Since 2005, I have spent every July 28th with Ken Leisten Sr. and members of Bravo Company, 2-162 Infantry as they gather to remember Kenny Jr. at his gravesite in Willamette National Cemetery. This is the first time since I wrote the Sandbox that I have not been able to attend the get-together, and I'm sitting at Ft. Hood thinking about 3rd Platoon--the Hell Hounds--and wondering how they're all doing.
July 28, 2004, Vinni Jacques had led a patrol through a small village near Taji, Iraq. After visiting with the locals for a bit, they loaded up and continued with their mission. An IED blew up under Vinni's armored Humvee, killing Kenny, who was driving. The platoon's medic, Doc Rhodes, was severely wounded, as was Vinni's gunner, Ben Ring. Their interpreter was also wounded. Vinni was trapped inside the wreckage of the Humvee until rescued by several members of the platoon, including Sgt. Bill Stout. Bill cracked his pelvis and broke his back during the rescue effort, injuries that ultimately forced him to medically retire from the Guard.
Ken Sr. was the first father of a fallen soldier I'd ever met. Over the years, a special bond developed between us, and I am honored to count him as a friend. I remember when the Sandbox came out, Vinni and I did a radio interview and Ken Sr. heard it while on break at work. He gave us a call and that night we drove up to give him a signed copy of the book. When I saw him that night, he gave me a huge bear hug. Then I handed him the book. He held it almost with reverence, then opened it to a random page.
That random page happened to have a photo of his son. He gazed at it, then grabbed hold of me again so fiercely that I could hardly breathe. It was the most meaningful thank you I've ever received. You want to know why I write? It sure as hell isn't for the job security or the money. It is for moments like that one.
And so, every year I look forward to seeing the Hell Hounds. Over the years, I've seen how they have dealt with Kenny's loss and seen how long it has taken for everyone to re-adjust back home and move forward with their own lives. In 2005, I think everyone was so raw and reeling from all they'd experienced that it didn't look like there would be a lot of hope for the healing the platoon so desperately needed. I was wrong; the healing has taken place in such a way that Kenny remains an embedded part of everyone who knew him, but not in a way that has kept them from making the most of their own time here on earth. It has been a huge relief to see that growth, as Kenny's friends are some of the best humans I've ever known. Committed, intelligent, dedicated and deeply patriotic, they are the type of men who find common values in all the doers and builders who, through the generations, have made America what it is today.
Tomorrow at noon, I'll be here at Fort Hood, 2,500 miles away from that circle of superb and special individuals, and I know I'll feel a sense of loss at not being able to share that moment again wth them. In that respect, July 28, 2011 will not come soon enough for me.