“I’m going to do that!”
His older brother Chuck, channeling his inner Han Solo must have thought ‘Don’t get cocky, kid’; he thought his little brother was nuts. Chris Cash was around six years old, looking up at all the Air Force jets taking off and landing when he told his Grandpa Gus at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa his future plans. He was going to go to a military school and then fly planes. His mother, Rita Zvada, recalls vividly when Chris learned he was accepted to The Citadel. He worked at Boston Chicken in high school and was cleaning the kitchen when the staff heard a loud scream, fortunately nobody was hurt in the excitement. Rita had called to tell him the news, you’re in and going to The Citadel! Chris likely dropped the mop handle, perhaps sang into it, and pumped his fists as well. He dreamed it, believed it, and achieved it.
Captain Christopher Gustavo Cash
Fire and Heart
“The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.” – Ferdinand Foch
It has been almost 20 years, and the fire and heart that Chris exemplified still is burning today. Those that knew Chris, his passion for family and friends, his service to others and our nation, and his faith are evident. I had the pleasure to talk with his Mom and learn more about him, along with his brother and other friends. I also talked with my wife, Angela, who dated Chris for several years and was getting to the place in their relationship where marriage and their future was in sight; they deeply loved and cared for each other. Rita is the mother-in-law Angela should have had, and how heartwarming it is that they have remained close and honored Chris since that fatal day.
I still have the note Rita sent me when Angela and I were dating in 2016, introducing herself and letting me know she had prayed for someone to come into Angela’s life since her son was taken too soon from them both. She prayed for our protection and looked forward to meeting me. Angela had told me about Chris and how heartbreaking it was for her, and that she and Rita leaned on each other and it brought them closer after his death; rare for a bereaved parent and daughter-in-law that should have been. Rita is proud of the relationship she has with Angela and considers her a daughter. When Angela let her know we were getting married she paid for her wedding dress. Understandably she felt it would be hard and emotional to attend, however, wanted to make sure Angela felt loved. What grace and strength. As Angela’s husband, and to others who are reading this and have similar circumstances, it is authentic to honor and respect the love of your spouse for someone they loved and lost, and have full confidence that they love you with all their heart. Both are true, and I would encourage and allow the emotional space for it.
For Memorial Day 2023, and honoring those that have served this year and in years to come, I want to share the story of Air Force Captain Chris Cash, who having just completed a tour in Afghanistan, was killed on his motorcycle by a hit and run driver while stationed at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma. As with the Memorial Day tribute of Shane Adcock shared last year, I want to honor Chris by getting to know him through pictures brought to life and talking to those who knew him, including my wife.
Rita came to visit us last month (April 2023) as a surprise for Angela’s birthday. I let her know I wanted to do this and to bring pictures of Chris, and she sure did. I enjoy learning about others, their hopes, dreams, struggles, passions, and pain as it reflects all of us. I shared with Rita that when I write I enjoy getting to know and learn from someone, and feel that they are sitting right next to me with their hand on my shoulder saying ‘Thanks for spending time with me, Ed.’
First of all, what a cool name…Chris Cash.
With Angela and Chris’ Mom, Rita Zvada
Why Ponder Life’s Breadcrumbs, When There is a Banquet
“Hey, my name is Christopher Gustavo Cash!”
He was akin to a Cuban Bruce Lee, with an Al Pacino ‘je ne sais quoi’ appeal. His grandfather emigrated from Cuba to Key West, Florida when he was two, with his mother (Chris’ great-grandmother), and his grandmother was a native of Key West. They made their living in the tobacco industry and the production of Cuban cigars. Unfortunately, the tobacco factory burned down and they moved to Tampa, which is where his grandparents met and put down roots.
From a young age, Chris seemed always up for adventures
Being a descendant of Cuban immigrants, Chris knew that people should not be judged by their looks or name. When he heard people while out at a restaurant at his table were making fun of Latinos, he stood up and said his full name, emphasis on the middle. After their eyes became as big as silver dollars, and some immediate self-reflection, I’m sure they stopped.
