Operation Iraqi Freedom, Fallen Heroes, Iraq War 03/19/03

Pfc Kenny W Leisten

Kenny W Leisten

Cornelius, Oregon

July 28, 2004

Age Military Rank Unit/Location
20 Army Pfc

Army National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry

Corvallis, Ore

Died in Taji, Iraq, when his vehicle struck an improvised explosive device.

Pfc Kenny W Leisten Pfc Kenny W Leisten Pfc Kenny W Leisten

For Some Memorial Service Snapshots, Click photo below:

Pfc Kenny W Leisten

August 9, 2004

From Lisa LaBlanc-Willis 08/15/04:

I raised Kenny from the time he was two years old until he shipped out for boot camp. He was a funny, smart, sweet kid, with a loving spirit and a huge smile. As he grew into a young man, his intelligence, individuality, integrity, and just plain gutsy determination showed themselves in a variety of ways. He was cool under pressure. He questioned the status quo if something seemed unfair to him. He had compassion. He stood up for freedom of speech and expression. He faced challenges squarely and with conviction. These were, of course, all things I tried to model for him and instill in him - but some of this can't be taught - it's just who he was. He joined the military in large part as a way to pay for college, but his convictions were such that he never flinched from the possibility of being put in harm's way. When the call-up came for the Oregon National Guard he voluntarily switched units to ensure that he would go to Iraq.

When that dreaded call came to tell me of his death, I felt like I had been slammed into a wall. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't speak. I felt as if my entire physical body was going to come apart, as if my spirit was trying to wrest itself from the physical plane and fly to wherever his spirit was. I felt like this would surely break me. But I felt him say to me, "hold your head up, Mom." When the day of his funeral finally came, it was so comforting to me to hear from his brothers and sisters in arms that all of the wonderful qualities I had seen developing in him had continued to grow, having been reinforced with the steel of military training, and further refined in the fire of battle. Again I heard his words, "hold your head up, Mom." Now that he has been laid to rest, I carry with me the memories of his life. I carry with me the strength of the bond between a mother and a son which transcends this world.

He was my only son, he was an American Soldier, and it is my great blessing to have held him in my life for 18 years. It is my great comfort to hold him in my heart now and forever. It is my great privilege to share these thoughts with you so that Kenny's life and death may be honored.

Thank you again for undertaking this work. It means so much to those of us who are grieving the losses of our loved ones.

Lisa LaBlanc-Willis

From Aunt Jenny 07/26/05:

My Nephew was SPC Kenny W Leisten, Kenny was killed in Iraq on the 28th of 2004.I miss him with all of my heart and soul, for anyone that never got the chance to meet Kenny, he was a wonderful young man, Kenny was smart, always smiled know matter what was in his way, I know that he was looking forward to being part of the military and he was having a blast with his buddies, I wish all of the families that have lost a loved one my condolences and for the ones still fighting in Iraq and other places a safe return home, with all my love a prayers for you all. Kenny's Aunt jenny Audrain

Ken moved to Washington County from San Diego with his father and stepmother at age 7. As a teenager, He spent hours tinkering with his computer. Once, he visited an Intel plant and got a ride in a Mercedes Benz, learning about the company from an executive. Dulled by the slow pace of classes at Forest Grove High School, he earned his General Educational Development degree a year early and signed up with the Army to get money for college. Months later, he joked with LaBlanc that the days he thought he had wasted playing and fixing his video game machine later paid off in the Army. They had sharpened his marksmanship skills. He had planned to travel to help in Afghanistan after his tour in Iraq. Later he had hoped to study computer science at an area college. A father whose only son was killed in Iraq says he is proud of the man whose intelligence and independence led him to take risks. Ken was a tough, quiet and kind man who was easily embarrassed by his father's hugs and kisses and planned to attend college after his return and become a software mogul. Those who knew him say he rarely lost his cool, even on the day when he took his father's car for a ride and drove it into a ditch. The 17-year-old managed to get the car out, drove it home, parked it in the driveway, grabbed a snack and headed quietly to his bedroom to listen to music without saying a word to his father. Later, a neighbor who lived two doors down from the family in Cornelius, heard screaming in the driveway. "The car's wrecked and Kenny's dad is screaming" and trying to figure out what happened. He is survived by his father, Ken Leisten Sr., and stepmother, Lisa LaBlanc and mother, Kim Strahan. He was 20.
Oregon soldier killed in Iraq

Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — An Oregon National Guard soldier died and two were injured when their armored Humvee was struck by an explosive, a Guard spokeswoman said.

Pfc. Ken W. Leisten, 20, of Warrenton, was killed Wednesday in Taji, Iraq. Leisten, the Humvee driver, had volunteered to join the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry Regiment,to become part of the rotation into Iraq, spokeswoman Kay Fristad said in a statement Thursday.

