On Memorial Day, many people will pause to remember those who died in service to the country.
Kristin Peney will stay inside her Savannah home and do nothing. It’s her way of honoring her husband, Sgt. Jon Peney, a U.S. Army Ranger combat medic.
The last time she talked to him was over the phone on Memorial Day 2010. The next day – June 1, 2010 – he died while attempting to reach a fallen soldier on a rooftop in Afghanistan. He was awarded the Silver Star, the military's third-highest medal for valor in combat, for his actions.
“In my weird way of thinking about things, it’s the anniversary of the last normal day of my life,” she said of that Memorial Day. “That year, the next day, my whole world changed.”
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The Peneys met in 2008 at a YMCA Friday night volleyball game on Tybee Island, and they had been married less than a year when he died at the age of 22.
She worked at a 4-H Center when they met and worked most Memorial Days, because it was the first day of summer camp.
“It always bothered Jon that I had to work on such an important holiday,” she says. “Ever since then, I make sure on Memorial Day I do as little as possible. It is my strange way of paying tribute to him.”
A lot of people will be paying tribute this weekend to Peney and his sacrifice: his mother, Sue Peney, who lost her only child; Marc Heiliman, a special forces soldier whom Peney admired and tried to emulate; Matt Bathauer, a Ranger buddy and close friend; and Maj. Andrew D. Fisher, the officer who was with Peney when he died.
They will all pause and remember.
“I always had a respect for the day, because that is the way I was raised and it was important to my mom I knew the understanding of it,” Kristin Peney said. “But it hadn’t touched me personally.”
In the tight-knit Ranger community, Sue Peney is known simply as “Mama Sue.”
One morning after her son had died, she sought refuge on Fort Benning at the Ranger Memorial, a granite monument honoring Rangers past, present and future.
An elderly man was also there. “What are you doing here?” she asked him.
“I could ask you the same thing,” he said.
It was retired Col. Ralph Puckett, the honorary colonel of the Ranger Regiment and a legendary warrior and advocate for soldiers.
“I told him I was here because I could feel the spirit of the Rangers and I loved to see the sun rise over the memorial,” Sue Peney said. “All of a sudden, you could hear the boots coming over the ground. Col. Puckett said, ‘Here come my boys.’ He was there to give them an inspirational talk.
“At the end, they said the Ranger Creed. Oh, my God!”
She had raised Jon as a single mother. At an early age, he focused on the military, partly because of his relationship with Marc Heiliman through church and partly because of his “Grand Pop,” Sue’s father, who served stateside during World War II.
“He was ready to be in the Army by the time he was 14,” she said. “He could run with 75 pounds in his rucksack for 22 miles like it was walking.”
He was “super intelligent,” his mother said. She home-schooled him and then hired a Harvard graduate to tutor him.
“He said he was a sponge. By the time he was 14 he had taught himself by cassette tape how to speak conversational Russian. He loved Japanese, French and Spanish.”
As soon as he was eligible, her son enlisted.
“To be honest, I did not know what Army Rangers did until after Jon was killed,” she said. Now she has embraced those who shared his mission.
“Kristin tells me, ‘You ran toward the Army, I ran away from the Army,’ ” Sue Peney said. “Being young, she has moved on. That is the difference between a mom and a spouse. There is no re-creating your child.”
In June, she will attend a Gold Star Mothers reunion in San Antonio, and then the Ranger Rendezvous and the Ranger Association banquet at Fort Benning.
She looks for the Ranger tab as she makes her rounds.
“As long as they have a Ranger tab, that’s my son hugging me,” she said. “And as they say, I don’t see rank. If I see a Ranger tab anywhere in the world, I will go up and tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘I am the mom of a fallen Ranger and I need a hug.’ I always get it. I have gotten it in a train station, a bus station, and I have gotten it walking down the street of Atlanta.”
As with Kristin, Memorial Day 2010 was the last time Sue talked to Jon. She told him her sister, his aunt, had died five days earlier.