“Strong people stand up for themselves, but stronger people stand up for others.” – Suzy Kassem
I love the Cubs too, Chris
That encounter was nothing new to Chris, throughout his school years he would always come beside unpopular kids and those who did not have a lot of friends, letting them know he was their friend. Caring, and considerate, Chris always stuck up for others even at an early age. In the sixth grade, he proudly told his classmates that Martin Luther King’s dream lives on. His love for the military started early in life, and being near MacDill Air Force Base piqued his interest in flying planes. His brother Chuck, five years older, told me they were always close, and when their parents divorced (Chris was 4) they were always around their grandparents and cousins. They both got along and had normal sibling disagreements, however, they rode their bikes and played outside all the time as kids. Chuck told me that he looked up to Chris and he was always the better student. Chuck hated school and in fact, Rita sent him to Japan to be with his Dad (who lived on a military base) to give him a kick in the a** to finish high school. He responded well and even became fluent in Japanese. Chuck has always admired how his Mom raised them, being a single parent for ten years and working constantly. Chuck was very self-aware that Chris was a lot easier. I know parents (who are former kids themselves, which seems unbelievable to their own kids) understand that dynamic completely.
Looks like Chris just turned 6, brother Chuck is 5 years older
Nothing was easy, Chris was constantly studying or working towards his goals and understood that you don’t sweat the small things, and everything is just that. Even though he did not hear from his own Dad for years, he kept pressing on and when Rita got remarried, he absolutely loved his Step Dad, PJ. He viewed life with wide-open eyes as a banquet of experiences, growth, and learning that requires love, faith, action, forgiveness, compassion, and standing up for yourself and others. An example of this that Rita shared, her purse was stolen one day and she was absolutely distraught, as expected. She told Chris that there were 3 crosses in the purse as well, and Chris said to her: ‘How appropriate Mom, a thief steals a cross including those crosses of the thieves.’ Perspective and faith, and encouraging his Mom not to ponder the breadcrumbs.
Of Course, we all remember the school picture day…great one Chris
A Room with a View, and Then He Knew
Chris knew exactly what he wanted to do since that day at MacDill AFB when he was six years old. He kept that as a point on his compass throughout his school years. He graduated from Tampa Catholic High School in 1995 and competed in wrestling and swimming. He absolutely loved school and his teachers. His Third-grade teacher, Ms. Sylvia Greco, let him know she would attend his graduation from The Citadel and she did.
Wrestling Team at Tampa Catholic High School, Class of 1995
After high school, he moved to Greensboro, North Carolina to work for a year before he started at The Citadel. He got a job at Chili’s and that is where he met Angela. They dated for around 5 years and Rita loved Angela from the beginning.
Chris and Angela before he started at The Citadel
When Chris matriculated to The Citadel, he was a ‘knob’ for the first year, and addressed by upperclassmen as Knob Cash. Besides losing their street clothes, first-year Citadel cadets lose their hair as men’s hair is cut within a quarter inch of the scalp with their bald heads resembling doorknobs. For the first year, it was an intense regimen of military training, physical activity, academic studies, duties, emotional stress, and endurance. Chuck, who enlisted in the Air Force, thought he was nuts and knew the first year was hell, and told me they were expected to walk at 120 paces per minute. Through it all though, Chuck was impressed with his little brother and in awe that he made it through. It is no surprise that Chris was a Criminal Justice major and took it upon himself after his first year to stick up for other ‘knobs’ that came through the gates of The Citadel. After four years, there is a significant percentage who don’t make it, and Chris’ Citadel ring on the inside says “Thanks Mom, we made it.”
Angela and Chris, when he was at The Citadel and not there too
During his years there, Angela would visit him often and they truly loved and cared for each other and each other’s families. They were always in touch, and when Angela’s grandmother asked her to move to Greenville, North Carolina in 1999 as her health was failing, there was no question about what she needed to do. She and Chris loved and respected one another, and felt at the time before Chris started his Senior year, it was best for them to date other people with all the changes and circumstances going on in their lives. Rita was very sad when they split, however, this was not the end.
Graduation Day…”Thanks Mom, we made it”
One of his Citadel classmates, Avery Austin, let me know that Chris was always calm, collected, and mellow. He had the perfect temperament for getting through each day, and though Chris was grumpy in the mornings for their daily run, he always enjoyed spending time with him. They would go on trips together, and spend time with each other’s parents; Avery loved Papa Gus and Abuela (his grandmother) and misses Chris a lot.
“It is not the finest wood that feeds the fire of Divine love, but the wood of the Cross” – St. Ignatius of Loyola
Chris and his Papa Gus
His room at The Citadel had a view, and with that view, he knew he would make it from his first year. Chris could see the cross at the Chapel from his window, and be encouraged as he would hold onto that image, the love he felt for others, and what it meant to him throughout his years there.
Doing the Right Thing, AWACS and Video Games
Sometimes roads lead to unexpected destinations.
