Human toll of war: Parents honor fallen sons
Speakers at Janesville's Memorial Day activities have a unique military perspective. WCLO's Jon Meerdink reports.
FACES OF THE FALLEN
he Gazette searched a national database of service members who died as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for this story. “Faces of the Fallen” is updated by The Washington Post and lists service members by their last known addresses. The website shows that more than 6,400 U.S. service members have died in the wars, including 120 from Wisconsin. Because the site lists people by most recent addresses, it is not helpful in searching for people who once lived in Rock County. If you have information on fallen service members not included in this story, please contact us at (608) 755-8264. The site did not cite any deaths from Walworth County.
ROCK COUNTY Many people look forward to Memorial Day as the happy beginning of summer.
John Vacho wants us to remember that the holiday is so much more than a three-day weekend.
He is painfully aware that Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service. His son, Staff Sgt. Nathan Jon Vacho of Janesville, was killed in action in Iraq six years ago this month. The 29-year-old is among at least six servicemen with Rock County addresses or ties who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq since the start of the wars.
"On Memorial Day, look at that flag and remember the sacrifices of those whose lives were cut short," John said.
Nathan died from injuries May 5, 2006, when an improvised explosive device near Al Hillah struck his vehicle.
Other casualties with Rock County addresses are:
*Army Pfc. Sean M. Schneider, 22, Janesville, who died March 29, 2004, in Iraq when his truck slid off a steep embankment in Diwaniyah.
*Army Spec. Tyler R. Kreinz, 21, Beloit, who died June 18, 2011, in Afghanistan of injuries suffered during a vehicle rollover accident in Uruzgan Province.
*Army Cpl. Benjamin H. Neal, 21, Orfordville, who died April 25 in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, from injuries sustained when enemy forces attacked his unit with a makeshift bomb.
At least two more lived in Rock County at one time.
* Spec. Justin W. Linden of Portland, Oregon. He died in Baghdad, Iraq, on June 4, 2004. He was raised in Clinton. The 22-year-old served with the Oregon-based Army National Guard. He died when his convoy was attacked with makeshift bombs and rocket-propelled grenades.
* Pfc. Andrew J. McFall Halverson, Muscoda/Shopiere. The Marine was killed by enemy action in Anbar Province, Iraq, on Oct. 9, 2004, a day before his 20th birthday.
For families of the fallen, Memorial Day is a somber time of remembrance and reflection. For John Vacho and his wife, Carol, the day is especially poignant because it follows not long after the anniversary of their son’s death.
"I made a promise to Nathan before he left that, if something happened to him, his sacrifice would not be forgotten," John said. "I never thought I would have to fulfill the promise."
To honor their son, John and Carol of Ladysmith began a memorial ride in 2007. This year, the annual event raised $16,000. More than 325 motorcycle riders, including Nathan’s two daughters, took part earlier this month.
"When everything was so bad, we had to make something good happen," Carol said. "This year, we gave $4,000 in scholarships in Nathan’s name. It is our pleasure to help other children."
The scholarships go to Ladysmith High School graduates going into health care. Nathan, a licensed practical nurse, worked at Edgerton Hospital before his deployment.
After Nathan’s death, the family received 1,000 sympathy cards, John estimates. Some had $5 and $10 bills in them. At the time, the family was numb and did not think about the donations. Later, family members decided to use them as seed money for the scholarship fund. Nathan’s uncle suggested the annual ride.
"It keeps Nathan’s memory alive," John said. "Everyone who takes part knows why they are there. We don’t have to explain it to anyone."
Nathan grew up in a military family. Generations of Vacho men serving their country. John has almost 38 years in the Army reserve.
"I was in Iraq myself from 2004-2005," John said. "Someone once asked me if we should have gone there? Was it worth it? I feel that history has yet to play itself out. We may not know if it was worth it for decades."
After his son’s death, John felt alone.
"I know my family did, too," he said. "Then, I saw my 90-year-old neighbor standing in my living room. He had lost a brother in World War II. All I could do is point to him and say, ‘That man knows how I feel.’"
John made a commitment to attend military funerals to support other families.
"They need to see me at this time in their lives," he said. "They need to see that there are others who have experienced the same thing. I understand what is in their hearts and what is going through their minds."
He and his wife have survived many tragedies.
"Each time, we say to ourselves that we will stick together and get through this," John said. "We could go the other way and be bitter, but it would consume us. It is how you choose to do it."
The parents of Tyler Kreinz also have set up a scholarship in their son’s name.
Tyler’s father, David Kreinz of Beloit, explained that Tyler dreamed of becoming a Wisconsin conservation warden after he got out of the military.
The Tyler Kreinz Memorial Scholarship is awarded annually to a UW-Stevens Point junior or senior who is studying natural-resources law enforcement.
"We did it for Tyler," David said. "We want to keep Tyler’s name alive and to help someone else do what he wanted to do."
David and his wife, Marilyn, describe their son as a lover of the outdoors, a keen marksman and a young man focused on following his dreams.
A 2008 graduate of Beloit Memorial High School, Tyler became interested in the military after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when he was 12 years old.
Except during basic training, he called his parents regularly on Sundays while in the military.
"He told us that he loved us," said David, who learned of his son’s death on Father’s Day last year.
Angela McFall of Shopiere is the mother of Andrew McFall Halverson, who died almost eight years ago.
"A day doesn’t pass that I don’t cry or think about him," she said. "He joined the military because he wanted to protect his country, and he wanted to help the Iraqi people."
Andrew’s three younger siblings help lift Angela’s spirits on bad days. She also belongs to a statewide support group for the families of fallen servicemen and women called "Being There Reaching Out."
In 2007, a new play park was built in Shopiere and dedicated to Andrew, who was born in Janesville.
"Andrew was very playful," Angela said. "The park is a reflection of him. It includes a plaque with a poem he wrote describing how proud he was to be a Marine."
Kim and Ed Schneider of Janesville plan to visit their son’s grave on Memorial Day. Sean Schneider is buried at Janesville’s Oakhill Cemetery.
"Monday will be a special day," Kim said. "Sean’s brother is coming home from Indiana. We will all say a prayer and remember. My uncle died serving his country. But it’s a whole lot different when it is your son."
A 2000 graduate of Craig High School, Sean signed up in 2002 and became a tank mechanic. Before he left for Iraq, he gave his mother a big hug and warned her that he may not return. He became Rock County’s first soldier killed in the Iraq War.
At his Janesville home, Sean’s room is set up as a shrine in his honor. All of his medals, his uniform and his graduation tassel are there.
"It does not do any good to have these things if you shove them into a closet," Kim said. "We go into his room every day."
Kim doesn’t think she will ever mend from her son’s death.
"Do you ever heal?" she said.
"I don’t think so. You just learn to accept it."
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.