Monday, November 10, 2014

Veterans Day 2014: I Remember Kenny

Another Veterans Day has arrived, and as I've done each year, I'm reposting Kenny's Choice: A Veterans Day Tribute which I wrote seven years ago in 2007.

Kenny's Choice

As part of an on-going family history project, I’ve wanted to research the military service and sacrifices made by my ancestors and relatives for the upcoming Veterans Day holiday. Although my family has a long history of many veterans who served in each war and conflict since the American Revolution, unfortunately, I did not have to go very far back in my family tree. Only as far back as January 6, 2005 when a cousin, Sgt. Kenneth VonRonn, died in Baghdad, Iraq.

Kenny was one of seven soldiers maneuvering their M2A2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle just north of Baghdad when an improvised explosive device hit it. Those that did not die instantly died when the carrier tumbled into an irrigation ditch and overturned, drowning the survivors.

The thought of someone, let alone my cousin, dying so far away from their family and at the age of 20 rattled my curiosity as well as my emotions. As if I had received the news just like Kenny’s mom had, I had many questions. The answers I found were honest and painful, and would not only help me form a better family history, but would also help those who loved him.

Answering the Call

By telephone, I spoke with Kenny’s mother, Debbie VonRonn, just before Veterans Day in November 2007. Although more than two years had passed since Kenny’s death, and it had become easier to talk about him, you could still sense the difficulty and the sorrow in her words and responses. However, I knew that I could ask her some difficult questions – questions that she could answer now that Operation Iraqi Freedom had stretched on into its fifth year.

My comfort came from having grown up with Debbie, my first cousin, in the Mid-Hudson Valley region of New York. Even though I had over 40 first cousins, she and I were closest in age and location. She lived with my family for a short period in my senior year while she was working at a local supermarket. We used to laugh and joke at the same things. We spent that summer both working in thankless jobs in the Borscht Belt resort region of the Catskills – she as a deli manager and me as a telephone operator. We would swap stories of the antics, gripes and behaviors of what we called the “city people” who spent leisurely summers up from New York City. We also saw and felt the disparities in wealth during those summers. We knew where we came from and very often we were made to know what our place was.

Losing Touch, Building Lives

Debbie and I went our separate ways once I left for college. Debbie married, had four children and built a life completely dedicated to her son and daughters. I spent close to 20 years in California, which was geographically and socially light years away from my roots. Debbie’s parents, my aunt and uncle, passed on in 2000 and 2001 respectively. After my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 58, I moved closer to home so I could help manage her care and her finances.

We met up once again, after close to two decades, in July 2005 – less than six months after Kenny’s passing. At the family reunion, I could tell that Debbie’s emotions were still raw as they showed in her face and body movement. There was quite a bit of small talk among the group, venturing only into safe subjects. It was not that we all did not want to talk about Kenny. We were just more concerned about Debbie’s state of being and giving her and the girls enough time and room to talk when they wanted to talk.

“He Was a Good Kid”

Kenny was born on September 21, 1984, and was raised in Ulster and Orange counties. He was the oldest and the only male in the family after his father left the family. Kenny’s boyhood activities were typical of boys in the rural settings of the Mid-Hudson: hiking and shooting as well as model making. He was also known as a lover of practical jokes and his impish, boyish grin allowed him to get away with it most of the time.

As I spoke with Debbie she mentioned, “I have a lot of good memories of Kenny. He was a good kid. Right after I received the news of his death, I ran around my bedroom looking for something that I had received from him. I just had to hold something of his close to me. I opened up and read many of his letters. At the end of each he always wrote, ‘Love always Kenny. P.S. The Best Son in the World.’”

Kenny was also strong-willed and determined. If you were to ask me, he got that from his mother. I should know because Debbie got it from her mother. My aunt grew up, along with my mother, in a family of 12 children during and right after the Great Depression, in Jersey City, New Jersey. There were eight girls and four boys. It was a tough time and a tougher place. You had to have a strong voice just to be heard and a strong will to get what you needed as well as what you wanted.

A Decision Made

In 2003, Kenny arrived home from high school one day and told his mother, “I made an important decision today.” It was his senior year and he was now 18 years old. Kenny knew what he wanted for his future and that he had a decision to make about that future coming true. His dream was to become a registered nurse, preferably in the emergency room arena, and then eventually become a pediatrician.