Dignity and honor defined Chris, and when his girlfriend Shannon became pregnant towards the end of his senior year, he stood by them and married her. He respectfully let Angela know, and after having a heartfelt conversation, she knew he was doing the right thing as well and stood by him too. The marriage unfortunately was short and did not work out, however, he was blessed with a daughter, Leah, who he loved unconditionally. Chris fought for custody of Leah, however with the nature of being a Captain in the Air Force and being deployed for long stretches of time, Leah grew up with her Mom and her parents. That said, she was always close to his heart.
Leah smiling proudly with her Dad
Chris was sworn into the Air Force after graduating from The Citadel in 2000 by Chuck, and after 9/11, both of them started deploying. Chuck was a Gun Truck Commander doing road security in and around the troops off the bases. Chris was an AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control Systems) pilot which served as a command and control battle management, surveillance, target detection, and tracking platform. Chris likened it to being paid to play video games and he absolutely LOVED his job. Chris was deployed to Afghanistan from 2002-03 and he and his brother actually worked a few missions together, in different capacities. Chuck would call the AWACS when he needed information as he was on the ground and Chris was dealing with airstrikes.
“Bravery comes along as a gradual accumulation of discipline.” – Buzz Aldrin
Chris with his AWACS aircraft, and he absolutely LOVED it
Chris being sworn in by Chuck, and Rita making sure she has great pictures of them both together
With her sons serving in the Middle East, Rita was immensely proud of them and she shared that she always put up a shield and braced herself for the worst; she did not watch the news or want to even hear music introducing the news. She was always on edge, and with both of her sons deployed at the same time, it was just amplified. Chuck conveyed that the hardest job in the military is being a spouse, however, I am sure being a parent ranks right up there as well.
When Chris returned home at the end of 2003, he was stationed at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City. Rita and his family could partially exhale knowing he had safely returned from his year-long deployment. It was also a hopeful time as Angela and Chris started communicating again, as they knew the love they had for each other was still there, and the excitement of a new beginning and circumstances.
Chris in his element on the AWAC
The Bonds of Friendship and One More Look at the Night Sky
‘Hey Chris, I have not seen you in awhile, can you come over?’
After his return from duty at the end of 2003, there are a few months of debriefing and transition. It was around midnight, the night of August 22nd-23rd, 2004. Chris had gone to bed and some of his friends who had not seen him in a long while called and asked him to come over so they could catch up. He told them he was tired and would catch them later. However they did not stop calling, begging him to come so they could see him and catch up. Evidently, many of them had not seen him since before he left for Afghanistan in 2002. Being the loyal friend always being there for others, and wanting to stop the phone from ringing (he did have a roommate after all, and trying to be considerate) he agreed and got up, got dressed, and hopped on his motorcycle. His roommate asked if he was sure he was alright to drive, seeing as it was the middle of the night. He said Chris put his hands on his hips, paused, and took a long look at the star-filled Oklahoma sky before starting his bike and heading out. That was the last he saw him.
“Life. It’s not just about watching the stars. It’s about shining with them.” – Bhuwan Thapaliya
Some times spent with Chris, and only wish there was more…
On his way to spend time with his friends, and traveling around 37mph, he was hit by a car, knocked off his motorcycle and seriously injured. Nobody saw it as the roads were empty at that hour, however, someone came upon him and was able to call 911. He was taken to the hospital and did not survive his injuries.
Rita had last spoken to Chris on August 19th, her birthday, and last saw him Father’s Day weekend. Angela had just visited him in Oklahoma a couple weeks prior as they were dating again and with her getting to the end of finishing her degree, were planning their future together. Chuck does not remember his last conversation with his brother however does remember exactly where he was and what transpired. His Citadel brother, Avery Austin, was just about to begin his deployment when he heard and was devastated. And his third grade teacher, Ms. Sylvia Greco, had to leave her school immediately as she was so emotional and distraught.
Father’s Day Weekend, 2004…the last time Rita and Chuck saw Chris
For the military officers charged with this duty of notifying family, this is a heartbreaking task. For Chris, his next of kin was his daughter Leah, who was three years old at the time. When the officers showed up to notify her, they looked at Leah and knew it had to be an adult and informed Leah’s Mom, and Chris’ former spouse, Shannon. She immediately calls Rita and informed her of the news. Rita’s motherly instincts kicked in as she could not believe it, and was emotional as one would expect. Shannon had her Dad get on the phone with Chris’ Step-Dad, PJ. They informed PJ what happened, and were in a state of shock as they discussed the details of what transpired. In later conversations, Rita spoke with Chris’ roommate, John, and he could not get over it either and wish he had done more to stop him from going. He sent Rita a lot of his possessions for her to have.
