Northeast Times

Cost of Freedom

Two North­east sol­diers went to Afgh­anistan on the same mis­sion. Severely wounded, they’re now tack­ling the same chal­lenges.

Kev­in Mc­Clo­s­key and Colin Senavit­is are two young men from the North­east who share a du­bi­ous dis­tinc­tion — their U.S. Army ca­reers ended when they were wounded in the war in Afgh­anistan.

Today, the two 20-something re­tir­ees are back home, look­ing to­ward the fu­ture after their dreams were side­tracked in a dan­ger­ous, faraway land.

These days, both men — who do not know each oth­er — make oc­ca­sion­al vis­its to the Rising Sun VFW Post 2819 in Lawndale. They talk to some of their con­tem­por­ar­ies there, but it’s mostly an older crowd of mil­it­ary vet­er­ans.

On Fri­day, Mc­Clo­s­key plans to mark Vet­er­ans Day by vis­it­ing the Rising Sun and Brides­burg VFW halls, and he hopes Amer­ic­ans find time to re­flect on the mean­ing of the hol­i­day.

“Half the people don’t know what Vet­er­ans Day is any­more,” he said.

••

Senavit­is, 23, lives on the 11700 block of Den­man Road in the Far North­east with his mom, grand­mom and sis­ter, who at­tends Kutztown Uni­versity. He at­ten­ded George Wash­ing­ton High School and later earned his GED.

In May 2007, he de­cided to fol­low in the foot­steps of his grand­fath­er, Ar­thur Carter, who served in World War II. Ten months later, he was de­ployed to Afgh­anistan.

On Feb. 9, 2009, two weeks be­fore the end of the sched­uled one-year de­ploy­ment, he and oth­er sol­diers were on patrol when they faced en­emy gun­fire.

Senavit­is was shot once in the left ankle and twice in the hip. Doc­tors per­formed nine sur­ger­ies on his ankle.

The hip wound caused severe pain, and the of­fice of then-U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy prod­ded mil­it­ary of­fi­cials to sched­ule a sur­gery date to re­move bul­let frag­ments.

By Ju­ly 2010, he was back home for good, with his of­fi­cial re­tire­ment date com­ing a month later. The in­jur­ies were too ser­i­ous for him to carry out all the du­ties of a sol­dier.

“I wanted to make a ca­reer out of it. I’d like to still be in the ser­vice,” he said. “But after I got shot and couldn’t fight, I didn’t want to be in.”

Be­fore join­ing the Army, Senavit­is worked as a laborer, but he walks with a limp and can’t run, so he’s look­ing for an­oth­er line of work. He still goes to reg­u­lar doc­tors’ vis­its and takes pain med­ic­a­tion.

“I hope it goes away,” he said of the limp, “but I’m not a doc­tor.”

In Janu­ary, Senavit­is plans to at­tend the Vet­er­ans Up­ward Bound edu­ca­tion­al pro­gram at the Uni­versity of Pennsylvania. He’ll at­tend night ses­sions for a semester and hopes to move on to Com­munity Col­lege of Phil­adelphia be­fore de­cid­ing on a four-year uni­versity. He has an in­terest in crim­in­al justice, per­haps as a pro­ba­tion of­ficer.

“I’m an in­fan­try­man. I need an out­door job,” he said.

Senavit­is re­cently joined the Purple Heart Club and keeps in con­tact with some of his Army bud­dies. He was grate­ful when the Wounded War­ri­or Pro­ject and the Les Richards Menswear shop in Cen­ter City teamed to present him with a $1,500 suit to hon­or his ser­vice.

A.J. and Colleen Carter, his cous­ins, are mem­bers of the Army Re­serve, and Senavit­is plans to do his part to keep his VFW post flour­ish­ing.

“Gen­er­a­tions be­fore me did it. We have to keep it go­ing,” he said.

••

Kev­in Mc­Clo­s­key, 24, lives on the 4100 block of Prin­ceton Ave. in Ta­cony with his par­ents and West­ie ter­ri­er Dean. He’s a 2005 gradu­ate of North Cath­ol­ic High School. He en­lis­ted in the Army in June 2006 and de­ployed to Afgh­anistan in March 2008.

On June 8 that year, dur­ing what was sup­posed to be a routine patrol mis­sion, an im­pro­vised ex­plos­ive device det­on­ated near his vehicle. Ter­ror­ists had planted the bomb curb­side.

Mc­Clo­s­key suffered in­jur­ies to his pel­vis, tail­bone, arm, wrist and col­lar­bone; he had burns on his thigh, face and chest, and shrapnel struck his right eye. Doc­tors am­pu­tated his legs — the left one be­low the knee, the right one above the knee.

Since then, he has been hailed as a hero on many oc­ca­sions.

A throng of people wel­comed him home on Hal­loween day in 2008. He’s been the grand mar­shal of the May­fair-Holmes­burg Thanks­giv­ing Parade and the Ir­ish Fall Fest­iv­al parade in North Wild­wood, N.J. Last year he switched on the lights on the Christ­mas tree sponsored by the May­fair Busi­ness As­so­ci­ation. Last Feb­ru­ary, he was the am­bas­sad­or for the an­nu­al Lep­re­chaun Leap fund-raiser in­to the At­lantic Ocean in North Wild­wood. And last month he donned dress blues after be­ing in­vited to the Mar­ine Corps-Law En­force­ment Found­a­tion din­ner that fea­tured four Medal of Hon­or win­ners.

