For nearly a decade, Charlie Baldinger fought a cancer that eventually left him partially paralyzed on his right side, making walking difficult.
But his faith remained strong, and the cancer didn’t stop him from making a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, with the Knights of Columbus’ Warriors to Lourdes program to seek healing and a sense of peace in the waters there. While there, his grit and determination were on full display, and, despite his paralysis, no one or anything was going to keep him from walking the Stations of the Cross with Christ over steep, difficult terrain.
His inspirational display of “spiritual courage” and “unshakeable trust in God” led the Knights of Columbus to dedicate its multi award-winning 2019 documentary about its Warriors to Lourdes program to the memory of Baldinger, a 2007 graduate of Father Ryan High School, who passed away on Jan. 6, 2019.
Baldinger attended the Warriors to Lourdes pilgrimage in May 2018 in hopes of seeking physical healing from his illness.
“From my perspective, Charlie was a true inspiration to all of us, staff and pilgrims alike, during the whole spiritual journey (at Lourdes),” said retired Marine Corps Col. Charles Gallina, Archdiocese for Military Services liaison and member of the Knights of Columbus. “No obstacle held him back from fully engaging in the pilgrimage events.”
Michele Nuzzo-Naglieri, writer and director of the documentary, agreed.
“Charlie embodied the kind of spiritual courage that we can only hope to cultivate for when we face life’s trials,” Nuzzo-Naglieri said. “Charlie received the gift of spiritual strength for the journey ahead.”
Warriors to Lourdes
The Warriors to Lourdes program is a smaller pilgrimage within the International Military Pilgrimage, which began in 1946 “to promote reconciliation and peace after World War II,” according to the program brochure. “Ever since, for one weekend in May, Lourdes has become a place of prayer and healing for active-duty military and veterans representing more than 40 nations.”
For chosen military personnel and their caregiver, all expenses are covered by Knights of Columbus Charities Inc.
During the pilgrimage, the warriors are given the opportunity to visit the healing waters of the spring discovered by St. Bernadette Soubirous, who experienced several apparitions from the Blessed Virgin Mary there in the 19th century.
“We bring wounded and ill warriors carrying both the visible and invisible wounds of war, as well as those warriors with terminal illnesses, like Charlie, those with moral wounds to the soul, marital discord from years of service, or military sexual trauma, to beg Our Lady’s intercession,” Gallina said.
Baldinger grew up attending both St. Henry Church in Nashville and St. Matthew Church in Franklin. He attended St. Henry School, graduating in 2003, and then Father Ryan, as did other members of his extended family. At Father Ryan, Baldinger was extremely active, particularly with several of the bands including Jazz Band, Marching Band and Concert Band. His first two years he played saxophone for the bands before serving as field commander his junior and senior years.
After graduating from high school in 2007, he went on to the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, ready to follow in the footsteps of many of his family members who served in the military, including his father and both grandfathers.
But while in his third year at West Point, Baldinger was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
“No warning, I just froze up and fell off the rock wall and had a seizure when I hit the ground,” Baldinger explained in the documentary. “They told me that I had a brain tumor the size of a golf ball. I lost the use of the right side of my body, and I have speech difficulty.”
Following the initial surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and five weeks of rehabilitation, Baldinger returned to Tennessee for radiation and chemotherapy.
After a year of treatment, he went into remission for the next seven years. In that time, he graduated from West Point in December 2011 and went on to earn a master’s degree in nutrition and exercise science from Lipscomb University in Nashville.
But his cancer returned in January 2018. And it was around that time that he and his family found out about the Warriors to Lourdes pilgrimage.
‘Strength for the journey’
Kim Baldinger, Charlie Baldinger’s mother, was working as the bookkeeper for St. Matthew, when she met Deacon C.J. Donarksi in January of 2018.
“One day I was sitting in my office at St. Matthew and this unfamiliar face just wandered up, which was unusual,” Kim Baldinger explained. “We got to talking, and he noticed a picture of Charlie in his West Point uniform on my desk. I mentioned he was sick with a brain tumor, and he asked if I’d ever heard of the Warriors to Lourdes program. Turns out he was a liaison for the Knights of Columbus Warriors to Lourdes project.”