As Kenny told Debbie “I enlisted in the Army today,” she experienced, in a flash second, the normal concerns that would race through a mother’s mind. Moreover, with our country at war since 2003, the concerns were much more heightened. “Would he come back alive?” “Would my boy be hurt?” “Is this what he really wants?” “Is this what I would want for him?” “Does he know what he’s getting into?”

Like most mothers, you try to support your child’s choices. What they choose may or may not match their dreams or meet their goals but the choices made become lessons, which become wisdom which is then passed down to their own children. Debbie just wanted what was best for her son. And she knew that Kenny was happy.

Limited Choices

As I knew from growing up in the same circumstances as Kenny, with few well-paying jobs and the same economic hardships, the opportunities available to fulfill your dreams were scarce. Like Kenny, I grew up in a household where Mom worked, clothed and fed her kids, and still somehow made 10 cents seem like 15. The only routes out were either a college education or enlistment in the military.

For kids like us, Kenny and I had only these two choices or the choice to get a menial, low-paying job and be, what I used to call, “stuck.” While my hometown and the surrounding towns were picturesque and brought in the tourists, the scenery hid a dearth of social problems behind its Potemkin village fa├žade. Sullivan County more recently had a per capita income of close to $19,000 compared to the state average of $40,000 and that of Manhattan at $43,000. More children under the age of nine died in Ulster and Sullivan counties in 2005 than almost any other area in New York State. New York City’s problems often became ours due to its close proximity at 90 miles or less. For a sleepy rural area, the population had a disproportionate number of residents who abused drugs, committed welfare fraud, or were suffering from HIV.

I was able to scrape together enough college funding, loans and scholarships to attend a private university far from home. Kenny’s choice was to enlist in the military and then attend college afterwards with the help of enlistment bonuses and the GI Bill. Get in, get over there, then get out. In an interview after Kenny’s death, his best friend Dan Boen said that Kenny “. . . wanted to finish school, settle down and have a normal life that didn't involve war.”

Let Me Call You Sweetheart

Love and companionship were also part of the big plan which included:
1) graduating from Pine Bush High School in June 2003; 2) going to basic training and army medic training that Fall; 3) marrying his high-school sweetheart; 4) shipping off to wherever the Army told him to serve; 5) and then coming back home and building a life just like Mom did, hopefully with lots of kids.

Kenny VonRonn and Kira Conklin knew each other since they began attending the same school back in 6th grade. Debbie said it seemed as if they were always together. During a break in training, he came home for the Christmas holidays and they got married on December 23, 2003. However, all too soon he would be off again for more medical training at various places including Oklahoma, Texas and California.

Duty Bound

Once basic and combat medic training were completed, Kenny was assigned to the United States Army National Guard, 42nd Infantry Division, 69th Regiment, 1st Battalion, based in New York City.

Better known as the Fighting 69th with its armory at Lexington Avenue and 25th Street, the 69th Regiment dates back to 1851. Formed by Irish immigrants as the 69th New York Militia, this combat unit has fought in many wars including the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and both World Wars.

Kenny and his unit deployed to Iraq in October 2004 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and were stationed just outside Baghdad. He was part of a platoon of soldiers and support personnel known as Task Force Bengal. The unit comprised the 69th Regiment as well as a group from the Louisiana National Guard, the 256th Mechanized Infantry Brigade, and was responsible for equipping, training and assisting the 40th Iraqi National Guard.

One Last Kiss, One Last Hug

On November 24, the day before Thanksgiving, the ringer on Debbie’s cell phone went off while she was scrambling to gather items for the next day’s feast. It would be another holiday without her son. Soon a lucky choice made by another would bring Kenny home one last time.

Kenny talked to everyone on that call and wished his family a happy Thanksgiving. Then as his mom got back on the phone, he told her that he had some news and that she had to keep it a secret. “No emotions please. Don’t give it away,” he said. He was coming home for two weeks and would see them all that Saturday. He had won a chance for a short leave in a drawing when his name was pulled from a hat that day. He said there was no time to give details. The transport was literally waiting for him and if he missed it, his chance would be gone.

Of course, his last visit was too short and over before you knew it.

