One soldier's story

The war isn't over, but Morgan Kennon has come home


November 16, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

One day last March in Kuwait, while waiting for war to start across the desert in Iraq, I asked Sgt. Morgan Kennon a question I'd asked a lot of soldiers: "You scared?"

"I don't know, Scott," he replied in his deep voice. His square jaw, which could make him look tough, softened into a smile. Having never seen combat, he wanted me to know he felt anxiety, but also anticipation.

Kennon always used my first name when he spoke to me, which was almost daily back in March. All these months later, when I heard about him again, it was details like that I remembered.

As an embedded reporter with 101st Airborne Division, I hung out in Kuwait in Charlie Company's command tent at Camp Pennsylvania. There were 10 or so regulars: Bill Karpowecz, the wickedly funny first sergeant; Capt. Shane Dentinger, the mild-mannered commander; a couple of friendly radio guys and assorted others.

And there was Kennon, just 23 years old, quieter than most, his head often buried in a magazine. A recent arrival, he told me he was still getting to know folks. But whenever I walked in the tent, the first voice I heard was usually his: "What's up, Scott?"

Kennon's job was to make sure the company's 130 soldiers had the proper equipment and training to deal with biological or chemical weapons. He took care of me, too, prepping my gas mask before we even left Fort Campbell, Ky., and asking me take one of his classes in Kuwait.

By the time the 101st and I parted company in mid-April, the war in Iraq was "over" and giddiness pervaded the battalion. Kennon's deadly serious job seemed almost quaint. No weapons of mass destruction had been used on U.S. troops, no evidence of any had been found.

For some troops, though, bio-weapons had never been a top concern. Before the war, Lt. Col. Ed Palekas, Kennon's battalion commander, told me, "Quite frankly, our guys are more worried about getting shot than getting stuff slimed on them."

A week ago Friday, recently promoted Staff Sgt. Kennon was sent to help guard a bank in the northern Iraq city of Mosul. According to the Pentagon, once there, his unit came under attack by rocket-propelled grenades. One soldier reportedly lost his legs, another - just returned from a trip home to see his newborn - his left hand. Others had shrapnel wounds and burns.

Kennon was killed.

"The last time I talked to him he was sitting in a chair in our platoon's area, shaking his head and talking about how tragic our most recent casualties were, asking for strength," a friend of his, Pfc. Darren Takayesu, said in an e-mail.

Bill Karpowecz, who saw the attack, wouldn't let his soldiers clean up the bloody mess; he insisted on scrubbing the Humvees and street himself. He told his wife he hated losing any soldier, especially one as nice as Kennon. "It wasn't fair," he told her.

The buddies who survive him say Kennon was a model soldier, a good friend, someone who believed in his job but went out of his way to respect the Iraqis he met.

"Man, I miss him," Takayesu wrote. "The compound does not sound right without his booming, welcome voice. I guess I had this unrealistic notion everyone was going home together, alive and well."

I knew Kennon had plans to go to college. Only after talking to his sister did I learn he'd dreamed of becoming a lawyer one day.

He was due home for a 15-day break this Wednesday. Instead, his family drove last week to the Northwest Airlines cargo area at the Memphis airport to pick up his body for a Friday funeral. It was just 8 1/2 months earlier that a Northwest 747 had flown him to the war zone.

I returned to Baltimore from Iraq last May. When I got home, I ordered extra copies of some pictures I'd taken to give to the soldiers I'd met. A few of them were of Kennon. They're on the way to his family now.

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