About 10 years ago, Kevin Kwiecinski sat silently with his family in their New Lenox home and watched as footage of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were replayed on TV. Then 12 years old, Kevin had gone home from school with the rest of the kids in his class, and his mother, Theresa, doesn’t remember him saying much, as he did not fully grasp the weight of that day.
A decade later, Kwiecinski has just returned from his first tour in the U.S. Army, where he was on the front lines in Afghanistan. The 22-year-old Army specialist is a member of the 101st Airborne Division 3-137 (Rakkasan), and he hopes to make a career in the military.
Now he’s in Kentucky, preparing to deploy back to Afghanistan in about a year, and his mother recalls the slew of emotions she’s felt since her son brought home a recruiter in 2008.
‘Tell Him Everything’
Perhaps the biggest influence on Kevin’s decision to join the military was his second cousin, Ray Lamberty, who enlisted immediately after 9/11. Although Lamberty is about five years older and lives in Las Vegas, he and Kevin had a good relationship.
“Kevin just wanted to follow suit and remembered 9/11 and being angry about it,” Theresa said. “He felt he needed something bigger than college. He was never the ‘status quo’ type of kid. He always wanted something more, something different.”
Lamberty served three tours of duty in Iraq, but when his contract was up he decided not to re-enlist. While he was serving, two of his family members died and two nephews were born.
“He was so family oriented and just missing out on these major life events,” Theresa said of Lamberty.
So when the Kwiecinski family visited the Lambertys in Las Vegas, Theresa thought it would be a good opportunity for her son to learn more about the military and decide if it was something he really wanted to do.
“I want you to tell him everything—the good, the bad, the ugly,” Theresa said to Ray. “I want (Kevin) to make an educated decision.”
Kevin’s parents were worried about him enlisting, but they said they would support him if he talked to his cousin and still decided it’s what he wanted.
‘We Tried to Talk Him Out of It’
Kevin was a football player and a wrestler at Lincoln-Way Central. He wasn’t part of the ROTC at the high school, but it was during those years he started talking about joining the military.
“As a parent you’re thinking they change their mind like the wind changes,” Theresa said. “I didn’t think he was serious about it.”
Undeterred by his second cousin’s recollection of combat, Kevin had his mind made up. He called his mother one day in 2008 while she was at work and said there was a recruiter at the house. Theresa remembers being angry, and she remembers her and her husband, Richard, trying to talk Kevin out of enlisting. They said he should at least wait until after the 2008 election to see who his new commander-in-chief would be. They even tried to compromise and have him take a desk job or explore a branch other than the Army.
“This is a big decision,” his parents told Kevin. “You are government property for the next five years. He was just hell-bent on doing it. I have plenty of nights where I cry about it.”
Kevin’s parents say their son is a smart kid who did well in school but never really enjoyed sitting in classes; he’s a more hands-on, physical guy. He scored highly on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a test that can determine eligibility to enlist and an occupational specialty. Kevin’s scores afforded him a pick of just about any job in the military.
His pick? “I’m not signing papers unless you guarantee me infantry,” he said to the recruiter.
“In his mind he really wasn’t fighting for our country and serving our country unless he was actually fighting,” his mother said.
That day he gave his mother and father stickers that said, “Proud Parent of a Soldier,” and at that point, Theresa said, all she could do as a parent was accept it and support her son.
‘We Don’t Want to Lose Our Son’
In March, Kevin returned to New Lenox from his first tour in Afghanistan. The community lined the street with American flags and . He talked about his excitement to buy a Harley-Davidson, but he also struck a chord with something he said to his mother. Amazed by the show of support, Kevin said, “I’ve never seen anything like this except at a soldier’s funeral.”
Theresa didn’t know what to say to that. She didn’t want to think about soldiers’ funerals. She gets emotional talking about her son’s return because it meant he was safe again, at least for now.
“His return home … there was just a slew of emotions,” Theresa said. “Tears of joy. Immense pride. But you’re worrying, too.”
Worry that stems from his sleepless nights home. The tone in his voice that wasn’t there before. And some of the things he simply doesn’t talk about, because most people couldn’t understand, even his family. Worry that stems from a phone call that says he’s all right, but a man 50 yards away was killed. Or another close call when the top half of his armored vehicle was blown off by a grenade.
Theresa has thoughts about the wars and the people on both sides of the debate, but she won’t share them. She said the homecoming celebration Kevin received, though, was a reminder that the soldiers should be appreciated.
“It’s a shame, because so many don’t get a welcome home,” she said. “These guys have a job to do. There’s parts we agree with, parts we don’t agree with. But we’ve got to support them.”
As a parent, she said that’s sometimes all you can do. Kevin’s parents didn’t want him to enlist, but when he did, the best thing they could do was show their support.
“It’s not that I was against it, but I was scared and afraid,” she said. “We don’t want to lose our son.”