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‘Soldier on’: The death of an intelligence officer from Vermont leads his family to support long Covid research


Charlie Vallee quail-hunting in Georgia in 2020. Vallee won accolades for his counterterrorism work at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Since his death in May, his family has raised more than a million dollars for a foundation in his name. Photo courtesy of Skip and Denise Vallee

Charlie Vallee’s friends and family knew something was wrong — but they didn’t know how wrong. 

After contracting Covid-19 in January, the 27-year-old Vermonter could not shake the persistent symptoms of long Covid, the mysterious affliction that has plagued countless survivors of the global pandemic. 

Those close to Vallee noticed the uncontrollable tremor and the blank stare. He suffered from brain fog so severe that he struggled to read. He became lost in a grocery store.

An officer in the Defense Intelligence Agency, Vallee had been set to deploy to Iraq for a second tour of duty in the Middle East. But a week before his scheduled departure in March, he reluctantly informed his superiors that he feared his condition could put troops at risk. He took medical leave from the Department of Defense in April to seek treatment. 

On May 3, Vallee died by suicide in Washington, D.C.

“We all wish we could have done more,” said Chris Rothe, who met Vallee in college and became one of his closest friends. “It took us all by surprise.”

In the months since, Vallee’s family members have been trying to make sense of their loss — and prevent others from enduring the same. They’ve established the Charles M. Vallee Foundation with a goal of funding long Covid research and providing resources to those in search of answers. 

“What frustrated us with Charlie is that there just didn’t seem to be any place to go,” said his father, Rodolphe “Skip” Vallee. “This is so new that people didn’t know what to do. I think one of the things we’re trying to do is provide an avenue for people who have lost hope.”

They have already had remarkable success filling the foundation’s coffers. Not counting contributions from the immediate family, the foundation has raised well over a million dollars, according to Skip Vallee. 

That success should come as no surprise. Skip Vallee helped grow the family business, R.L. Vallee, from a smalltime fuel delivery company in St. Albans into a regional powerhouse and operator of the Maplefields chain of gas stations. He has raised more than a million dollars for Republican candidates and causes over the years, earning an ambassadorship to Slovakia during the presidency of George W. Bush. 

But this endeavor is different, Skip Vallee said, and not just because the cause is so personal. Determining the most effective way to deploy the foundation’s funds has been daunting — particularly given the amount of money now flooding into long Covid research.

“I think the biggest challenge is how are we going to prioritize and help out with something that’s so new,” he said. 

For now, the foundation has helped distract Skip and his wife, Denise, Charlie’s mother, from their grief. 

“It’s tough, but you just gotta plug along,” he said. “You just gotta soldier on.”

‘Saved American lives’

Those who knew Charlie Vallee suspected that he worked in the intelligence community. But only at his funeral, on May 13 at the Catholic Center at the University of Vermont, could his father reveal that he had worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency, a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense. 

In a eulogy Skip Vallee delivered to the overflow crowd — which included Gov. Phil Scott, former Gov. Jim Douglas and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. — he described some of what he had learned about his son’s decorated, if abbreviated, career as an intelligence officer focused on Islamic terrorism. 

After moving to Tampa to work with the U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Charlie Vallee deployed to Jordan. Upon his return, he was given the Special Operations Command’s civilian-of-the-year award — though his family still does not know what exactly he did to earn it. 

He later moved to Washington, D.C., to work out of the agency’s Defense Combatting Terrorism Center. It was there, his father said in the eulogy, that Charlie Vallee played a key role in the successful U.S. operation on Feb. 4 to kill Hajji Abdullah, then the leader of the Islamic State.

“He once again had made us safer,” Skip Vallee said in the eulogy. 

Charlie Vallee, left, traveling in Jordan with Chris Rothe. “We all wish we could have done more,” said Rothe, who met Vallee in college and became one of his closest friends. “It took us all by surprise.” Photo courtesy of Chris Rothe

In a statement to VTDigger, the Defense Intelligence Agency corroborated the account. Charlie Vallee’s contributions “enabled some of the nation’s most senior Department of Defense leaders to counter terrorist efforts of the Islamic State,” according to an agency spokesperson. 

“In March 2022, he was awarded and personally acknowledged by the DIA Director and other senior DIA leaders for providing critical analysis to the Secretary of Defense in the immediate aftermath of the death of ISIS’s emir,” the agency spokesperson said. “Vallee’s expert knowledge of ISIS leadership and activities combined with his ability to quickly analyze and infer meaning from data directly contributed to national security and saved American lives.”

Seth Jones, director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, had become a mentor to Vallee years earlier when Vallee took a job as an analyst at the center. He immediately stood out, according to Jones, because of his “knack for finding primary source information.” 

While many analysts would scour Western newspapers and think tank reports to understand the nature of the threat posed by Islamic extremists, Vallee used his Arabic language skills to peruse Jihadist publications. 

