BRISTOL, R.I. — On Sunday, six years almost to the day since her son was killed in Afghanistan, Carol McKenna was in her living room watching the news and feeling her anger rise.
Taliban insurgents were entering Kabul. Americans had evacuated the embassy for the airport, joined there by mobs of desperate Afghans. President Joe Biden’s administration had said this was not going to be another Saigon, but the images flashing across the screen seemed like a horrible echo of 1975. Or, for McKenna, of 2015, when 1st Sgt. Andrew McKenna was killed by small arms fire.
“We’re still furious,” McKenna said. “The pictures of the airport are just so disheartening. People are not going to be able to get out of there, and so many innocent people are going to be killed.”
McKenna is a Gold Star mom. Her son, Andrew, had been awarded the Bronze Star with V device for heroism in combat operations, as well as the Meritorious Service Medal and the Army Commendation Medal. He had 17 years of service and six tours in Afghanistan and Iraq when he was killed on August 7, 2015, defending Camp Integrity. Since then, she’s relied on a network of support from people who served with her son or who got to know his story. On Sunday morning, as the news came in, so did a message from a former medic and a good friend of Andrew.
“It wasn’t for nothing,” the message said.
On a table nearby, there was a picture of Andrew at his induction into the U.S. Army at Fort Benning in 1998. His younger brother Patrick was literally looking up to him. His father Peter was pinning something — Peter recalls it was his infantry brass — to Andrew’s shoulder. Andrew was 18 but looked younger.
By Monday morning, the situation in Afghanistan had gotten even worse. But McKenna hadn’t watched TV yet so her anger had abated and she was able to speak to a Globe reporter for an hour, by turns wistful and sad, talking lovingly about her son. This is what she said.
All I have to say is that I’m very angry about the whole thing. I think President Biden left too many people in harm’s way. Let me tell you something, my husband and I knew this was going to happen as soon as they announced they were leaving.
Andrew believed in what he was doing, as did all of his friends. I’m disappointed in everything Biden has done in the last seven months. Every time he does something, it destroys another part of the United States. What I’m also disappointed in with the Afghanistan thing is, my son did due diligence in finding a translator. He had some good men, as he told us many times. The fact that we just left them hanging out there to dry is just heartbreaking to me. He’d be heartbroken about it.
People like myself and my husband, who don’t have college degrees with masters and weren’t in the military for 40 years, we could see this coming. You can’t see this coming? I just pray that all of our people from the embassy and the translators, that they can get them out of there. I fear for what the women are going to go through.
They trusted us to watch out for them and we haven’t. And that is just — it’s disappointing and we’re just furious.
Andrew believed in what he was doing. He gave up his life, and he saved the lives of 300 people on that base that night at Camp Integrity. He did his job, he saved his people, which is what he was there for. He always said he didn’t want that fight coming to our shores. He died doing what he committed to do.
It hurts every day. I didn’t think it could hurt any more, but it does. I don’t know all of the details, and the things that politicians and generals and everything knew, so I can’t sit here and say what they should do. The only thing I can say is they should have gotten people out of the embassy and worked harder to get those translators before they just announced we’re leaving.
He joined after graduating from Mount Hope High School. He had to sign the papers in October of his senior year. He was 17 so Peter had to sign for him to join. He was just the greatest kid. Like I said, he made up his mind to be in the Army at a very young age. To be in the special forces. He loved this country. He would do whatever he could for it.
He never said a lot. When someone’s a Green Beret, they can’t talk about a lot. There were times I would ask him, “When are you leaving?” And I’d get, “Maaaah.”
We talked pretty much every day. Then there was nothing. We were talking on Facebook. He had ordered a new car. We were talking about that, that we were going to come down to see him. “Can’t wait to see you” — that was the end. I don’t know if he even got that message before he grabbed his gun and his kit.
Then we were notified that night.
He was just a wonderful person. Caring, kind, always willing to help somebody. He was a wonderful son. And a wonderful man, and brother to Patrick.
We lost Patrick 10 years and four days before Andrew. He was riding down the street on his motorcycle at 10 o’clock at night, and a 16-year-old girl turned into Dunkin’ Donuts right in front of him, and he had no way to stop. He was 21. That was devastating to all of us.
It’s an awful time of year. It’s awful all the time, but especially now.
Let’s put it this way: We have a lot of military kids now, who call us Ma and Pop. And some of his high school friends, too. In that respect, we still do have a lot of kids.
He met (Senator) Jack Reed once over there. He said, “The general called me down because I was the token Rhode Islander.” He was not conceited at all. He never thought he was special. He didn’t take himself seriously.
A month before, he was awarded the flag in the Fourth of July parade for coming from the farthest away. And he was wearing these shorts, these American flag shorts. He had ordered them from a company called Chubbies. The morning of the parade he came downstairs, he said, “Ooh, they’re a little short.” I said, “No. 1, they’re from California, so that’ll be the style here in about four years.” Which they are, by the way. But I said, “Whatever you want to wear is fine with me. You got the flag, I don’t care what you wear.”
Afterwards, one of his friends contacted the people at Chubbies. That year, they put out these shorts called the McKennas.
He once said running the base was like running an adult day care. There’s a picture of that actor, Channing Tatum, who was in the movie about the male dancers — “Magic Mike” — wearing a picture with “1SG McKenna’s Adult Daycare” on it.
Andrew would say, “I can’t believe you’re doing all of this.”
There’s a park now next to the VFW named for Andrew. We pass the park all day. The first couple of years, there was just so much going on. Now usually it’s just a quiet day for Peter and I. Sometimes with family. But I could tell you stories for hours. The park is beautiful. They built a little stone wall.
Peter and I donated two benches to the park. One for each of the boys. It’s beautiful. When you sit on the benches you can look south and see the water. So now that’s where all of his friends watch the Fourth of July parade, from that park. There’s just been so much.
Brian Amaral can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.