Curtis Briles had already been to Iraq once with the U.S. Army, and he was preparing for a second tour last August when a shattering call came in the middle of the night to his North Carolina base.
His mother was dead — savagely bound and beaten to death in the Terra Ceia home where he had grown up.
The serviceman stood this week in the Briles home, next to the spot in the living room where Kathleen Briles’ body was found the evening of Aug. 3, and recalled learning the terrible news from his father.
Asleep in his bed at Fort Bragg, the 23-year-old’s phone rang hours later at 3 a.m., but he didn’t answer. The ringer went off a second time and he answered, hearing his brother Calvin’s voice.
“Dad needs to talk to you,” Calvin Briles told him.
As Calvin passed the phone to their father, Dr. James Briles, Curtis knew bad news was coming.
“I knew something was wrong because Mom would always be the one calling me if something had happened,” Curtis recalled.
At first, Dr. Briles struggled to tell his son.
“Something has happened,” Dr. Briles said.
“Something has happened,” his father repeated.
Then the horrible news came out. Dr. Briles told his son he had come home from making hospital rounds and found Kathleen bound and bludgeoned to death on the living room floor.
Manatee County Sheriff’s Office detectives have charged Delmer Smith III with murder in her killing, saying he beat her to death with a cast iron sewing machine.
“I just remember saying, ‘No, Dad, no, that’s my mother, no, Dad.’ I guess it was just disbelief,” Curtis said.
‘Take care of business’
The Brileses had already contacted the U.S. Army before making the call to Curtis, securing his release to come home from the base because of the tragedy.
Curtis hung up the phone and ran downstairs to a guard watching his building. In tears, he couldn’t think of what to say.
“I just kept saying, ‘My mom is dead.’ I am standing there in my shorts crying and she is trying to help me,” Curtis said.
After a few hours waiting on paperwork, clearance for his release from the base was completed, and Curtis flew to Tampa, where a friend picked him up for the ride to Manatee County.
He joined his family, including his wife Amanda, and began trying to make sense of what happened.
For days after Dr. Briles found his wife, sheriff’s crime scene technicians processed the Briles’ home for evidence.
Horror turned to shock in the first days, according to Curtis’ sister, Kristen Venema.
Kristen had been at a Green Day concert in Tampa when her phone exploded with frantic calls about her mother.
“It took me three days to cry, and I am an emotional person. I cry all the time,” Kristen said. “The loss is just so great that at first it feels like it is happening to someone else.”
For the next few weeks, the Briles family met with detectives in the process of an early investigation, and the prospect of going back on duty loomed for Curtis. His unit deployed for Iraq on Aug. 17, but he stayed behind on an extension his family sought from the Army via U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota.
But when it came time for another extension, Curtis refused, opting to go back to Iraq. Not finishing his job would not have sat well with his mother.
“She always told me, ‘Take care of business.’ So I felt like I needed to do that,” he said.
‘She is missing so much’
A little more than a month after the slaying of his mother, Curtis found himself back in the war, serving as a military police officer in Iraq.
Once back in Iraq, Curtis leaned on his second family, those he serves with in his unit, and focused on work.
“I have so many friends that were there for me,” he said. “But there are always times when people back off to give you your space. Those moments are tough. I found myself getting mad and had to pull myself back to the situation at hand.”
The pain was so great that Curtis could not talk with his family back home while in Iraq. Instead, he pleaded with them to let him communicate through his wife.
“I knew if I talked to them, I would break down,” he said.
But back home again this month, Curtis reunited with his family for a wedding ceremony that brought happiness in the worst of times. He and Amanda had eloped before his first tour, so Curtis came back and two weeks ago renewed his vows with his wife in front of the family.
The ceremony brought joy, but it also highlighted the painful absence of their mother, who loved her children more than anything in the world.
“I feel so bad for my mother,” Kristen said. “She is missing so much. She would have lived for that ceremony. I just graduated from nursing school. She would have loved it.”
Come Saturday, Curtis Briles will head back to Iraq, once again taking on the task — like the rest of his family — of finding a way to keep going through the pain.
This time Curtis leaves behind a civilian award from the U.S. Army he had sought for his mother prior to her death, as she tirelessly ran efforts to collect toys for troops to give to Iraqi children. She posthumously received the Patriotic Civilian Service award in January.
Pulling the award off the living room mantle to show it off, Curtis said, “I gave it to my dad.”