Stephen Kees is an American Hero.
My step-son Stephen Kees was killed in a car accident on February 1, 2014. I didn’t realize how deeply moved I would be this first Memorial Day since his death. It didn’t hit me until last night during my annual tribute to our lost hero’s by watching Saving Private Ryan. Stephen’s untimely death hit me hard. I’ve been feeling the pain of that loss especially heavy today. I haven’t been able to write about it, or write about anything else, since his death. It’s time to pay tribute to a soldier.
Stephen served three deployments in the U.S. Army. He was a good soldier - not perfect, but good.
He struggled a bit in High School; partially due to heredity, but more due to bitter disappointment from high expectations. Much of the high expectations came from me. I held Stephen to a high level of personal performance for which he could never pass. For the most part, he did his best to live up to those high expectations. He expected me to perform at that same high level. But when his mother and I divorced, he was crushed. I let him down. The disappointment from that event coupled with an entire lifetime of disappointment, was more than he could take.
But in the Army, he thrived. Where some rebel in the controlled environment of military service, Stephen excelled. He moved up the ranks rapidly, quickly became a leader of soldiers in an official capacity, and a leader of men in an unofficial capacity. He was frequently given special assignments and special consideration, many times, just because he was Stephen.
One of my favorite memories of Stephen is depicted in a photo of him with his mother and sister. It was taken at this graduation from Basic Training at Ft. Stewart, Georgia. The smile on his face was the old Stephen smile. It was a smile that opened doors and opened hearts. Stephen was proud to be a soldier and looked good in his uniform – and he knew it. He didn’t yet understand what it meant to be a soldier. He was blissfully unaware of what was to come. He was on top of the world. He was thrown into a high pressure situation with lots of men and women all trying to stand up and stand out. He stood at the top of that group with a smile as big as his wonder.
Back at the barracks Stephen introduced us to his 1st Sergeant, an ‘offense’ for which he paid the price of 20 pushups. Apparently, the 1st Sergeant has warned the soldiers that making an introduction would be cause for ‘punishment’ of 20 pushups. Stephen made the introduction and immediately fell to the floor to start his pushups before the 1st Sergeant even commanded them. He had a huge grin on his face the whole time. He gladly paid the price for the introduction. During the pushups, the 1st Sergeant gave us a wink and a smile out of Stephens view. He had his whole life ahead of him and he was primed and ready to go.
One of my proudest days was when Stephen was selected to carry the wreath for the 60th D-Day Memorial Ceremony at Normandy. He walked to the center of the improvised stage area with the memorial wreath side-by-side with President George W. Bush. How did he get that gig? Stephen was in Germany at that time and a call went out to his division to provide a soldier for the job. The commander picked Stephen. His get-it-done attitude and engaging smile made friends at all levels of the military.
Stephen never failed to make a good impression. Three stories come to mind:
Not long after his mother and I started dating, we made a Sunday morning trek over to Auburn to meet and have breakfast with my parents and youngest brother who was still in school at Auburn. We met for our usual Shoney’s after-game-day breakfast. We were barely seated when Stephen, who was sitting by my mother, turned to her and said, I think I’m going to throw up. The ‘p’ was barely across his tongue when the event erupted into the waiting hands of my mother. They went scurrying across the restaurant to the rest room with Stephen leaning over my mother’s cupped hands. They got cleaned up and came back to the table. With that, introductions were no longer necessary.
We moved to Indiana when Stephen was about to start middle school. When we first arrived in town, travel basketball season was in full swing in the basketball-crazed state. My boss had two kids playing and let Stephen tag along. After a Saturday away game, they stopped at their usual burger joint for supper before heading back to town. All the kids ordered burgers or chicken fingers, except Stephen. Having properly asked if he could order anything he wanted, he proceeded to get steak. Twelve year olds know nothing of protocol. My boss let him order the steak, mostly so he could harass me the next Monday at work.
Finally, during the above mentioned D-Day Ceremony, after dutifully placing the memorial wreath at the designated spot, he grabbed President Bush by the arm and nudged him to his proper spot for the ceremonial pictures. With his trademark smile, Stephen said “No Mr. President, you stand here.” The President never questioned him, and moved to the spot and began the ceremony.
During his first deployment in Israel he only got a taste of war and soldiering. He ended up spending much of his time driving dignitaries and generals around to their various meetings. It was a great gig. Why did he get selected for such a primo job, well, mostly because he was Stephen. One of my favorite pictures of Stephen during his U.S. Army service was taken in Israel. He talked to some local soldiers and convinced them to take a picture of him holding up their 50 Cal. Machine guns. These guys are serious soldiers. Nobody takes their weapons – except maybe Stephen.
Stephen was happy, and made others around him happy. I will never forget putting him to bed in his red cowboy boots. He would not take them off. We’d come back in after he fell asleep and take to boots off. He wore them around the house and yard with his basketball shorts. His favorite birthday party was having his little friends over to run around the yard, through the sprinkler, and down the hill on the Slip ‘n Slide all the while firmly grasping a grilled chicken leg. It didn’t take much to make him happy. He was almost always happy.