For Chuck, the gates of Joint Base Camp Bullis outside San Antonio will always be a memory prompter. As he and his mates were headed back on base, he found out the base commanders were looking for him. Chuck thought someone got in trouble. They told him he needed to go to the Armory and turn in his weapons, Chuck knew either someone died (perhaps grandparent) or he was getting arrested, and he knew he was not getting arrested. Though encouraged, he did not sit down and they informed him his brother had died in a traffic accident. His belongings were packed for him and they put him on a plane to Tampa, there was absolute silence from the airport to his parents house.
For Angela, having just spent a few weeks with Chris the first part of August, their relationship was full of excitement with the change in scenery and circumstances. They both appreciated each other and made the other a priority, and looked forward to planning their future. Angela spoke to Chris a couple days beforehand and they were planning her next trip to Oklahoma in the fall, around Halloween. With her finishing up her degree, and Chris with a job he absolutely loves, their future was exciting to plan and think about. They truly grew as a couple and loved one another, and gained strength through the struggles to sincerely appreciate the time together. Angela was trying to get in touch with Chris that week and could not reach him, so she called Rita and Rita told her what happened. Angela was heartbroken. A future that never happened, that was being planned to happen, that should have happened was all gone.
Angela and Chris, the last time they saw each other, August 2004
For Avery, Chris was one of the first deaths he experienced of someone he was so close with, and to this day he has not rode his motorcycle even though he has one, in deference to his Citadel brother and lifelong friend.
I have shared that are times in life when through storms and fog, purpose may find you. During this time, a fog may set in, called the Fog of a Broken Heart, and I am reminded about what Max Lucado has written for those that travel through it:
“…it slyly imprisons the soul and refuses easy escape. It’s a silent mist that eclipses the sun and beckons the darkness. It’s a heavy cloud that honors no hour and respects no person. It disorients and makes it hard to see the road.”
The crash site in Oklahoma
Getting and Growing through the Grief
“There is not a pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.” – Corrie Ten Boom
I find it hard to articulate the relationship between grief and love; what I do know is that grief is love, and an expression of it. However in my reading and understanding of the dynamic, it is not the exact same love we had for someone who was once living now transformed into the grief we have for them once they’re gone. They were very much in our lives then left a gaping hole, and grief feels bigger and greater than the gaping hole itself. Perhaps it is the Presence of Absence which opens up a new depth of love, one we didn’t know existed, one that simply couldn’t be accessed while they were still alive and predicated on the void they left in the world. And when I think about it more, it makes sense.
Litsa Williams, Program Director and Co-Founder of WhatsYourGrief.com explains this well:
When someone dies, their absence becomes its own presence. We come to love and hate their void. It represents all that is gone, all that we loved, all that (we) miss. We hate the reality it represents – that they are physically missing from the world. But we also love the reality that it represents – that our love for that person is so great that they are still “here”, even when they are no longer physically here. We grab ahold of their absence and cling it as tightly as we can. We still visit and revisit our memories, knowing they hold both the deepest joy and the deepest pain. We marvel that the depth of our love, our loss, and our grief. We want the grief to end and we want it never to end, all at once.
With their absence, we learn something we couldn’t know while they were living. We learn just how deeply we were capable of missing them. We learn just how much pain their void in our lives could cause. We learn how willing we are to lean into that pain in order to keep them close. Though we can imagine what it will be like to lose someone we love, when it happens, we learn it was actually unimaginable. And in that gap between what we imagined and what we never could have imagined, lies a type of love we meet for the first time in our grief.
When I asked Rita what she learned and appreciated about her son, she conveyed he was ambitious from a young age, kind, funny, treated all equally, and stood up for others. Chris never through rank around and never expected anything; he loved his family, career, Angela, and his daughter and was a true friend to his friends, even to the final night on earth. The lesson she learned from Chris was to serve, in anything you do, with your whole heart. Rita has been supported through bereaved parents conferences where they can lean on each other and does things to remember Chris; she also spends time volunteering with various organizations. She certainly has every reason to let life’s turbulence get the best of her yet she is fully confident about Turning the corner at Grace, with love as her fuel.
