One week ago today, social media was flooded with photos of our nation’s heroes: our veterans. Our neighbors, family members, co-workers and friends, proudly wearing their military uniforms in moments taking place throughout the world.
There’s a reason I didn’t share this story that day… because I want to see more of those posts and pictures EVERY DAY, not just Veterans Day.
Think about your typical day. Here’s mine:
- Wake up
- Send boys to school
- Eat dinner with family
- Hot bath while reading vampire romance
Now, let’s take a closer look at that day:
- Wake up <<in warm bed, without fear of a bombing taking place outside>>
- Send boys to school <<because free, high-quality education is the right of every American>>
- Work <<at a job I chose, where I have the power to pursue anything I dream of>>
- Eat dinner with family <<with no worry of how I or my children will find food>>
- Hot bath with vampire books <<don’t judge. I like the characters.>>
Think I’m being dramatic? I’m not. Right now in Ukraine as well as other places in our world, bombings of hospitals, churches, neighborhoods are reality. Free, high-quality education? Look up ‘Most Dangerous Ways To School’ on YouTube; it’s a beautifully made documentary series, following children around the world and the miles they walk and dangers they face daily all for the chance of education. I could go on and on and on about food, free speech, career choice, family size…. there are places in our world, right now in 2022, where the daily goal is SURVIVAL, and I was near tears Thursday morning thinking I lost an Apple earbud.
So why me? Why us? How did we get so lucky?
It’s not by chance. It’s because we live in America. And something this beautiful doesn’t come without a fight; when that fight has come, time and time again, brave men and women have stepped up to defend the ideals and foundation our country was built upon. Jeff Kilgore is one of our local heroes who has answered that call, for 32 years and counting.
Officer Kilgore is an Omaha Police School Resource Officer assigned to Westside High School. Let me preface the following by noting I have profound respect for our local police officers. As a reporter, I consistently saw acts of compassion and courage in our community law enforcement in my 15+ years of broadcast news, sometimes things no one else saw. The sheriff who held a lost child in his arms until his momma arrived. The officers searching for days for a missing child without stopping to sleep or eat. The hardcore detectives who stopped mid-investigation to buy kids a new basketball hoop or play catch with them, to hopefully, build a positive relationship and make those kids feel special.
Officer Kilgore is of that same class of men and women, sworn to serve and protect us in our communities. At Westside, he is a constant advocate for the safety of children and educators, analyzing school shootings as they happen to provide better preparation and planning for our district and others. He saved a woman’s life at a Westside football game a few years ago, immediately providing CPR when she went into cardiac arrest, keeping her alive until paramedics could take over. He is part of the Omaha Police crisis team, helping support his fellow officers involved in traumatic incidents like officer-involved shootings, and he offers his SRO experience and assistance to other school resource officers across the Omaha metro area and beyond.
All of that is impressive in and of itself, and it is only part of Officer Kilgore’s story. As a member of the US Coast Guard and Army, he served in wars in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I was proud to serve in Afghanistan in 2005,” said Kilgore. “I volunteered for the mission because it seemed like the honorable thing to do and my duty. Plus, I couldn’t let my brothers and sisters in arms go without me. We lost one soldier in Bosnia, SPC Blake Kelly, and I was not going to let that happen again.”
Officer Kilgore’s description of his fellow servicemen and women is reverential; that American armed forces are the most lethal on the planet, but what makes them great are the people who wear the uniform, regardless of what that uniform may be. In Afghanistan, he was side by side with true volunteers called to battle, the men and women of the Army National Guard.
“Our job in Afghanistan was to mentor our Afghan counterparts in charge of training basic trainees just outside of Kabul,” said Kilgore. He and his fellow American soldiers took Afghans, many of whom could not read or write, and trained them in multiple languages to ensure all understood. He remembers one interpreter in particular, a man named Jawad.
“I trusted him, understood him, and enjoyed being around him,” said Kilgore. “Jawad came from a family of tailors and always tried measuring me up so he could tailor a suit for me as a symbol of his gratitude for Americans, I guess. He thought all Americans were incredibly wealthy, he loved watching western TV shows like Gilligan’s Island, and he took pride in showing me the Afghan culture, educating me in many types of Afghan meals he even made me personally.”
