“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” –Nathan Hale
For all of us, life will take a turn or two that we never dreamed of. And for some of us, those turns end in the loss of loved ones. Such is the case with Gold Star Families.
It was 14-years ago this last January 24th that 41-year old Staff Sergeant Kenneth W. Hendrickson of Bismarck and 25-year old Sgt. Keith L. Smette of Makoti died while part of a convoy that hit an improvised explosion device (IED) North of Fallujah. Their sacrifice came while serving their country during “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in the 957th Multi-Role Bridge Company of the North Dakota Army National Guard.
While I didn’t know either of these men personally, their stories have an aura of sacredness. On one hand, they were ordinary men– as illustrated by the memories of those whom they loved.
In a Tribute to Sgt. Hendrickson; his best friend, Patrick C. Miller, remembered him – in part – this way:
“I watched Ken grow from a brash teenager to a mature young man with adult responsibilities. He attended Bismarck State College, got married, had a son and held a job. He worked hard and sought to better his lot in life by getting a degree from the University of Mary so that he could teach math.
“Our friendship extended outside our hobby. Ken attended my wedding. When my two children were born, he came to visit and to offer his congratulations. He helped my wife and me move out of a basement apartment and into a duplex. Whenever I asked him for a favor, he never refused. If there was any way he could lend a hand, he would.”
In part, Sgt. Smette’s obituary memorialized him in these words:
“He attended school in Granville and Ryder before graduating from North Shore High School in Makoti in 1997. Prior to his deployment, he was a full time student at North Dakota State University in Fargo. While in high school, Keith played baseball and basketball but loved all sports.
“The love that Keith shared with his family was evident every day. Rare is the picture of Keith without his arm around someone and our lives are full of stories of his adventures, each of which were approached with a pure heart and boyish charm. Keiths infectious smile affected everyone he knew and was clear evidence of the love he shared with his brother Robert, his sister Sarah and his mother and father. He was a caring man who inherited his mothers sensitivity and his fathers sense of humor which gave him the ability to know no stranger and endear himself to everyone he met. In his spare time, Keith was the ultimate omni-sportsman, he specially enjoyed hunting and fishing with his family and friends.”
Yet, while ordinary on the one hand, these men were nothing short of extraordinary on the other. After all, what percentage of the population is not only willing to put their life on the line for others, but actually end up doing it? In their service, we find two simple statements that illustrate just how extraordinary they were.
As I mentioned before, Sgt. Hendrickson and Sgt. Smette were part of a convoy North of Fallujah when they were killed. They were the lead vehicle. According to Sgt. Hendrickson’s brother, DuWayne:
“Kenny wanted to be lead person. Stating, ‘These kids have a life in front of them.’ Kenny was 41. He was a dad to many. He led all convoys from what I understand.”
After visiting his family in November of 2003, Sgt. Smette wrote home in a letter dated on Christmas Eve and said:
“Over here in Iraq, we are doing an important job — trying to secure a better future for the people of Iraq.”
At their funeral services, Governor John Hoeven eulogized Sergeants Hendrickson and Smette as American heroes. And while I’m certain that neither of these brave men would have thought themselves as such, it’s a fitting description. The definition of “hero” is, “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities”. Is there any doubt that these men qualify?
On a snowy, wintry day many years ago; I stood with my family as I watched my own brother disappear into the distance after bidding him good-bye. He too had been deployed to serve in Iraq. We wondered if we’d ever see him again. Due to a serious injury sustained in his training, he was required to return home with an honorable discharge. How grateful we were to have him back with us.
In the years since, I have had a deeper respect for those that serve. And my heart breaks for those who lose their loved ones to war. As I was reminded of these men today, I thought of the words to the song, “Some Gave All”. It’s a fitting tribute. May we never forget the bravery and sacrifice made by men like Staff Sergeant Kenneth W. Hendrickson and Sergeant Keith L. Smette– true Homegrown Heroes.
(Note: This story was originally published on The Minuteman on January 24, 2018.)
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