He tried to assure his mother that he was fine. “I remember telling him I wish I could see his eyes to know he was OK. One of the things I carry is ‘Did I distract him?’ I have been told by his buddies there was no distraction. He was a trained professional. He was killed by a sniper.”
The day her son died, she had just gotten home to LaGrange, where she was packed and ready for a move to Colorado and a new job.
She saw two men in uniform in the front yard, walking toward her door. Boxes were blocking her front door, so she went out the back and yelled at them to get out off her property. She knew why they were there.
“They just kept coming,” she says. “I remember them saying, ‘Are you the mother of Sgt. Jonathan K. Peney?’ I said, ‘No, go away.’ But I didn’t say it exactly in those words.”
The casualty officer then started by saying, ‘We regret to inform ...”
“With that, I punched him in the nose with everything I had,” she said.
The officer pulled her into a bear hug as she tried to pound his chest.
“The chaplain was there, and he said, ‘Let’s go inside.’ I said no. I figured if we did not go inside, it would not be real. We sat on the front porch and it began to rain. There was a thunderstorm.”
Sue speaks to training classes for Army casualty notification officers. She takes three items with her: a framed photo of Jon, his boots from Ranger School and some of his ashes in a plastic cocktail cup covered by duct tape.
“When I give my talks I find it kind of humorous,” she said. “You ask any soldier, and duct tape is their middle name. Jon was always doing stuff with duct tape before he went into the service. For me, it is like Jon saying, ‘It’s OK, mom. You know what to do with this.’ ”
She tells casualty officers: “You are going to find anger. You are going to find things that will tear your heart out and stomp on it. Remember, do not take it personally.”
When asked if her sacrifice has been worth it, Sue Peney takes a deep breath.
“Is it worth it? No sacrifice is worth the loss of a life,” she said. “But if you were to ask Jon that question, he would say, ‘That is what I chose. I chose and I swore I would lay down my life for this country.’ He would also say, ‘I was just doing my job.’ ”
Peney didn’t grow up with a father or a brother. Before he hit his teenage years, he met Marc Heiliman, an elite soldier and professional mountain climber, through a church youth group in metro Atlanta. Heiliman became his male role model.
Peney peppered Heiliman with questions about the military, and even though he was only 12, he wanted a taste of it.
“I gave him an extra rucksack to go off and train with,” Heiliman said. “He took it really seriously and I didn’t think much of it at the time. To be honest, he was a really skinny, frail-looking kid in those days and he hadn’t filled out at all. He started training. He was driven.”
When Peney turned 18, he signed an enlistment contact to become a Ranger.
“It’s a more intense place than anywhere else in the military,” Heiliman said. “I always tried to lure him to the Special Forces side, but his personality was better suited for the Ranger battalion.
“He liked that hard-core, extremely aggressive environment. ... Special forces guys don’t operate that way. You can put us in a suit in an embassy and we can speak that talk. Rangers are more like a pit bull in a spiked collar.”
Heiliman remembers seeing Peney in Ranger School in the winter of 2010.
The young soldier was at the end of an eight-hour pass and Heiliman, a former Ranger instructor, was able to escort him inside the gate.
“I walked him up to his company, dropped him off, shook his hand and gave him a guy hug,” Heiliman said. “He teared up on me. That’s the last time I saw him.”
After Ranger School graduation, Peney went right to combat. He was killed in action a month later.
Heiliman, who lives in Columbus, vividly recalls driving with his wife and getting a text message from Jon’s cousin.
“The text was misspelled,” Heiliman said. “It said, ‘Jon was killed on combat.’”
He pulled over. “I read it twice.”
Dozens of Heiliman’s friends had died in the war on terror, but Peney’s death took him by surprise.
“I have almost gotten used to the pattern and there’s nothing diminishes the pattern of hearing about it – no amount of repetition ever diminishes that,” he said. “But I have been disappointed in myself in how quickly I adapt to that. I don’t like that, but I do adapt to it pretty quickly.
