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 Veteran’s 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 Veteran’s 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.
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 façade. 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.
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.
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.
As we come up on Veteran’s 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.