This longread was originally published on Oct. 15, 2009 on The Brooklyn Ink
By Terry Baynes
The minute Oslen Hill saw the uniforms at his door, he knew. He had served in the military. No words were necessary. His son, Kevin O. Hill, was dead. He was a 23-year-old soldier from Brooklyn deployed in Afghanistan.
Soon after the officers left, the phone started ringing in Oslen Hill’s home in Raleigh, North Carolina. He picked it up to hear his wife, Mahalia Hill, screaming on the other end. Two officers had also come to her door, in East New York, Brooklyn. Two synchronized knocks five hundred miles apart; the same news.
Hill tried to call his daughters, Chinyere and Shantel, but he couldn’t reach them. They had gone out shopping that Sunday and hadn’t heard the news yet. On the bus ride back, his oldest daughter, Chinyere, called. “The way I answered the phone, my voice, she knew that something was wrong,” he said. “Having to tell her on the phone, and not being able to hold her. And to hear them scream, without being able to hold them. That just made it even worse.”
Hill has worked for the Postal Service for the past 18 years and recently relocated from New York to North Carolina, where he wanted to move his family. After speaking to them on the phone on Sunday, Hill got in his car and drove straight to New York. “Nine hours, driving and crying, driving and crying,” he said. He arrived in Brooklyn early Monday morning, October 5.
Piecing Together the Facts
Kevin died on Sunday, October 4.
He was very close to his mother, Mahalia, and would call her every week to check in on her. The last time they spoke was on the Tuesday before Kevin died. He asked how she was doing, if she was going to the movies anytime soon, and if she was going to start working again. He always asked how his sisters were doing. Just before saying goodbye, he mentioned, “There are people in this unit who got killed,” his mother recounted. It was the only time he told her anything related to the war.
“He never wanted his mom to worry because, of course she was worried. He tried his best not to tell her anything really. Anything concerning war,” his father said. “He never talked about what he was doing, and we never really pushed it because, in our eyes, people who go to combat don’t like talking about combat.”
The Hill family is still trying to piece together what happened to Kevin. According to the Department of Defense, he died at Contingency Outpost Dehanna in Afghanistan when enemy forces attacked his unit. Officials from the Army informed the family that Kevin died while he was out on patrol on a road near the Pakistan border.
Conflicting stories of what happened have shaken their prior assumptions. The family understood Kevin to be working as a prison guard in Afghanistan. They assumed this meant he would be stationary and shielded from most of the action and danger. “Being a guard and being out there searching for IED’s in the middle of nowhere, I can’t understand,” his father said. “But these are the stories they gave.”
Army officials told the family that Kevin was shot in the head, his father said. He added, “I don’t know if that’s to make us feel better. Because that sounds real neat and tidy. No suffering. But then, at the same time, we’re having a closed casket.”
One of Kevin’s friends from his platoon had called the family and said that there were some explosions. “‘So Kevin, he’s not all here.’ That’s what he said,” recounted Chinyere, Kevin’s older sister.
“I don’t know whether he suffered or not, and that’s what kills me. In terms of details, him being shot before or after. I just try not to think about it because it’s too much, too much,” his father said, his voice breaking. On the table in front of him stood a large bouquet of flowers with a card reading: “I’m sorry that I could not bring Kevin home. A piece of me died that day along with him. Know that you and your family are in our thoughts. Love and prayers. Sincerely, 1Lt. Patrick C. Benitez.”
Next to the flowers sits a letter on army letterhead detailing the funeral expenses covered under Kevin’s contract.
Kevin Hill was born on June 14, 1986 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, while his father, Oslen, was stationed at Fort Bragg. The family followed Oslen to Germany for a short time and later moved to Bushwick, where Kevin spent most of his childhood. The Hills didn’t want their children hanging out on the streets. So they spent time at home, playing Nintendo games like Donkey Kong. The children also played with a neighbor, Darryl Hamilton, who became Kevin’s best friend. Darryl later recalled how they would all go to the movies together, like an extended family.
When Kevin was 14, his family was facing financial difficulties, and he and his sister, Shantel, moved in with their aunt, Sophia McCarthy. McCarthy was twenty years older than Kevin’s mother, Mahalia, and the first in her family to move to New York from Jamaica.
“His aunt is so protective of him, she loves him to death,” said Kevin’s father. “She never had any kids. So her sister’s kids are pretty much her kids.” Once, she asked Kevin to go out and buy some milk. He ran into a friend and lost track of time. He returned with the milk half-an-hour later to find police cars outside his aunt’s house. In a panic, she had called 911.
