Her mother dead and her father in Iraq, Kodee Kennings adjusts to life in southern Illinois.

By Gus Bode

Dan Kennings was trying to calm his daughter down, but he had trouble making her feel at ease because he was crying himself.

Kennings was about to leave Kodee, his only daughter, to fight the war in Iraq. He was trying to board a plane at Fort Campbell, Ky., which would eventually take him to the Kuwaiti desert.

But his daughter had other ideas.

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In an attempt to delay his departure, Kodee swiped his helmet and refused to let go, saying he could not leave without his helmet.

Still in tears, Kennings took his helmet back from his 8-year-old daughter, but he still could not convince her he had to go. She refused to let go of his arms, and pleaded with her father.

“Please don’t leave,” Kodee begged. “I’ll be good if you stay. I won’t get in trouble.”

Kennings continued in vain to explain concepts such as duty, war and terrorism to his young daughter. She wanted to take her case to the pilot and tell him not to take off.

Matt Hastings, Kennings’ best friend, adopted brother and a student at SIUC, eventually was forced to tear Kodee from her father and allow him to leave.

“That was very difficult for me,” Matt said. “It pulled on some heart strings of mine I didn’t know were there.”

“He said his heart was breaking and mine was too,” Kodee said, recalling the event.

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After the plane left, Kodee was off to what would be her new home until her father came back – a house in Marion with the closest thing Kodee has to family – friends Matt and Colleen Hastings.

“Kodee is all he has and she’s all he has,” Colleen said, emphasizing the bond between Kodee and her father.

Kennings grew up in a series of foster homes and never knew who his mother or father were. Matt’s mother eventually adopted Kennings during his freshman year of high school, but to Kennings, Kodee is his only true family.

“Kodee was his first real look at what his family may have looked like,” Colleen said. “So she’s a little bit more special – not because she’s his kid, but because she’s the first real family he’s ever had.”

Colleen said because of this, he is sensitive toward her and constantly afraid for her.

Kodee’s mother died when she was five, making the bond between the two that much stronger.

“I don’t have a mom,” Kodee said. “If he died, I don’t have anywhere to go.”

Kodee and her father exchange letters, she receives an occasional phone call and she saw him once with the 101st Airborne Division on television.

But the prime mode of communication is through letters, which Kodee tries to use as a tool to speed up the war and to make sure her father remembers his promise to her – that he would eventually come home.

I miss you and I want you to punch Saddam. Don’t die, OK dad? When you come home, can you stay home for real? You should find Saddam and run him over with your tank. Then you can come home. Do you wear your helmet when you sleep? I love you and don’t die.

Kennings writes back emotional letters written on loose-leaf notebook paper, telling her that even though the war may be ending, he may still have to stay a long time.

He tells her that he keeps up with the rituals the two use to try to stay connected. He constantly looks at a picture of Kodee he hides inside his helmet, keeps a teddy bear she gave him that says “daddy’s girl” and sings Rock A Bye Heart by Steve Holy every night to remind him of Kodee.

In a recent letter, Kennings wrote to Kodee about how she plays a part in what he does in Iraq:You know what? I sing our song every night. Do you? I’m humming it right now. Every time I sing it I miss you more.

You know, a bunch of soldiers have kids back at home and they miss them, too. They all have pictures, and we show each other all the time. I think you’re the prettiest, though.

You know what else? Everyone thinks that soldiers don’t cry. But you know what, they all do.

Kennings is extremely sensitive compared to the typical American stereotype of soldiers. He is not afraid to cry, does not mind being sentimental and writes poems about his daughter.

All this needs to be hidden from those he fights with, though, at the risk of ridicule. The teddy bear Kodee gave him that said “daddy’s girl” is kept out of sight, and Kodee said she understands.

“He keeps it in his bag because the other soldiers might make fun of him,” Kodee explained.

Because of the bond between Kennings and Kodee, Matt and Colleen are having a difficult time substituting as parents for Kodee, especially Colleen.

