‘It’s always there’: Family of soldier killed in Afghanistan in 2010 still wrestles with loss

Kenny Necochea Sr. and Lori Necochea place flowers at a headstone
Aug. 9, 2021: Kenny Necochea Sr. and Lori Necochea place an arrangement of red and white roses at the gravestone of their son, Kenny Necochea, Jr., who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)
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Almost 11 years have passed since Kenny Necochea Sr.'s son, a U.S. Army soldier, was killed in Afghanistan. The Poway High School graduate was 21.

“Time has brought some relief,” Necochea said recently, “but the sense of loss, the pain — it’s always there.”

He was sitting in the living room of the San Marcos home he shares with his wife, Lori. They were explaining the tightrope they walk over the chasm in their lives: honoring the service and sacrifice of their son, Kenny Jr., without succumbing to grief or anger.

How long will they be pallbearers?

Pallbearers carry a casket at a military funeral
December 21, 2010: Kenneth Necochea Jr. is buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery with full military honors.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

It’s a tension felt by Gold Star families everywhere, heightened for those from the war in Afghanistan by the chaotic and violent way it ended. With the final U.S. military plane departing Kabul last week, the once-routed Taliban are back in charge, poised to reverse some of the changes in living conditions, education and women’s rights that U.S. service members like Kenny Jr. — 2,325 of whom lost their lives in the war — worked to put in place.

“Is there a sense of futility?” his father asked. “There is. We lost so much. But what my son and the others did 10 years ago over there, to help the Afghan people, to stand for liberty, it speaks for itself.”

When it speaks, though, there are echoes, painful memories of how that service ended. His son and five others were killed when a suicide bomber drove a van into the entrance of the mud-walled outpost where they were sleeping, smothering them in the rubble.

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“It’s not good for us,” Lori said, “to keep going backwards.”

So they try to find the right balance.

They placed a collection of Kenny’s things in a bedroom at their home, and then decided it was too much like a shrine. They moved the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the photos to a smaller area, in an alcove near the front door.

Kenny Necochea, Sr. holds a photo of his son, Kenny Necochea, Jr.
July 29, 2021: Kenny Necochea, Sr. clutches a photo of his son, Kenny Necochea, Jr.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

They visit his grave at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, but not too often, because being there, surrounded by all those white markers, gets overwhelming.

When Kenny Sr. feels his sorrow welling, he goes out to the backyard and into a small shed for some private time. Just him and his tears and his son’s dog tags, which he wears around his neck.

“Dark solitude,” he calls it. “It’s brief, but it’s powerful.”

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‘Tip of the spear’

Two people in their home, with a small American flag on the table
Aug. 9, 2021: At their home in San Marcos, Kenny Necochea Sr. tries his best to mentally prepare for what is always an emotionally difficult trip to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, where their son Kenny Nicochea, Jr. is buried.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Kenny Necochea Jr. was a happy-go-lucky kid, often laughing. He loved to paint and surf. He hung out with friends, raced go-karts, played the guitar. He was active in a church youth group.

Nothing about his childhood suggested he would join the military after he graduated from Poway High School in 2007.

“We were shocked,” said Lori, his stepmom, who married Kenny Sr. almost 30 years ago.

They knew he was leaning toward some kind of public service, though. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 had stirred something patriotic in him, reinforced a message he’d been hearing from his family his whole life: Love your country.

So he talked about being an emergency medical technician. Maybe the Coast Guard.

Kenneth Edward Necochea Jr. in a military bio photo
Kenneth Edward Necochea Jr. was killed in action on Dec. 12, 2010 while serving with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan.
(Necochea family)

But not the Army, and certainly not the 101st Airborne, a storied light infantry unit.

“He chose what he chose,” his father said. “Tip of the spear.”

Kenny Jr. arrived in Afghanistan in June 2010, and it didn’t take him long to size up the danger. “This is going to be one hell of a fight here,” he wrote in a July 4 entry in his journal. “It’s going to be life or death every day.”

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There were close calls on patrols — he once knelt inadvertently on a roadside bomb that didn’t go off — but also moments of hope, of feeling like he was making a difference for the locals.

Two military dog tags and a key
July 29, 2021: At their home in San Marcos, Kenny Necochea, Sr. and his wife Lori display a set of their son’s military dog tags.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“The Taliban forcefully remove them from their homes, we restore peace to their lives by returning them to their homes,” he wrote in an online post. “Seeing their smiling faces and accepting their gestures of thanks is all the reward I need.”

In late November 2010, Kenny Jr. called home. He was due back in the U.S. on leave in about six weeks. On the phone call, he asked to speak to everyone in turn — his father, stepmom, sister Natalie and brother Ethan — and told each the same thing.

“I love you with all my heart,” he said, a favorite phrase of his, “but I’m not going to make it home.”

They told him he was mistaken, that of course he would see everybody again. They even made plans with a local TV station to film the homecoming.

Two weeks later, he was dead.

“Somehow,” his father said, “he knew.”

Keeping busy

A man sits in a dark room, wiping his eyes
May 25, 2011: Kenneth Necochea Sr. takes a moment to recompose himself as he reflects on happier times with his son.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

After his son died, Kenny Sr., who was in his late 50s, took an early retirement from FedEx. He’d worked there for 20 years.

He and Lori moved from Poway to a manufactured-home park in San Marcos, a place where the neighbors know and look out for each other. A community.

“Having a big house, lots of money in the bank — those things just didn’t matter to me any more,” he said. “They still don’t.”

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He does handyman chores for other residents, many of whom are elderly. One lady teasingly calls him “my boyfriend” when he takes her on errands to the bank and stores.

“It keeps me very busy,” he said, and the glint in his eye says that he likes to be busy. Keeps him from thinking about something else.

The Necocheas have watched U.S. politicians point fingers over the unfolding chaos in Afghanistan. They’ve heard TV pundits wonder whether the 20-year war — 2,400 U.S. service members dead, $2 trillion spent — was worth it.

They try not to go there.

A headstone and a bouquet of roses
Aug. 9, 2021: The headstone of Cpl. Kenny Nicochea Jr, decorated with a bouquet of red and white roses.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

“I would not want to politicize what Kenny did,” his father said. “He served with his heart. He believed in America, what it stands for. He believed in freedom and liberty.”

He paused and added, “I don’t condemn the decision-makers one way or the other.”

Lori nodded. “We pray for our leaders,” she said.

They helped set up a fund at Poway High that’s named after their son. It’s a way to honor his memory, they said, and to respect the choice he made when he wanted to be part of something bigger than himself.

It’s awarded to a graduating senior who plans on joining the military.