“With Jon, it was different. It is not to say with the other people I don’t wish they were still here in the way I do with Jon. With Jon, I regularly think about him and wish he were still here. I don’t do that with many other people.”
Matt Bathauer has two constant reminders of his Ranger buddy Jon Peney: his own 3-year-old son, William Jonathan Bathauer, and a tattoo on his right arm.
Several other members of their Ranger battalion have a similar tattoo. It’s two Scrabble letters, “D” and “P,” for “Doc Peney,” what everyone in the battalion called Jon. Below are the numbers 6-1-10, the day he died.
Scrabble was one of their escapes.
“He would come into the squad room or bay and say, ‘Let’s play Scrabble,’” Bathauer said. “I would always say, ‘Why? You are going to win.”
His friend was never boring. “We would be sitting around, having cigars, and the next thing you know Jon is climbing a ... wall,” Bathauer says. “It was like: ‘What the hell are you doing, man?’ He would just do it for fun. We were like, ‘There goes Doc going up the wall again.’ ”
Bathauer was with Peney at Victory Pond on April 29, 2010, when Jon graduated from Ranger School without a recycle, a feat accomplished by about 30 percent of the soldiers who enroll in the Army’s toughest combat training program.
“He was excited and hungry,” Bathauer says. “He could eat for a scrawny little kid. He could put some food down.”
Less than two weeks later, the two were with their battalion in Afghanistan.
The day Peney was shot, the Rangers were in heavy contact with enemy during a daytime encounter.
“We were getting rounds coming in from everywhere,” Bathauer said. “When I heard that about him, I lost it. I kind of went a little nuts, but I got reined back in by my guys.”
That day, Bathauer lost a brother.
“He was my best friend and I could call on him to do anything, and vice versa,” he said. “When someone like that is taken from you, it is horrible.”
Jon Peney made an impression on his boss, Andrew D. Fisher, who at the time was an Army captain and physician assistant who supervised the medics in the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
“Jon was unique,” Fisher said. “He was a young, skinny kid who was very competent and it sometimes bordered on arrogance. He was quick to answer and constantly trying to improve himself in order to provide better medical care.”
That impressed Fisher, who watched Peney train hard and become “an excellent medic.”
Fisher, 44, left active duty after 15 years and is now a major in the Army Reserves. He just completed his first year of medical school at Texas A&M College of Medicine.
He still wears the scars of June 1, 2010, in Kandahar Province. Peney was in the main courtyard when the enemy began to engage.
“One Ranger was shot in the arm and chest, then came the call for medic,” Fisher says. “Jon climbed the ladder and was shot while ascending.”
Fisher was about 100 meters away, and two other Rangers left their position and ran to the courtyard.
When Fisher got to the place where Peney fell, he climbed the ladder and was shot across the back. He was able to get to Peney, but because of the restricted location, heavy enemy gun fire and limited medical equipment, there was little he could do.
“We took care of Jon to the best of our ability, packaged him in a Skedco and lowered him over the edge to another medic on the ground,” Fisher said.
Fisher has remained in contact with Peney’s mother over the last seven years. He has received hugs from her many times and knows she is looking for a tangible reminder of her son.
“She has this connection and it goes back to Jon,” he says. “She is there all the time and loves Rangers; the feeling in the Ranger community is mutual. It’s an extension of Jon.”
Kristin was the perfect match for Jon. They both loved the outdoors, and he would jokingly complain about her independent streak, which served her well in their two-plus years together as he went through three deployments and Ranger School.
“We have three big dogs,” she said. “I had gone and gotten three 50-pound bags of dog food and I was bringing it in, and I had one on each arm. He was like, ‘I can do that for you.’ I said, ‘But why? In two weeks when I need you to do it again, you are going to be gone. I need to be able to do it.’
