After the Fitzgerald Tragedy, Two Women Bond Over Their Sailors

This undated photo released by the U.S. Navy, Monday, June 19, 2017, shows Fire Controlman 1st Class Gary Leo Rehm Jr., 37, from Elyria, Ohio. (U.S. Navy via AP)
This undated photo released by the U.S. Navy, Monday, June 19, 2017, shows Fire Controlman 1st Class Gary Leo Rehm Jr., 37, from Elyria, Ohio. (U.S. Navy via AP)

HAMPTON -- Erin Rehm lost her husband of 17 years when the Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship off the coast of Japan, killing seven sailors.

She has since gained a sister.

Jacqueline Langlais, a sailor on the Fitzgerald, considered Gary L. Rehm Jr. her closest shipmate. She was engaged to Seaman Dakota Rigsby, of Fluvanna County, a 19-year-old gunner's mate who died that night along with Rehm and five others.

As well-wishers come and go at the Rehm house in Hampton and days of mourning run together, the two women have bonded in the face of unspeakable tragedy, pooling the strength that comes from loved ones remembered and pride in their Navy service.

At one point last week, Erin Rehm was moved to tears as she discussed the 24-year-old sailor sitting in the other room.

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"I need to take care of this girl," she said. "All of a sudden, she's my sister. I need to look out for her. I know Gary wants me to look out for her."

The two had met briefly last year when Erin Rehm visited her husband in Japan. Langlais said they also knew each other by association.

"Me being Gary's best friend, Gary always talked to me about Erin," said Langlais. "Gary's passing gave us something in common. We're trying to help each other get over that aspect."

What helps? Talking about their sailors.

'I know he saved lives'

Fire Controlman 1st Class Gary Leo Rehm Jr. has been widely credited with saving several lives when the Fitzgerald collided with the cargo ship ACX Crystal off the coast of Japan in the early morning of June 17. Some media reports said he pulled 20 sailors to safety.

"I know Gary saved lives," Erin Rehm said. "But we don't know the number."

She knows that crew members ran for safety, credited Rehm with rescuing them and said he had gone back to help others.

"I would love to know who he helped and saved," she said. "I don't know if they'll ever reach out to me."

The notion of Rehm going the extra mile isn't surprising when you consider how he lived his life, Erin Rehm said.

One of his favorite pastimes was tinkering with cars, and that included being a good Samaritan mechanic for friends and strangers. One day they were driving down Jefferson Avenue and he pulled over to help an older couple whose car had broken down.

"Gary pushed this old couple's car across six lanes of traffic and I followed behind and made sure that nobody hit them," Erin Rehm said.

Always surfing online, he came across a local family on Craigslist seeking financial help at Christmas. Although they were strangers, Rehm wanted to take them shopping. He and his wife ended up visiting with the family and giving them $250.

In this context, his final act of heroism on the Fitzgerald makes sense.

"I know why he kept going back," she said. "He wouldn't have been able to live with himself if he didn't."

And yet, Erin Rehm has learned things about her husband in the wake of the Fitzgerald tragedy. As people have told stories of how he has helped them, she's seeing his life from the perspective of her neighbors.

"He downplayed what he did for people, that it was no big deal," she said. "He'd say, 'Hey, I'm going to do this real quick.' Then I hear these stories of how he impacted people."

Most of these good deeds played out in Hampton Roads. Rehm's hometown is in Ohio, but most of his 19-year Navy career has been spent here, first aboard the USS Ponce and then on the USS Ramage. He served at Naval Weapons Station Yorktown and at Dam Neck before receiving orders to to the Fitzgerald, based in Yokosuka, Japan.

Erin Rehm noted another error in media reports. He was not planning to retire in three months. He planned to stay in the Navy, returning to the Norfolk area for another assignment to complete his 20 years.

Making introductions

Dakota Rigsby reported to the USS Fitzgerald last November, half a world away from Fluvanna County. He made friends with Gary Rehm, who then made a routine introduction to Langlais, an information systems technician 2nd class.

"Gary was my best friend," Langlais said, "so he brought Dakota over to my house one night and said, 'I want to introduce you to one of my guys -- my kids.'"

Because Rigsby was new to the ship, Langlais invited him to come over and hang out, if he wanted. She wasn't looking to get romantically involved, having just gone through a breakup.

Because she wasn't seeking a relationship, she wasn't out to impress him. That turned out to be the charm.

"I could just be myself around him," she said.

They started dating. They fell in love. Rigsby proposed to her one month ago.

"He was super-adorable," she said. "He loved me for who I was. I didn't have to change anything."

They would talk about getting married and what they would name their first baby. It would be a girl named Mya. At night, they would go to middle part of the Fitzgerald and watch the sky.

"We would just sit there and watch the stars," she said. "It was pitch black and the stars were so beautiful."

With a laugh, she said whoever falls in love with her will have to deal with a lot of baggage. After all, she's already named her first baby girl. And her second child, she's decided, will be named Dakota Leo -- Leo being Rehm's middle name.

"It's just hard because those are my two best friends on the ship," she said. "I think the whole ship kind of considered us the trio. We never went anywhere without each other."

Langlais plans to stay in the Navy. She entered the service at 18 for a reason often cited by new recruits: needing a direction in life. The Navy gave that to her, and she's grateful. She's pursuing a degree in cybersecurity and already has orders for her next duty station in Florida, which won't happen for some months.

She doesn't know if she'll return to the Fitzgerald, but it won't ever be the same. A Navy destroyer has a relatively small crew, from 220 to 300 sailors at any given time.

"We saw every face, every day," she said.

Langlais can't talk about the collision itself, but she agrees with Erin Rehm that heroic actions saved lives. The nightmare stuck with her the next day, when she had to retrieve her things.

"As I was walking down to berthing, my legs were shaking," she said. "Just feeling the energy of what had happened there, it was terrifying. I think the sacrifice those seven men made saved everybody."

Not karaoke, Gary-oke

As sympathy cards pour in from around the country and Erin Rehm's Facebook page blows up with consoling messages, one source of comfort has been a treasure trove of photos and videos that show her husband's fun and crazy side.

Karaoke at home was a blast.

"The way he did it was so funny," Erin said. "He would sing any song we asked him to, girl songs, it didn't matter. Unless you were hanging out here, I just feel like a lot of people didn't know how amazing he was, not just helping people. He was so funny."

Like many military families, they spent months apart and cherished when they could be together. During their 17 years of marriage, Erin Rehm said they were apart probably half the time.

"When he was home, we didn't even go to the grocery store alone," she said. "When we grocery shopped, I push the cart and he walks next to me and rubs my back."

In his more serious moments, he thought about life after the Navy and considered being a firefighter. Despite living a full life and helping people, he felt unfulfilled.

"I always felt like he was so great, that I wasn't good enough for him," she said. "He would say the same thing back to me. It's just crazy."

In the end, she wants people to know that Gary Rehm would do anything for anyone, and that he made his wife a better person.

"All we wanted was for people to have this relationship we had," she said. "How were we so lucky? He was my best friend. I don't know what I'm supposed to do without him. I have no idea. He took my whole heart with him."

This article is written by Hugh Lessig from Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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