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 firstname.lastname@example.org