Kilgore and his camarades missed weddings, graduations, births and more, but felt like they had made a difference in another part of the world with people like Jawad, while working to keep terrorism away from their doorsteps, and ours. Kilgore returned to Nebraska and retired from the armed services as a Lietuenent Colonel, continuing his full-time work as a police officer with both the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office and Omaha Police.
“We took raw recruits from the hinterlands of Afghanistan, made them into warfighters, and sent them to the frontlines to fight (the Taliban) alongside their American mentors down range,” said Kilgore. “Since 9-11-2001, our Armed Forces, my brothers and sisters, provided the ability for Americans to sleep at night, knowing that we had their back and that terrorists were not going to land another punch in the mouth that was planned, organized and executed from this part of the world.”
August 2021. Officer Kilgore watched from Nebraska as the United States withdrew all remaining troops from Afghanistan. The Taliban quickly moved in, killing 13 American military members who were trying to help people escape at the Kabul airport. One of them was Marine Corporal Daegan Page, just 23. He was a son, a friend, a hometown Omaha kid, a hero. Though they had never met personally, Officer Kilgore was emotionally destroyed. A guy who was typically unshakeable was visibly shaken in the days that followed. He talked about the withdrawal, deaths of our heroes, and unknown fate of the Afghans who stood with America for 20 years. With immense respect for Officer Kilgore and the time he took to share those thoughts, I will summarize his thoughts through one quote shared September 1, 2021: “recapping the last 3 weeks has been maddening for Afghanistan veterans and current members of our military. Our country is less safe, and why? My mind often wanders to my interpreters. Jawad and I lost contact in 2005. I hope he and his family are safe but I fear the worst; he spoke very good English and that is the scarlet letter he has always careered, and will always carry with him for the rest of his life.”
Here’s why I am reluctant to share more, and why I didn’t write this article in September of 2021: I was and am physically exhausted with the political theatre that seemingly comes with every daily news cycle. I was fearful that by sharing the insight of a man who was actually there, the primary planner behind the removal of intelligence equipment in Iraq, a war veteran who has now dedicated his life to protecting children and schools, I feared that I would be opening him up to unnecessary scrutiny from armchair politicos, adding undeserved insult to his injury.
Now, more than ever, this is an important story to share. Have a you ever reached a breaking point where you throw your hands up and ask why? Why am I doing this, why have I done all of this? What’s the point?
Think of that question when you are considering the scale of sacrifice these heroes make every day, to protect the freedoms and opportunities we so take for granted. My father-in-law, a decorated Vietnam Veteran, shared EVERYTHING with my husband, but suffered things so horrific at war he never spoke about it. My former co-anchor and friend since high school Adrian Whitsett watched his friends and camarades die on the frontlines of Fallujah or after, then came home to interview folks who had an opinion about everything our military did or didn’t do. How many of our heroes missed the births of their children or their friends’ weddings? How many suffered through weeks in the desert without a shower or a warm bed, or months in the jungle with no break or hope? How many lost friends and suffered emotionally and physically for years, and still now?
It’s why I cried while making this..
And why I was so damn proud to see this..
Because these moments reinforce to me there is a why.. that our country is so beautiful and the foundation of what our forefathers created is so special, it is worth defending again, and again, and again, so our children can grow up experiencing all of the freedom and opportunity these brave men and women have made possible. Because even though sometimes it feels as though we are so damn divided as a nation, we are the UNITED States of America; perhaps our arguments are so heated because we are united in our passion about a dream that is not easy to maintain and defend. Because America IS WORTH IT.
My why for writing this now, is to show Officer Kilgore and Adrian and every veteran I see in my neighborhood and at work and on Facebook… YOUR BRAVERY MATTERS. THANK YOU. Because of you, I’m comfortably sitting on my couch writing this now. Because of you, my boys are in school, learning about the principles America was founded upon, and the brave men and women who fought to ensure they still exist today. Because of you, I GET to go to work; not have to, GET to, to share stories about kids learning, kids who will change the world because of other adults who GET TO go to work to teach and love them. I get go, I can, I have the opportunity…. because I live in America. Because of the heroes who defend America and what our country stands for.
Who are we? What are we here for? How do we define AMERICA?
“Isaiah 6:8 reads: Then I hear the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here I am, send me!’,” said Kilgore. “Hopefully, that is enough in the end.”
Veterans Day. Every day. To our veterans, our true American heroes, I salute you.