“Charlie spent a chunk of his time finding, reading, analyzing what the jihadists themselves were saying and doing — and that is really taking it to the next level, in the way that you’re really understanding what you’re dealing with,” Jones said. 

Rothe, who had befriended Vallee as a freshman at Colgate College, was struck by his devotion to the cause. Their sophomore summer, Rothe followed Vallee to Israel for an internship at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. There, Vallee impressed the staff with a project focused on tracking Islamic extremists via social media. 

Years later, when Vallee was working for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Rothe said, he covered a wall of his apartment with photos of known terrorists, documenting their connections with one another and with attacks — much like a character in an espionage thriller. 

“A lot of people look forward to the next weekend or the next vacation,” Rothe said. “That’s how Charlie felt about work. He was an intelligence officer who went to work and read and analyzed intelligence, and he came home from work and read about the same exact topics. He was a true professional.”

That devotion to work is what made Vallee’s experience with long Covid so challenging, Rothe said. “The brain fog prevented him from being as sharp and as dialed-in as he usually was,” Rothe said. He “took a knee” from his deployment to Iraq because “he didn’t want to provide shoddy work. … But it was hard on Charlie because he was a true teammate.”

He was also humble, Rothe said. Much like Vallee’s friends didn’t know exactly what he did for work, his colleagues didn’t know about his family’s wealth and influence.

“I remember meeting some of Charlie’s coworkers from the intelligence community at his funeral. They said, ‘We thought he was a lumberjack growing up in Vermont,’” Rothe recalled. “They had no idea his father was an ambassador. They had no idea of his background and upbringing, as some sort of New England elite.”

‘The most solid dude’

Charlie Vallee seemed to make a lasting impression everywhere he went.

One lifelong friend, Mike Miller, still vividly recalls the moment he met Vallee in preschool. What first caught Miller’s eye was Vallee’s black and orange sneakers, which he deemed the coolest shoes he’d seen. From then on, Miller said, “We were kind of attached at the hip.”

“As a small kid he was so innocent and such a darling kid,” Miller said. “You always just wanted to hug him. He was just like an angel kid.”

Over time, Vallee grew to become a fierce athlete, focusing especially on soccer and hockey. When he was 11 and his brother, Teddy, was 14, their father was appointed ambassador and the family relocated from South Burlington to Slovakia. As Skip Vallee recalled in his eulogy, Charlie had to adapt to being dropped off close to the soccer pitch by an armed car. 

At first, Charlie was “mildly resented for his privileged status,” his father said. “Yet within a month he was the most popular and respected boy on the team. Quiet integrity even at 11.”

Skip Vallee traces his son’s devotion to national security — not to mention his skill at billiards — to the hours Charlie spent playing pool in the U.S. embassy with the Marines who provided security. Skip still treasures a portrait Charlie painted of one Marine standing at attention. 

Charlie went on to captain the soccer team at the Taft School in Connecticut, where he took a course that piqued his interest in Middle Eastern studies, and then played Division 1 soccer at Colgate, though his father conceded that he mostly warmed the bench. 

Nevertheless, Skip Vallee said, Charlie would “lead as he always does, from the bench, in practice and on campus.”

“He was just the most solid dude and you could always count on him. That’s what makes it so hard,” Miller said. “If you needed someone, Charlie was always there. If he was miles away, he’d find a way. If you were down in the dumps, he’d be there. And he was the best friend to anyone who was lucky enough to know him.”

Charlie Vallee fishing off the coast of Rhode Island in July 2021. He grew to be a fierce athlete during his youth before charting a distinguished career as an intelligence officer focused on Islamic terrorism. Photo courtesy of Skip and Denise Vallee

According to Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Charlie was “just a wonderful human being.”

“His humility and ability to work in a team and his character set him apart from most anyone I ever worked with,” Jones said. 

And he had a lot more to offer. Not long before Charlie’s death, he spent time playing pool at Jones’ house. 

“I knew he was struggling a bit. I did not know the extent of it,” Jones said. Even then, according to Jones, “He still loved talking about all these issues and was thinking of the next stage of his career. It’s really sad because I know he was excited about the next stage of his life.”

If you are in crisis or would like to help somebody else, dial 988 for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) or text VT to 741741 for the Crisis Text Line.

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Paul Heintz

About Paul

Paul Heintz is editor-in-chief of VTDigger.org, where he oversees day-to-day operations of the newsroom. Heintz previously spent nine years at Burlington’s Seven Days newspaper, serving as a reporter, columnist and political editor. During that time, he was named journalist of the year by the New England Society of News Editors and won the New England Newspaper & Press Association’s Morley L. Piper First Amendment Award for his successful advocacy for Vermont’s first media shield law. Heintz previously worked in the U.S. House of Representatives and for the Brattleboro Reformer and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and thru-paddled the Northern Forest Canoe Trail.