“In one way, it upset him, but in another way, he was, ‘That’s true. I am glad you can do it and are not asking someone else to do it. I know you are going to be OK.’ ”
Kristin met Jon right after Easter 2008 on Tybee Island, when he was assigned to Hunter Army Airfield. She was a small-town girl from Winterville, Ga., who had recently graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in natural resource management.
They built a base of communication over the phone during Jon’s deployments.
“We had to ask each other questions – and listen to the answer,” she said. “You weren’t going to find out anything else if you did not ask and listen to that answer.
“When forced to communicate and share in that way, you bond very quickly and you bond very deeply,” she said.
They used Jon’s re-enlistment bonus to elope overseas, marrying in a private ceremony in Greece.
Jon deployed about a month after they got home from Greece, but returned the week before Christmas 2009. It was the only Christmas they spent together.
In January 2010, he reported to Ranger School at Fort Benning. He graduated in April 2010 and deployed for the final time less than two weeks after earning his tab at Victory Pond on Fort Benning.
“His company was going ahead of the others and they were going to send him in mid-rotation,” Kristin recalled. “He was like, ‘No, if my guys are going, I am going.’ ”
Then came their phone conversation on Memorial Day, when he called from Afghanistan.
“I had a bunch of girlfriends in town for long weekend,” Kristen says. “I was telling him about that.”
The next day, she got a call at the 4-H office under the guise of someone wanting to look at banquet space.
The chaplain and one of the commanding officers who did not deploy came to the office shortly after the call. She remembers fighting back tears.
“You don’t get to pick who your heart wants,” she says. “You take the good, the bad and the ugly. You find somebody who makes you happy. Unless they are a drug dealer, you don’t tell them to change jobs, especially if their job is one that makes them happy.”
Memorial Day 2017
Those touched by Jon Peney – his life and his death – will deal with Monday’s Memorial Day in their own ways.
If Heiliman had his way on Monday he would be on River Street in Savannah Monday at Kevin Barry’s Pub. It is a sacred place for Rangers.
“Every time a Ranger battalion guy is killed in combat, he has an upstairs area that he closes off to the public,” Heiliman said of the owner. “Everybody from the battalion goes upstairs and he will not let anyone buy a drink. And they drink all they want – and these are Ranger battalion guys mourning a buddy. You can imagine how much alcohol that is.”
Wherever he is, Heiliman will use the day to remember the fallen because Memorial Day belongs to them.
“No. 1, it’s not Veterans Day,” he said. “So it’s not my day. It’s for people who were killed and made that ultimate sacrifice for us to do all of the things we do and have this life that we have.
“It’s for them. No veteran considers himself a hero. We always say the heroes are the ones who are not with us any more. ... Yeah, by all means go out and barbecue, go to the lake and water ski because you have some time off. But just know why you are able to do that.”
Fisher will remember the fallen, too, but for him Memorial Day is not just the last Monday in May.
He said Peney was one of four soldiers who touched him in a deep and meaningful way – the others were Lance Vogeler, Rob Sanchez and Anthony Davis, all fellow Rangers who died while on missions with Fisher.
“I tend to focus on the days when I lost guys,” he said. “June 1, Oct. 1, Jan. 6 – those days mean more to me than Memorial Day. I always take time on Memorial Day to recognize everyone who has given their life for our country. But on a personal note, the days where the men that I took care of died touch me a little bit more.”
Bathauer will spend time in Midland with his wife, Ginelle, and his children, maybe barbecuing. But he also plans to reach out to some of the Ranger buddies he has not spoken to in a while.
Sue Peney will spend Monday morning in Smyrna, Ga., placing a wreath at the city’s memorial to the fallen.
“After that, we are going to a Lowcountry boil, then we will raise a glass to all of the fallen and their families,” she said.
The toast is always difficult, she said.
“It is difficult because he is gone and I will not see him until I pass,” she says. “But it’s an honor because of being brought into the military family – especially the Rangers.”