Not long after that encounter, the Baldingers sent in an application for the program and soon found out they were chosen.
“Charlie was game for anything. He was excited,” Kim Baldinger said, who served as his caregiver on the pilgrimage. “He was wanting to see and do and inspire everybody.
“And what I absolutely loved about this pilgrimage was that there was such an aura of hope and love and excitement and camaraderie,” she said. “There was just total joy among all the participants.”
The main portion of the pilgrimage was spread out over the course of three days and included Mass at the Basilica, Marian processions to pray for peace, candlelight vigils, and visits to the healing waters.
“The events are planned to not only nurture you and your faith, but to be part of the whole Lourdes journey,” Kim Baldinger explained.
Then the time came to visit the waters.
“We came to the bath for physical healing,” Charlie Baldinger said in the documentary. “I had some spiritual trepidation, and the water is very, very cold.
“You pray and then they dunk you,” he continued. “You really feel the Blessed Mother interceding for you. It’s an incredible feeling.”
“Charlie hoped that he would be healed,” Kim Baldinger said.
When he didn’t receive physical healing from his illness, Kim Baldinger said, he later asked her in their hotel room how she felt.
“I said, ‘I don’t know Charlie. I think I’m disappointed.’ And he said, ‘Mom, I’m not,’” Kim Baldinger recalled. “He said, ‘I already got my miracle. What I needed was strength for the journey.’”
Walking the Stations
Strength for the journey he found, particularly when the day came to visit the Stations of the Cross.
“They’ve got two sets of stations. They have a low Stations of the Cross, and they have a high Stations of the Cross with life-sized figures,” Kim Baldinger said. At the latter, “the ground is very, very rough with loose rock and broken terrain at a 30-degree angle. They tried to talk Charlie into going the low Stations of the Cross, but he said, ‘No.’ He was going to walk every bit of it.”
It was a choice that proved inspirational for many on the pilgrimage.
“The Stations of the Cross in Lourdes, there is a certain magnitude to them. I went with a gentleman named Chuck Baldinger,” said pilgrimage group leader and retired Marine Corps Sgt. Buster Miscusi in the documentary. During it, “not only am I going and seeing what Christ went through, but I’m seeing what Chuck is going through as well, and I’m seeing him push.”
“Charlie’s fighting spirit and his unshakable trust in God inspired every warrior and staff member on the pilgrimage that year,” Nuzzo-Naglieri said. “Walking and praying the Stations of the Cross are one of the highlights for our pilgrims in Lourdes, and I was personally struck by the parallel between Our Lady’s suffering at the foot of the cross and that of Charlie’s mother Kim.
“Between her quiet tears and beaming smiles all week, I saw Kim leaning on her heavenly mother for hope and strength,” she said. “To this day, her faith continues to inspire each of us on the Warriors to Lourdes team.”
‘The Body of Christ at Work’
As the days went on, the pilgrims got to know more about each other and more about the trials each of them was facing.
“We were walking with our group, and you watch all the other people who were going to various places around the Basilica. You would see adults being pushed in strollers, and people being carried. But just the outpouring of faith and belief, it’s hard to describe,” Kim Baldinger said. “It was so humbling for me to watch Charlie minister to them, and then they would turn right around and minister to him. That’s the Body of Christ at work in this little village.”
‘Wherever you go’
Upon returning home, Charlie Baldinger’s positive outlook didn’t waiver as he kept pushing forward and even married his girlfriend Allyson on June 26, 2018. They had met just six months prior at a restaurant in Cool Springs, Tennessee, where she worked as a waitress.
“He started coming in every day,” Allyson Baldinger said. “Every time I would see him and know that I was going to take his table, or I’d see him walking up the street, it just made my day better every time.
“I can’t say that I was ever unhappy around him,” she said. “He would just light up the room, and I was very drawn to him.”
And when they decided to get engaged, she told him, “Wherever you go, I will go, too,” she recalled, referencing Ruth 1:16.