Christmas Day came and went without a call from him, but the family was not necessarily alarmed. They rationalized that Kenny could have been on maneuvers or that the circuits were just overloaded from all the troops reaching out to their own families. When the phone rang the next day and it was him, relief was able to sweep away those thoughts Debbie had. Thoughts you fight with every day as a mother or a father or a sibling of someone serving in a war. While your loved one fights, you fight too. Even though your fights are ones of thoughts and emotions, sometimes you too are wounded. And you almost always have scars.

The last time that his family heard from Kenny was on New Year’s Eve, 2004. He called home to wish everyone a happy New Year but was only able to speak to his grandmother, Maria VonRonn, his aunt and two sisters. Debbie had gone out to drive one of the girls to work that evening.

In speaking with Debbie, I could tell that she regretted not being able to take that call. When we look back, sometimes we only see the things that could have been or that should have been. In that search, we often forget the many times that moments of love actually did take place. As his mother said to Kenny on many phone calls while he served in Iraq, “Be safe. Watch your back. Keep your head down. And I love you.”

Receiving the News

When I asked how she first found out that her son had died, Debbie said that a little after midnight on Friday, January 6, 2005, she was awakened by a phone call from her daughter-in-law Kira. She said, “The Army’s just been here.” Still not awake, Debbie tried to understand the meaning of Kira’s words. She thought to herself, “Kenny was just injured. He’s had close calls before.” In fact, shrapnel had hit Kenny in late 2004 but an “action figure” in the pocket of his flak jacket had taken the brunt of the injury. “Batman took it for me,” he said.

This time Debbie could tell that something was different in Kira’s voice.

“Don’t tell me. Just don’t tell me. Is he dead?”

Kira said, “Yes.”

All Debbie could do was let out a scream as the truth sunk in. Her daughters Samantha, Courtney and Gina were still awake, watching television in the living room, and they rushed in to see what was going on. The girls were counting on the following day being a “snow day” and having schools closed due to a heavy snowstorm on Thursday. There would be no school on Friday for far different reasons.

“Could it be a mistake?” Debbie thought. She wasn’t the only one with that same thought, that same hope.

Saying Goodbye

While the days following the news were all “a blur,” as she put it, Debbie can now look back and remember how her family, her friends, her employer and her community selflessly reached out to help. One of the first phone calls she made in those early morning hours was to her employer. Debbie said that within 10 minutes both her bosses were at her home to comfort her and to see how they could assist. Debbie had asked them to go with her to see the flag-draped coffin at the funeral home. She knew she might need support in case the sight was too overwhelming for her. Kenny had not come home as his mother, or anyone, had expected. A steady stream of family followed over the course of the next few days until Kenny’s body arrived on Wednesday, January 12.

Kenny was the sixth member of the Armed Forces from the mid-Hudson region to be lost in Iraq. At the funeral, you would have thought it was meant for the first casualty. For most everyone, any casualty, in any war or conflict, is one too many.

Debbie told me that at one point, while she was riding from the service in Pine Bush, she looked back and realized that she and her son were leading a 2.5-mile motorcade. As it slowly and deliberately snaked up Route 17, the procession included the New York State Police, Ulster County Sheriff, Orange County Sheriff and Sullivan County Sheriff members. She said that the troopers even closed off exits so that oncoming traffic would not interrupt the procession. A driver would have to be blind, visually and emotionally, not to realize what was going on.

The burial, with full military honors, took place at the Sullivan County Veterans Cemetery in Liberty. I asked her why the burial was there and not in Arlington Cemetery. Debbie said that while they could have had Kenny buried at Arlington, Kira and everyone else agreed that they wanted to have him closer to home.

The Remembering

As we come up on Veterans Day, I asked Debbie how she and the girls work to remember Kenny. I used the word “work” because sometimes it is just that. There are visits to the grave, gifts of flowers, and thinking of him on his birthday and other holidays.

Over time, the remembering is easier and there are more details about the little things. Looking back, Debbie said that at about 11:00 pm on January 5th, barely an hour before she first received the news, a story appeared on the local news about a roadside bomb killing seven soldiers in Awad al-Hussein, north of Baghdad earlier that day. She had the sinking feeling as she did whenever she heard similar news in the past. The battle of the thoughts began again. This time the thoughts would win.