It’s unclear whether the bomb that hit the Oregon unit was detonated by insurgents as the Humvee drove by or whether it was triggered by the vehicle’s weight.

The soldiers injured were Sgt. 1st Class Phillip V. Jacques, 33, of Albany, and Pfc. Benjamin Ring, 19, of Blodgett, a small town west of Corvallis.

* * * * *

Father remembers son killed in Iraq

CORNELIUS, Ore. — A father whose only son was killed in Iraq this week says he is proud of the man whose intelligence and independence led him to take risks.

Pfc. Ken W. Leisten, 20, died Wednesday when a roadside bomb exploded near the Humvee he was driving in Taji, Iraq.

“He was a beautiful man. He was my baby,” said his father, Ken Leisten Sr. of Beaverton. “He was always embarrassed about his old dad giving him a kiss and hug when we’d say goodbye.

“I’d give my life in a heartbeat to have him back here right now.”

Lt. Peter Wood of Northeast Portland, who is still in Iraq, told The Oregonian via e-mail that Leisten’s convoy was on a routine patrol west of the Oregon Army National Guard’s Camp Cooke when the bomb detonated.

“It left a huge crater and destroyed the Humvee,” he said. The bomb “was buried in the middle of the road, and there was no way that they knew it was there.”

The younger Leisten was originally assigned to the Oregon National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 162nd Infantry, but he voluntarily switched units to ensure a tour in Iraq. He went overseas with the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry and had been part of a unit supplementing theArkansas National Guard’s 39th Infantry Brigade.

Leisten moved to Washington County from San Diego with his father and stepmother, Lisa LaBlanc, at age 7. As a teenager, Leisten spent hours tinkering with his computer. Once, he visited an Intel plant and got a ride in a Mercedes Benz, learning about the company from an executive.

Dulled by the slow pace of classes at Forest Grove High School, he earned his General Educational Development degree a year early and signed up with the Army to get money for college.

Months later, he joked with LaBlanc that the days he thought he had wasted playing and fixing his video game machine later paid off in the Army. They had sharpened his marksmanship skills.

The elder Leisten said his son had planned to travel to help in Afghanistan after his tour in Iraq. Later he had hoped to study computer science at an area college.

Now, Leisten Sr. grieves by sorting through pictures of his son.

“He had a smile that would stop a truck,” Leisten Sr. said. “Bright and wide. He was happy.”

— Associated Press
From Oregon Military Department oregon.gov 10/25/07:

Press Release 

October 25, 2007
Oregon National Guard Reintegration Team helps returning soldiers 

Story by Kim Lippert, Public Affairs Specialist, Oregon Military Department 

"My boys. How are my boys?" 
"They're fine Sergeant Jacques. They're fine." 
"Make sure my boys go before me. Get them on the bird first." 
"Okay, Sergeant Jacques." 

(Devil's Sandbox, by John Brunning) 

His humvee had been blown to pieces, a mangled mess shattered by an improvised explosive device. His driver, Pfc. Kenny Leisten was dead. Sgt. 1st Class Vince Jacques dangled upside down with his legs trapped under the dashboard. His gunner, Pfc. Ben Ring was seriously wounded. But on that fateful day, July 28, 2004 in Iraq, despite his own injuries, Jacques had only one thing on his mind; his soldiers, "his boys". 

"Everyone's on. They're waiting for you." (Devil's Sandbox) 

Miraculously, Jacques survived the blast. But his injuries prevented him from returning to Iraq with his unit, the 2nd Battalion 162nd Infantry. In the days and months that followed Jacques admits it was tough. 

"Knowing they were over there and I wasn't was really hard," said Jacques. 
Back home in Oregon, Col. (Ret.) Scott McCrae was also struggling. His son, 1st Lt. Erik McCrae, also a member of 2nd Bn. 162nd Inf., had died in Iraq only weeks before, in an IED attack that resulted in the largest loss of life the Oregon National Guard had faced in a single day since World War II. 

"He was the kind of person you would have loved to have as a son," said McCrae. 

In Eastern Oregon, another Oregon National Guard soldier from the 2-162 Inf. Bn. was also coping with immense loss. Sgt. Luke Wilson had lost his leg to a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq. After getting out of Walter Reed Medical Center, Wilson said he felt aimless. 

"I pretty much hid in my garage for the first two to three months after I got home, working on my jeep," said Wilson. "There was no place out there looking to hire a one-legged man to kick-in doors and pull triggers." 

Out of the depths of despair emerged a mission. These men, united by separate twists of fate, would come together to ensure that their "boys", and all of Oregon's service members, are taken care of when they return home from war. In February 2005 the Oregon National Guard Reintegration Team was formed. 