Rita will always carry Chris with her
Chuck had a hard time with his brother’s death, after the funeral rather than stay in Tampa and be reminded of Chris everywhere he went and seeing his family heartbroken, he had his commanders send him to his unit in Iraq. He knew he needed to keep his mind elsewhere, for now. When he got there, his unit was afraid of him due to the stress of Chris’ death, his mental state, and of course, access to weapons. He knew he had not dealt with it and one day he was walking with his partner and absolutely broke down crying after an ambulance went by, he thought of his brother being in an ambulance. He started thinking should have stayed stateside longer, and was calling Rita often; there was a time where he was at a Forward Operating Base (FOB) and a mortar hit the building next door as he was on the phone with his Mom. Unnerving to say the least.
What can’t be ignored is that Rita almost lost both her sons. Chuck was a Gun Truck Commander and in 2004 there were a lot of operations in and around Fallujah, Iraq. They would go in at night, as they could see and their enemy could not see them well. On the way back from patrol at sunrise on November 6th, 2004, his truck was hit by an RPG, fortunately all three of them survived. However, Chuck suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and was helicoptered out and sent via medivac to Germany; even the priest was giving him last rites. Chuck turned out to be fine and spent over six weeks in the hospital before he was back in Tampa, retired medically. He told me it was rough when he first got back, having not fully dealt with the loss of his brother. He went through a divorce, was drinking heavily, got three DUIs, until he woke up one day and checked himself into Rehab at the VA hospital. He was locked down for 60 days and started getting his life back together.
Chuck (on left) and his crew unbelievably survived this hit on their truck by an RPG, outside Fallujah, Iraq
God bless you as well, Chuck. You loved your brother, your family, your brothers and sisters in arms, and friends, and most importantly yourself. He knew Chris accomplished more by 26 years old than many do in a lifetime and does not know one person ever saying a negative thing about him. You certainly exemplified brotherly love.
For Angela, her love for Chris will always be there. When I talk to her about it, she is very open, authentic, vulnerable, and keeps his memory alive. I want her too as well. She has a tattoo on her left wrist for him, and has stayed closed to Rita and PJ throughout the years, she has gone to several bereaved parents conferences with Rita for support. It was especially heartwarming for me to meet Rita for the first time this year, and know that memories of Chris will always be welcome. So talk about him all you want!
Angela will always carry Chris and be close to Rita, her Tattoo to honor and remember him – Chris was part of Echo Company at The Citadel
Keep ‘Em Flying!
Chris grandmother, Rita’s Mom (Abuela), would always say to Chris, Keep ‘Em Flying! As an AWACS pilot, that was his mission was to keep the fighter pilots and themselves, flying.
In order to Keep ‘Em Flying, your eyes need to be open, and kept open. Chris, by his example, always did that for himself and what he wanted to do, and what he stood for in his life. No matter what challenge was thrown at him, he led by example which encouraged and pushed others to be better versions of themselves.
Let’s all Keep Flying, and help others fly, with fire and heart, and eyes open.
It has been great to spend time with you Chris, and looking at your pictures, I appreciate sitting next to me as I write your story. I know that you and Angela were not able to live out the future you both had in store for each other, and wanted to reassure you that love truly never ends. Angela loves you and I will always honor and respect the love you had with her, and having now met your Mom, can’t help but to love her too!
Angela designed and drew this picture for Rita to honor Chris
I know you did some side gigs as a DJ, and this one is for you, and at the same time speaks to all of us; to encourage no matter the circumstances and have faith to keep pushing on. Your example encouraged all those in your life Chris, and you still Keep ‘Em Flying, with our eyes open, including me.
Thank you for serving and God Bless,
WOW!!! Just wow….how beautiful! Ed, I thoroughly loved reading this! I am Rita’s neighbor across the street from her & I Love her like a sister. This is such an amazing story about Chris & your wifes love for each other, what a selfless thing!! I learned a lot more about Chris than I knew. I cried & smiled as I read this. I agree that Angela & Rita are Daughter and mother in law forever!! I really look forward to meeting you someday! Rita came back from Angela’s Birthday & couldn’t say enough beautiful & kind things about you & Angela. Keep writing….I loved reading it!!! Thank you!!
Thank you for the kind words Beth. I know we will get to Tampa to spend time with Rita and PJ, and yes, we will be sure to walk across the street! After Rita’s visit, we left her coffee mug in place for a week or so, as we both missed her and did not want to move it. It is incredibly heartwarming the relationship that Rita and Angela have, and grateful to be part of it as well.