Tuesday was “Hero Day” at St. Anne Catholic School in Rock Hill. Kids proudly marched down the halls dressed like their favorite heroes. Supermans followed Batmans who followed Ironmans and every other “superhero” a person could imagine.
But among all the costumes, fifth-grader Kayleigh Reinke instead walked the halls in camouflage, wearing the patches and name of the greatest hero a child could ever have – her father, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gavin Reinke, who was killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006.
It’s hard for Kayleigh to talk about her father, who died when she was just 3 years old, said her mother, Carole Reinke. But as Kayleigh grows, the bond between father and daughter isn’t fading with time, she said. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
“It’s getting stronger as she gets older,” Carole Reinke said. From the flag that sits on the mantel, to the sign bearing his name and his Purple Heart award in Kayleigh’s room, to the “Daddy doll,” that sits on Kayleigh’s bed, she still feels a strong daily connection to her father, who was in a combat vehicle when an improvised explosive device hit it during his second tour in Iraq.
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“It’s always in the back of her mind,” Carole Reinke said.
The Reinkes were stationed in Missouri at the time, before moving to Rock Hill three years ago. When Kayleigh decided she wanted to dress as her father for Hero Day, a friend in Rock Hill’s National Guard unit provided the family with a smaller camouflage uniform, because Reinke’s would have been too large. Carol Reinke added the patches from her husband’s uniform, his name tape, rank and unit division patches.
Kayleigh, who didn’t want to speak much about her father but was quick with a smile or silly expression, said her friends at school were impressed with her uniform.
“They thought it was really cool,” she said.
Kayleigh takes every opportunity to teach people about the military, Carole Reinke said. She recently completed a report on “Wreaths Across America,” an organization that puts Christmas wreaths on the graves of soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery, where Gavin Reinke is buried.
In a quiet voice, Kayleigh described a hero as “someone who believes in rights,” not a cartoon, and it’s clear to Carole Reinke why Kayleigh’s biggest hero is her father.
“She knows that he put serving family and country before anything else,” Carole Reinke said. “And in her mind, she knows that’s one of the most important things that you can do.”