The build­ing-trades uni­ons per­formed a makeover of the Mc­Clo­s­key fam­ily base­ment and gar­age, where the hero sol­dier lives. The space has a com­puter, tele­vi­sion, Play­Sta­tion, re­fri­ger­at­or, cook­ing equip­ment and a very large bath­room.

Mc­Clo­s­key, who came home for good in Septem­ber 2009, stays busy. He has a girl­friend, Brid­get McGee­han, whom he has known since first grade at St. Bern­ard Ele­ment­ary School. He tends bar on Wed­nes­days at Ham­mer­heads and on Sat­urdays at the Shef­field Tav­ern. And he works out twice a week at Fath­er Judge High School’s fit­ness cen­ter.

His re­cov­ery was ar­du­ous, and he stays in touch with oth­ers who were un­der­go­ing ther­apy at the same time. Among them is re­tired Army Capt. Chad Flem­ing, who lost his left leg in battle. Flem­ing ap­pears in a mu­sic video of coun­try sing­er Joe Nich­ols. The song, The Shape I’m In, pays trib­ute to the re­source­ful­ness of wounded young vet­er­ans and chron­icles their daily ef­forts.

“It’s a really cool video,” Mc­Clo­s­key said. “Any­one who has ever been in a mil­it­ary hos­pit­al will see dif­fer­ent de­grees of in­jur­ies. It opens your eyes to everything.”

Mc­Clo­s­key has seen burn pa­tients who’ve lost ears and oth­er fea­tures.

“I’m blessed it’s just my legs,” he said.

In Au­gust, he and his girl­friend traveled to San Ant­o­nio, Texas, to see the doc­tors, nurses and ther­ap­ists who helped save his life and teach him to walk again.

“I brought Brid­get down there be­cause I wanted her to see where I came from,” Mc­Clo­s­key ex­plained.

Look­ing back, pray­ers from fam­ily, friends and oth­ers helped him get through the or­deal, he said, but the jok­ing with fel­low in­jured sol­diers was the best ther­apy.

Chal­lenges re­main, but Mc­Clo­s­key handles them well. That in­cludes cop­ing with blind­ness in his right eye.

“The left eye works fine,” he said.

His right wrist still hurts, as does his hip, es­pe­cially when it rains and is cold.

“I’ve learned to deal with it,” he said.

Mc­Clo­s­key can walk with his pros­thet­ics without any aids, and he gets around at home in a wheel­chair. In San Ant­o­nio, res­id­ents are used to see­ing young people in wheel­chairs and gladly hold doors for them. But Phil­adelphia isn’t so han­di­capped-ac­cess­ible.

At a re­cent Hal­loween party at the Holmes­burg Boys Club, Mc­Clo­s­key dressed as Lieu­ten­ant Dan from the movie For­rest Gump. It was the first time he was out in pub­lic in a wheel­chair.

“For the first hour, I kind of sat around in a corner. I had a beer and a ci­gar­ette and re­laxed,” he said.

In­stead of go­ing table to table, he de­cided to roll the wheel­chair to the middle of the floor, and many in the crowd real­ized, “It’s Mc­Clo­s­key.”

“I was filled with anxi­ety. It was like jump­ing in a pool without know­ing if the wa­ter is cold,” he said of go­ing out in a wheel­chair. “It’s the biggest step I’ve taken so far. The sad thing is that it took me this long. I should have done it the first week home. It’s about feel­ing com­fort­able with your­self. I had some tears at the end of the night. I was proud of my­self.”

••

While both men served in the same war, they have dif­fer­ent views when it comes to the fu­ture of U.S. in­volve­ment in Afgh­anistan.

Amer­ic­an troops are sched­uled to con­tin­ue com­bat op­er­a­tions there through 2014, though the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is said to be con­sid­er­ing an exit strategy for next year.

Mc­Clo­s­key was so over­joyed to hear about the killing of Osama bin Laden earli­er this year that he couldn’t wait to buy the Phil­adelphia In­quirer the next morn­ing to see the 9/11 mas­ter­mind’s pic­ture on the front page with the head­line, “BIN LADEN DEAD.”

Six months later, he tries to avoid war news, but he knows Amer­ic­an sol­diers are still prime tar­gets for ter­ror­ists.

“It pisses me off. It makes me furi­ous,” Mc­Clo­s­key said. “We got who we wanted. Get out.”

As for Senavit­is, he wants the U.S. to com­plete the job. “Fight it ’til we win it,” he said. “If I was over there and we pulled out, I’d be pissed. You fin­ish something you start.”

The two men find ways to keep pos­it­ive out­looks as they con­tin­ue their re­cov­ery from severe gun­shot wounds on the bat­tle­field.

“I’m happy with everything,” Mc­Clo­s­key said. “I have a good fam­ily and friends and girl­friend, and I live in a pretty de­cent neigh­bor­hood. Every­one sup­ports me.”

“I en­joyed it,” Senavit­is said of his Army days. “It was good for me with dis­cip­line, ma­tur­ity and self-re­li­ance. It was the best de­cision I ever made.” ••

Re­port­er Tom War­ing can be reached at 215-354-3034 or twar­ing@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at twaring@bsmphilly.com.

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