Debbie knows that over time, while she may not forget what her son achieved, others might. So she and others like her, Gold Star Mothers and Gold Star Siblings, the American Legion, the VFW, make sure there are events, dedications and remembrances. Like the one on October 27, 2007 at the Sullivan County Veterans Cemetery when a tank that had been part of his National Guard unit was dedicated in his honor. Over 100 family and friends as well as strangers came to see the tank that now watches over his grave and those of other veterans. It has been nicknamed VonRonn’s Express.

Was The Choice Worth It?

Some of the more difficult questions that I felt I had to ask were “How do you feel when you see people in this country speak out against our operations in Iraq? Do you think that a person can speak out against the war but still be patriotic? Do you think that someone can actively oppose the war but still be supportive of our men and women over there? How would you feel if one of your daughters now said they wanted to make the same choice as Kenny?”

Debbie told me: “I’m not political by any means and I don’t blame the Army at all. The way I look at it is that my son chose to do something and he believed in what he was doing. I believed in my son. People need to realize that Kenny made a choice.”

She added that with the protracted engagement and the mounting casualties, as well as the lack of evidence as to weapons of mass destruction, now she just wants everyone to come home. “Coming home now doesn’t mean failure; it’s just time to come home.”

My cousin Kenny made a choice back in 2003 so that I, and many others, could still make choices even after he was gone. Freedom to choose the church, synagogue or mosque I want to attend – or not attend. Freedom to choose who I want to vote for – or to not vote at all. Freedom to make my own plans, reach my own goals, see my own dreams come true.

Luckily, we can choose to voice our opinions about a variety of issues and can choose to support the war or not support the war. Support does not make you a rabid jingoistic hawk. Opposition does not make you a bleeding-heart unpatriotic dove. Kenny had a choice and thankfully, we all do.

Kenny’s choice may not have been the same as my choice or your choice. It was his choice. Remember to thank a veteran today for their service and their choice.

© 2014, copyright Thomas MacEntee

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Remembering 9/11 - 13 Years Later


[Editor's note: this post originally appeared here at Destination: Austin Family on September 11, 2008]

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I was living in San Francisco out near Ocean Beach in a small one bedroom apartment where I had lived since 1993. It was a Tuesday and since I usually got up at 4:00 am to walk the dog and then catch a bus at 5:00 am to go to the gym, I'm not sure why I slept later than usual. All I remember is the phone ringing slightly before 6:00 am Pacific Daylight Time.

My first thought went to, "Why did I oversleep?" which was quickly replaced with, "Something is wrong." My phone just didn't ring at 6:00 am unless it was my mother in New York.

For years, Mom could never get the time zone thing right and I was used to receiving calls anywhere from 4:00 am onward. And after her early on-set dementia diagnosis in the summer of 2000, phone calls at odd hours of the day and night became commonplace.

As I said hello I could tell that my mother was flustered. First, she was at home and not working which concerned me. Second, despite suffering from memory loss, she had the wits enough to simply say "Turn on the television - something is wrong with the World Trade Center in The City." Having grown up only 90 miles northwest of Manhattan, we always called it The City.

Mom said "Call me back," and I quickly hung up and ran to the television. I was still half awake and was not understanding what was going on. I do remember Katie Couric's voice, or some other female voice, stating that there was something wrong with air traffic control perhaps since a large airliner had just hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center. It was only after having watched the second plane hit the other tower, live as it happened, did the announcer and I both know that this was no accident.

I sat mesmerized for the next 30 minutes before I put on some sweats and took the dog out for a short walk. My next task was to call George at his home in Oakland.

George and I had been dating for about 16 months and had not yet decided to move into an apartment together. He had been home sick the day before with a severe sinus infection, so I knew he'd be sleeping. And I also hesitated to call since he wasn't known to be entirely coherent in the mornings. But due to the nature of the events, I dialed the phone. As he answered I tried to explain what was going on, and realized I should have followed Mom's example and kept it simple. There are times when Mom really does know best. Finally, exasperated, I simply said what so many loved ones probably said that morning, "Turn on the television," and I hung up.

The rest of the morning is somewhat of a blur. I do remember calling my boss who lived in the East Bay and basically told him that I would not be coming into the office. He agreed that from a safety perspective, and what with working downtown in San Francisco's financial district amid large skyscrapers casting permanent shadows along Montgomery Street, being in an office was not the best place to be.