Soon after, it was revealed that Charlie Baldinger would not only live on in memory but through the life of his son, Connor Michael, who was born Feb. 14, 2019. And the long legacy of the Catholic faith among the Baldinger family will also live on with his son, as two of Charlie Baldinger’s final requests were that Connor be raised in the Catholic faith and also attend Father Ryan.
‘Larger than a single word’
As family members and friends reflected on Charlie Baldinger’s life, several words were used.
His father, Paul Baldinger, called him tenacious.
“He never gave less than 100 percent,” Paul Baldinger said. For example, “the Eagle Scout program requires a lot of merit badges and a lot of work and a lot of camping trips. Sometimes you drive to the campsite and sometimes you backpack to your campsite, and we would hike for six or seven miles with a 50-pound pack on your back.
“You’d get to the campsite, and then Charlie and his cohorts would put their packs down and go running around the hills … and they would do that until it was time for them to cook their meal,” he said. “Then, on a camping trip like that, Charlie would usually read an entire book in addition to all the activities everybody else did.”
Allyson Baldinger called him “ambitious.”
“One thing he always wanted for me was to succeed and always do your best,” she said. “And with his endurance, nothing was going to stop him from doing whatever he wanted to do.”
Kim Baldinger couldn’t come up with just one word.
“He so much larger than a single word,” she said.
Hemanth Nalamothu, Baldinger’s classmate at West Point, called him a “true friend” in a short write-up intended for Connor Baldinger to read, so he could learn about his dad whom he never got to meet.
“Friendship is arguably the greatest asset a person has because it doesn’t come with any real benefits or expectations,” Nalamothu wrote. “With a business partner, you have a financial incentive. With a significant other, there’s a romantic tie. Even with family, there’s an obligation to your own blood.
“But friendship is different because you choose it,” he continued. “You can’t be born into it, you can’t inherit it, and you certainly can’t buy it. But you can try to earn it. … Your dad has been a true friend to me.”
Jeff Schletzer, visual and performing arts teacher and associate band director at Father Ryan, said Charlie Baldinger was “loved by all who knew him.”
“I will always remember Charlie with that incredible smile, and a love of life,” Schletzer said. “He always was in a good mood and was a very intelligent young man and a good student.
“One of my personal memories is when he took my daughter to a cadet dance, and he came in uniform, and they had their picture together,” he said. “He was so proud to wear that uniform, and we were all so proud of him.
“I am so happy he was able to have a son and keep his legacy,” he concluded.
A message of hope
Now, the Baldinger family says they hope Charlie Baldinger’s story will help inspire others.
“Whenever I’ve seen people with any sort of terminal diagnosis or cancer in general, it is very isolating and depressing. It just really feels like you’re given your time and you only have what the doctors say you have,” Allyson Baldinger said. “But in Charlie’s case, there are limits that people will give you, and whether or not you want to believe them is up to you, and he defied that, and his faith was a big part of that.
“That’s a testimony to anyone going through that struggle, and I hope that it reaches out to someone in a similar situation and gives them hope,” she added.
Paul Baldinger said he hopes his son’s story shows others what is possible.
“Everybody is dealing with different levels of tragedy,” he said. “I just hope Charlie’s story will show them what’s possible through family and friends and the support of others.
“But also,” he continued, “show the person that is going through the suffering how they can influence others and put their life in perspective.”
“It’s hard to watch someone you love suffer,” Kim Baldinger added. “It’s hard not to question why someone you love is suffering, but there is something redeeming in suffering in the way it affects other people.
“I have no doubt in my mind that Charlie’s life is such a testament, and he is still changing lives even though he’s been gone now three years from this side,” she added.
She said she also hopes people will be inspired by the documentary and the Warriors to Lourdes pilgrimage.
“It exists, and we need a revival of the holy sites like Lourdes,” Kim Baldinger said. “There is a greater thing in control of us and spiritual renewal is a necessary thing. Even in this time of COVID-19, we need to learn to step out of the fear and into the spiritual grace.”
For more about the Warriors to Lourdes program and to view the full documentary, visit warriorstolourdes.com.