, reaching his personal goal of breaking the 4 minute mile. “He called me, and said, ‘Mom, I’m going to BUD/S. I’m in the best shape of my life,” Krista remembers. She knew that besides being physically ready, Charlie had been mentally preparing himself since he was eight years old. “If you’re mentally prepared, you’ll get through it,” Krista says.
Big-Hearted Charlie Runs The Mile
Few people know that Krista actually started writing Big-Hearted Charlie Runs The Mile years before Charlie passed. She wrote that book as part of a series of books focused on the kids she was coaching, especially those with challenges to overcome. Included in her collection of unpublished works, is Big-Hearted Adrienne, a story about a girl with cerebral palsy who finds success as she joins the track team.
Krista’s mother, a boutique artist named Phyllis Holmes, illustrated Krista’s books, included Big-Hearted Charlie Runs The Mile. “I had her do the pictures for it when I tried to pitch the books years ago,” Krista says, “but at the time no one was interested.”
Even though her series didn’t find a publisher, Krista held on to her stories, especially Big-Hearted Charlie Runs The Mile. The story remained “tucked away as a fond memory for over a decade.”
While most people may assume that Charlie never knew about the book his mother wrote to celebrate his determination, that fortunately isn’t the case. “Charlie always wanted to see it published, but never anticipated the ending or receiving the military honor of Navy Cross,” Krista says. As the Gold Star mother began going through Charlie’s things, she found it, and knew she needed to add one more thing before trying to get it published again.
Krista’s mother added a few more illustrations, including one of Charlie in his Navy uniform, and Krista set out to have the book published in Charlie’s honor. She recalls, “His brother Billy said, ‘Mom, you’ve got to do it. Charlie would want you to do it.'”
“I want people to remember Charlie, and to feel comfortable talking about him. When he died, he had so much more to do with his life. Even though he’s not here, he still has so much more to give. He was a wonderful man, and I want the world to know about him,” Krista says.
Krista hopes children can learn a lot from Big-Hearted Charlie. When he started his freshman year of high school, Charlie Keating was smaller than his peers, and had to work that much harder to compete against them on the track. “He could have quit, but he decided to work that much harder. He trained twice a day. He ate right, he slept right, and he didn’t do anything but work on improving so he could compete,” Krista says. “By junior year,” she notes, “he was twice as good, and made the medal stand at States.”
She continues, “I just can’t emphasize enough how important it is for kids to not give up.” With so many technology enticements distracting them, kids today, who are more accustomed to instant gratification, can learn valuable lessons from Big-Hearted Charlie Runs The Mile. The story highlights that everything doesn’t always come easily, and that success comes from a focused resolve to improve rather than the wish to be the best.
“At the time that I wrote this story, I wanted to help other kids, sharing what I personally learned from Charlie. I think kids need to work hard, especially little kids. I don’t want them to quit, and that’s what this book is really about,” Krista shares. “Motivation and a positive attitude are essential,” she adds.
Krista has received feedback from all over the country, and is honored every time she finds out that another school has ordered copies of the book for each teacher. As she opens each letter and email with pictures of kids who tell her that they want to be like Charlie, her heart swells with pride. “Charlie lives on,” she says.
Krista loves seeing photographs of children reading her book, and seeing videos of kids who joyously announce, “I’m Charlie,” as they race around their yards. “For me, that’s healing because the book is impacting kids. I love to wake up to the positive feedback, which makes my day,” she says.
“Charlie was a hero. He stood up for something he believed in, he fought for our country, and he was faithful. There’s nothing better that kids can learn,” she says.
A portion of the proceeds from book sales will benefit the Navy SEAL Foundation and K9 for Warriors in Charlie’s honor. “Before Charlie died, I didn’t even know what Gold Star families were or what the Navy SEAL Foundation was. The Navy SEAL Foundation did so much for my family, and I could never repay them,” she says with the utmost sincerity. “Charlie loved all animals, especially dogs, and he would love knowing that the book is helping warriors in need be connected with service dogs,” she says of K9 for Warriors.
Krista is now working on the next book that pays tribute to her son, Big-Hearted Charlie Never Gives Up. “It’s about his fun adventures in life as he grows up. It’s not one story, it’s multiple stories. It will be geared for children who are a little bit older, so it will involve more writing on my part. One story will be about his adventure in Costa Rica,” Krista shares.
Honoring Charlie’s Legacy
How can people, even those who never knew him, continue to honor Charlie’s legacy? “Oh, my goodness,” Krista says as she places her hands across her heart, the place where Charlie lives on. “Always give 150% in whatever you do. You only live once!”
Krista Keating-Joseph’s email address: [email protected]
Big-Hearted Charlie Runs The Mile is available at Bay Books and Amazon.com.