As I sat on the computer reading the news stories about the attack, the phone rang again. It was Mom and I could just feel the sense of confusion in her voice. I thought about what it must be like for someone who did not have all their mental faculties to witness such events and how they could possibly process them.

Did she think she was watching a movie? She probably wasn't the only one who thought that - many of us did as we first turned on the television. Then as I watched the first tower collapse, I said to Mom, "the building is falling." At which point she started crying and told me she loved me and that I should try to get out of the building if I could. I had to explain over the next 10 minutes that it was the building in New York collapsing, not my own apartment building.

Oh, if all the confusion and panic of those events had been so easy to explain in only 10 minutes that day. I do remember, as others have described, the "eeriness" of the streets, the buildings, the towns - big and small - and how things just didn't seem right. There was less traffic on the streets, there wasn't the usual small talk at the grocery store or the dry cleaner, if one could even think about seeking refuge in the mundane world of daily errands.

There was no air traffic. Planes were not crossing over from the Pacific Ocean only 10 blocks away to land at San Francisco International Airport. And for the next few weeks, once air flights resumed, their usual engine sounds which were usually ignored, seemed amplified at least three times by having witnessed those horrible events, that sad history.

And life did not resume quickly for me or for many others. Dinners out seemed like an extravagance, an indulgence despite the advice of television psychiatrists and counselors about the "need to take care of oneself." Music was not played loudly, jokes were not raucously repeated, kids did not run after each other during recess at St. Thomas' Catholic School across the street. In those few short hours which stretched out along my mental and emotional landscape for what seemed like months, the world had changed and would never be the same.

I had changed and would never be the same. Mom was going through her own personal terrorist attack, with daily pummelings to her mental capacity and her psyche. Before September 11, 2001, I already knew that she would never be the same. I was just hoping that the world around her would be and that I could still protect her from it, as much as an oldest son 3,000 miles away could do.

In those years since, time has passed quickly but not so quickly that I can't pause and take time to remember what was, what could have been and what may be because of those attacks. And as I remember I will do so as I hold my loved ones a bit tighter tonite, cherish the memory more fervently of those no longer with me, and pray not as silently as usual that we all appreciate what we have when we have it, thank those who protect us when we need it, and love those who love us despite the madness of the world around us.

 Photo: Rescue workers conduct search and rescue attempts, descending deep into the rubble of the World Trade Center. September 14, 2001. Source: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Jim Watson. Public domain.

© 2014, copyright Thomas MacEntee. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sunday's Obituary: Catherine Sullivan O'Keefe 1837-1928

Obituary of Catherine Sullivan O'Keefe 1837-1928 from the Lowville Journal Republican, 16 February 1928


Mrs. Catherine O'Keefe

Former Resident of Lowville Dies in New York—Funeral at St. Peter's Church Today.

Mrs. Catherine Sullivan O'Keefe, 91, a former resident of Lowville died Saturday night at the home of her daughter, Mrs. W.D. Austin, New York. The remains were brought to the undertaking rooms of Graves & Virkler, Lowville, Wednesday, and funeral services will be held from St. Peter's church at 9:30 this morning. Burial will be in Rural cemetery.

Mrs. O'Keefe was born in Albany in April, 1837, but came as a child to Lowville with her parents. Practically all her long life was spent in this village, until ten years ago, when she sold her home here and went to love with her daughters. Her husband, David O'Keefe, died in 1870.

Surviving are a sister, Mrs. Margaret O'Neil, of this village; four daughters, Mrs. Austin and Miss Ella O'Keefe of New York; Mrs. David Barry, of Dedham, Mass., and Mrs. James Downey, Birmingham, Ala, and two sons, Frank D. O'Keefe, Carthage, and Maurice O'Keefe, of Staten Island. A sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Conway, 83, died in this village about a month ago.

* * *

Note: Catherine Sullivan was my 3rd great-grandmother (Thomas MacEntee > Jacqueline Austin > Alfred Austin > John Ralph Austin > William Dence Austin > Catherine O'Keefe > Catherine Sullivan) and I have her wedding silver from the late 1850s.

Source: Mrs. Catherine O'Keefe, digital image, NYS Historic Newspapers (http://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/, accessed 13 July 2014), Lowville Journal Republic, published 16 February 1928, Volume 69, Number 17, p. 5, col. 3.

© 2014, copyright Thomas MacEntee. All rights reserved.