Kodee is not used to having a female parental figure, so she approaches Matt with all of her problems and goes out of her way to avoid Colleen in certain situations, although Colleen said it is starting to get better.

When she first started living with Matt and Colleen, Kodee would not ask Colleen for anything. On one occasion, despite standing a few feet from Colleen, she walked out of the house and all the way around it to the backyard to ask Matt for a glass of water.

“She would just bypass me, because she just wasn’t used to having a female mom figure around, so she just didn’t even think to ask or to say anything to me,” Colleen said.

It’s also difficult to understand a child who has been raised on military bases her entire life. When Kodee came to southern Illinois, she would walk up to any person wearing camouflage and ask him if he knew her dad.

There is also the problem of keeping the war away from Kodee. Matt and Colleen knew they had to get her away from Fort Campbell because every time a soldier dies, a red light illuminates accompanied by a number indicating how many soldiers were dead.

But southern Illinois has proved to be just as much of a challenge. They keep her away from all the war coverage on television unless her dad shows up and home-school her because normal schools cover the war and try to keep her away from war protest.

That last one becomes a challenge anytime she comes to the SIUC campus with Matt. An avid Saluki fan, Kodee loves SIU, but she hates seeing “no war” scrawled on the walls of Faner and becomes confused when reading slogans such as “Bush is the Devil.”

To Kodee, Bush is her father’s boss and she does not understand why people think he is evil. She has also has a very difficult time understanding the war protesters and has begun to fear them the way most kids fear the boogeyman or monsters.

She calls them “the bad people,” and is convinced they are going to come to her house at night to hurt her or camp out on the lawn and make her father not want to come home.

Every night, Matt and Colleen have to check under Kodee’s bed and in the closet for “the bad people.” They also have to double check to make sure the window is locked and investigate any sound that comes from outside.

Colleen said Kodee routinely wakes up at night screaming, fearful that “the bad people” are going to get her.

“To you and I, it’s a crazy thought, but in her mind, it’s as real as the telephone you’re holding,” Colleen said during a phone interview. “The fear is just so real.”

Their problem was compounded last Friday, when Kodee received devastating news from her father in Iraq via phone.

“I have some good news and I have some bad news,” Kennings told his daughter. “Which do you want me to tell you first?”

“I want to hear the good news,” Kodee replied.

“The war is over,” he said.

Forgetting everything else in the world, Kodee jumped up and down, screaming yay! She was beside her self with joy.

But then came the hard part.

“I still have some bad news,” Kennings continued.

“Well, I don’t want to hear it,” Kodee said.

“Well, I still have to tell you,” her father insisted.

“No you don’t. I just want to hear good news from you,” Kodee replied.

“I really have to tell you,” Kennings said.

“No you don’t,” Kodee repeated.

The two exchanged the same argument a few more times before Kodee gave in. It was at this point Kennings delivered the bombshell.

“I probably won’t be home for summer,” he said.

Kodee was devastated, even when her father told her the reason he had to stay.

“He said he had to stay and help rebuild the country cause it was all destroyed,” Kodee said. “He said he had to build hospitals because otherwise people would die. There is no medicine or doctors.”

She wanted to speak to his superior to interrogate him on why her father was being forced to stay. But eventually, she had to accept the news and spent the rest of the day moping around, refusing to engage in two of her favorite past times – going to the park and hitting balls at the batting cages.

“When she heard all that, to be quite honest, she just crumbled into pieces,” Colleen said.

Colleen and Matt now have to figure out how to manage until October. Kodee initially saw her life in Marion/Carbondale as a vacation, but now the two must think more permanently and possibly enroll the home-schooled Kodee in a normal school when August rolls around.

For Kodee, it means several months more of missing her only family member and wondering if he is going to come home alive.

“I want him to come home now,” Kodee said. “I want him to come home now because I’m tired of waiting.”

Reporter Michael Brenner can be reached at [email protected]

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