His needs were simple back then and his delights many. He was a happy kid with a huge heart. He couldn’t stand a hurt feeling of others and always tried to do the right thing as it related to other kids. As an adult, he was a dichotomy. One minute he was playing John Wayne, charging a hill, clearing bunker, or kicking down a door in search for the enemy. The next minute, he’s convinced some Israeli soldiers to take his picture with their machine guns.
During his second and third deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, he learned what soldiering was all about. He earned his pay and our respect.
I’ve always held military service in high regard. I never had honor of serving. I was too late for Viet Nam and way too early for the first Gulf war. I’ve always been amazed at the courage of men and women who serve in battle. How do you charge a hill or kick down a door when you know there are bad guys waiting to shoot? I can’t imagine how scared one must be to do these things in the face of likely death. But Stephen had courage of ten men. While his M.O.S. was chemical spill detainment and cleanup, he routinely volunteered for difficult missions. I think he was bored and scared and a little afraid of the real world that awaited his return. He did things that young men shouldn’t have to do and saw things that young men shouldn’t have to see.
I tried to talk to him on numerous occasions about these missions and how he felt and like most of his contemporaries in previous war’s, he had no interest in talking about those details. He’d talk about some prank or the pickup basketball games in which he was constantly playing, but never the scary and ugly stuff that went along with soldiering. When I pressed him on one occasion, he finally responded by saying “Chris, you don’t want to know about that.” Of course, I did want to know about it. But it was clear that he did not want to talk about it.
That service changed Stephen. It left him with demons and scars that were way deeper than any of us knew. He just wanted to keep those things in a little compartment in his brain where he thought he could keep them safe. In reality, they came every day to haunt him. Once you see and do those things, the only way to rid your mind of them is to get them out and talk about them. You have to cry and scream and face the terror head on or it never goes away. It’s easy for me to say, I can’t even imagine demons of that ugliness.
He fought back against those demons every day. He battled the only way he, and thousands like him, know how. He battled with drugs and alcohol. He tried to clear the ugliness from the recesses of his mind. He tried to get back to a place carefree happiness. He tried hard to enjoy his family and friends in the light of day. But eventually the ugliness would take over and he was ultimately unable to keep it in that box.
In the end, Stephen’s country let him down. We don’t provide enough assistance to veterans returning from war. We send honorable men and women to other lands to do our dirty work. We spend years and millions of dollars training them to be non-thinking, killing machines. Then, when their time is up, we expect them to go back to their old lives. We assume they can go back to their families and jobs; like war was just another business trip.
In the end, I let Stephen down. We talk about helping soldiers with PTSD in the Generic. I talk about ‘brave men and women who fight for our freedoms and then need our help to readjust to civilian life.’ But too often, when one of those brave men is standing right in front of us, we say ‘just grow up’. We seem to believe if they would just stop behaving badly, everything would be good again. If we pretend that the demons are safely locked away, we needn’t worry about them. In most cases, men and women who face this kind of ugliness face-to-face on the battlefield are never the same. As much as we, and they, would love to have the ‘old Stephen’ back, it just isn’t possible.
While I’m exceedingly proud of Stephen’s courage and valor as soldier, I’m even more proud of his heart. What I learned about Stephen during the days leading up to and at his funeral blew me away. I learned about another dimension of a man I called my son, but that I clearly didn’t know. I was so honored and humbled by the messages from fellow soldiers and friends he met during his various trips to rehab. When I visited Shelbyville where Stephen and his sister Aimee and their family’s lived, Aimee and I would often comment about the frequent phone calls he would receive and then go outside to take. We assumed he was arranging for some nefarious activity. In reality, many of those phone calls were from other soldiers who were struggling with their own demons. Many of these calls were from friends he met in rehab who were trying to keep their own ugly memories securely locked in a little compartment in their brains. I was completely blown away by the stories from fellow soldiers and friends who said things like:
“Stephen encouraged me.”
“Stephen counseled me.”
“Stephen told me not to give up.”
“Stephen told me I was almost there, not to quit now.”
“I may not have made it if it weren’t for Stephen.”
He counseled other soldiers, both professionally and personally. He took their calls like an AA Sponsor talking an alcoholic out of ordering a drink at a bar and blowing a 10-year sobriety. He talked them off their own personal ledge of terror. He took their calls and just listened. He loved them and comforted them and in some cases, saved their lives. The words of those men gave me a comfort and pride in Stephen that I never knew. I will be forever grateful for their words, for sharing part of the good stuff that made him who he was. I had never seen that side of Stephen. I’m pretty sure that the rest of the family hadn’t seen that side of Stephen either.
During his life, I rarely told Stephen how proud of him I was. I let the day-to-say struggles of drugs and alcohol mask the beautiful person hiding underneath. I let the tiny inconveniences of my own life keep me from knowing and understanding his enormous pains and herculean-struggle to overcome them. I let my own life get in the way of seeing an American hero standing right in front of me. We can never go back and do what was left undone. We can never go back and say what was left unsaid. I just hope Stephen knows now how proud of him I am. Throughout our history, men like Stephen stood against our enemies without regard to their personal safety. Men like Stephen had the courage to say “I’ll go.”
On Memorial Day, when I talk of ‘brave men who fought for our freedom’, I’ll be talking about Stephen Kees.
I love you buddy. I hope you know how proud of you I am.