"We do a great job of getting our soldiers out the door, we train them to be a warrior and after they've been gone for 18 months or more, we send them back into the community and say, ‘have a great life,'" said McCrae. 

The Oregon National Guard recognizes that nearly 37 percent of its returning veterans are under or unemployed and 90 percent want college education and job training for their families. The ORNG Reintegration Team works with federal, state, local and civilian agencies and refers service members to resources where they can receive assistance with any need they may have. 
"We are in effect, a highly networked "help desk" where we act as "traffic cops" to direct soldiers and airmen to the right place," said McCrae. 

One resource the ORNG Reintegration Team refers soldiers and airmen to is the Oregon Department of Veterans' Affairs, where veteran service officers can help them apply for benefits. 
"I'm very impressed with the character and commitment of all of the soldiers working for the Oregon Guard Reintegration Team," said Jim Willis, Director of the Oregon Department of Veterans' Affairs. "By working together we can make a difference in the lives of our veterans and their families on a daily basis." 

Jacques said he wants to reach those who might otherwise slip through the cracks. 

"I want to talk to the Joes down to the lowest private," said Jacques. 

"When I was over there, the guys were the best I'd ever seen, we know they can handle a lot of responsibility. We need to provide them with tools to be successful here at home as well," said Jacques. 

Jobs, counseling, education, are just a few of the tools the Oregon National Guard Reintegration Team helps put in the hands of returning veterans. The team provides military job and benefit fairs, daily phone calls, and a commitment to never say no to someone who needs help. 

"We have never turned anyone away," said Sgt. 1st Class Phillip Maas, who leads the ORNG's Career Transition Assistance Program in Salem, an integral part of the ORNG Reintegration Team. 

Currently, there are nine states involved in reintegration issues for returning service members. Oregon is the only state that combines it's reintegration efforts with the Jobs Program and the Career Transition Assistance Program. 

Col. McCrae said he keeps his focus on helping veterans get back to a normal, healthy life. 
"We want to fix physical problems, mental health problems, family problems, and financial issues so they can be a productive member of the community and a stable well adjusted member of their unit," said McCrae. 

For some soldiers, like Specialist Patrick Silva, help meant a referral for treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to statistics from the Army, the condition affects up to one in five soldiers returning from Iraq. 

"When I came back from Iraq I had PTSD, it's nice they are finally recognizing that this is not something you can just get over, overnight," said Silva, of 1st Battalion 186th Inf. 

When a service member calls the ORNG Reintegration Team someone always answers the phone, it is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

"The phone calls don't always come at 8:00 to 4:30, some of them come at 1:47 a.m. ‘oh by the way here is where I am and here is what is happening to me', and we have to respond," said Maas. 

Maas said service members can connect with the ORNG Reintegration Team in a way others may not be able to, because they are talking to someone who knows exactly what they are going through. 

"We had a situation in Portland, a stand-off with one of our service members. The police could not seem to get through to him. But Sergeant Jacques, with the help of local law enforcement, walked up to the guy and said, ‘hand me that (weapon), you and I are going to leave here together and we're going to get you some help', and they did," said Maas 

"The individual came into the office the other day, and he's cleaned up and back on his feet," added Maas. 

First Sgt. (Ret.) Ray Lewallen, Non Commissioned Officer in Charge of the ORNG Reintegration Team, and a Vietnam veteran, drove four hours in the middle of the night to resolve another police stand-off involving a different soldier. 

"The guys on the team have personally intervened on 15 suicides," said McCrae. "If we can prevent one soldier from taking their lives that's a great deal, you can't put a price on that." 
McCrae said he believes suicide is not a sudden decision but a desperate act that occurs when many aspects of a person's life fall apart. 

"Our goal is to break that chain somewhere along the cycle and not allow it to get to the point where they are hopeless, debilitated and dysfunctional," said McCrae. 

A steady job, said Maas, can make a huge difference in the quality of life a soldier and their family can enjoy. 

"I got a phone call on a Saturday night from a woman who said, ‘Sgt. Maas you don't know me but you got my husband a job at Swift Trucking. He never had the money to take me shopping, but now we are at the mall and I'm buying a new dress and we're getting new clothes for the kids,'" said Maas.

Nearly three years since its implementation, the Oregon National Guard Reintegration Team continues to evolve. Each member has a story and purpose, their resolve forged from the fires of battle in Iraq. 

"I love my job," said Wilson. "Every day I get up and help veterans and soldiers." 

For Wilson, Jacques, and McCrae who lost limbs or loved ones in Iraq, the Reintegration Team not only provides a chance to help, it's also a chance to heal. 

"Working for the Reintegration team has been a form of therapy for me," said Wilson "It has helped me a lot." 

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