“If you want to have a son, you should have Kevin. He was such a good boy,” McCarthy said. “He never wore his pants hanging low. He went to school every single day. He never drank any bit of alcohol.”
Kevin seldom spoke about himself. “He was always a very quiet kid,” his father said. He was not the sort to push himself in class at John Dewey High School. “He was the kid that would do the minimum,” his father said. If 70 was a passing grade, “he would do 71 or 72.” His older sister, Chinyere was the opposite. So, for Oslen Hill, it was a surprise when Kevin started to work hard to go to college. “Of course we expected her to go to college,” he said of Chinyere. “And we were hoping he would go. But then it turned out he did. That was a pleasant surprise.”
Kevin held jobs at Nathan’s hot dog stand and the Cyclone’s baseball stadium on Coney Island. The summer after high school, he worked at a law firm. He rented his own apartment in Bushwick, but he spent little time there. “He just worked and came home and hung out with us,” his father said. He would take his mother and sisters to the movies or out to eat.
After graduating from John Dewey High School in 2004, Kevin went straight to a four-year degree program at Monroe College in the Bronx. He got a job with the Transportation Security Administration as a security agent at J.F.K. Airport. He would wake before dawn and leave the house by 4 a.m. to get to work. After work, he would travel up to the Bronx for classes. “He always put school first, all year round, to graduate a little early. Summer time, winter time, he had a class no matter what,” said his sister, Chinyere.
Kevin graduated in June of 2008 with a B.A. in criminal justice. The whole extended family, from Canada and Florida, converged on Brooklyn to celebrate. They went to Red Lobster for dinner.
Graduating from college was a proud tradition in the Hill family. “Except for me. I broke it,” said Kevin’s father. When his high school sweetheart, Kevin’s mother, Mahalia, became pregnant with their oldest child, Oslen Hill decided to join the military. He had been working odd jobs at the time and decided that he needed more stability for his kids.
The Decision to Enlist
Kevin did not tell his family when he enlisted in the Army. Before joining, he mentioned the idea. When everyone, including his sisters, discouraged him, he stopped talking about it.
“None of us wanted him to go into the military. Well not in the Army anyway because I was in the Army in the first Gulf War, and I knew what war was like. And so I didn’t want my son experiencing combat like I did,” said Oslen Hill. He told his son about the constant fear, of not knowing where the next bullet, mine, or sniper was hidden.
When Kevin stopped talking about the idea, they assumed that was the end of it. “But, of course, it wasn’t because he still joined. And when everyone found out, it was too late. He was already in,” his father said.
The decision was a mark of Kevin’s independence. “He liked to do things on his own,” said his mother, all the way back to when he was a baby playing with his toys. “He liked support, for us to be there for him, but he liked to do things for himself.”
Sometimes, when Kevin was young, they would go to army exhibitions to watch his father jump out of planes. He was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. “Maybe that’s why Kevin insisted on the Army,” Hill said. “Because he had choices, I mean, any branch. He could have gone to the Navy or the Air Force, the National Guard, but he chose the Army. I can only say that that’s what he wanted to do.”
Sitting on the couch a week after Kevin’s death, Oslen Hill clutched onto his favorite picture of Kevin. It was one of him in college cap and gown. “Kevin was more than a soldier. He actually did something with his life prior to being a soldier. That’s not all he was. I’m proud of him being a soldier, but I’m more proud of him for being a graduate,” he said. “It means more to me.”
Kevin told his mother his ideas of becoming a detective. He also mentioned to his father the idea of opening up a law firm with his best friend Darryl Hamilton: Hill and Hamilton, Partners at Law. Both friends were majoring in criminal justice in college, and Darryl had his sights set on law school. “Kevin was supposed to be a lawyer,” said his Aunt Sophia.
In 2008, Kevin sat down with Lisa Whiteside, Professor of Criminal Justice at Monroe College, to discuss his career options. But his mind was made up: he was going to join the military. “Are you sure this is something you really want to do?” Whiteside recalls asking. He was sure. His father and grandfather had served in the military, and he wanted to do as they had done.
“I wanted to be certain that he knew what the consequences were,” Whiteside said. “I explained to him that there were other things that he could do with a degree in criminal justice. He could have gotten in with any law enforcement agency. There were opportunities short of him going into the military.” Whiteside listed Hill’s options: the FBI, the Secret Service, the DEA, the NYPD, corrections.
After graduating in the summer of 2008, Kevin told Darryl that he wanted to work for the Secret Service, but he didn’t feel that he had enough work experience. He thought that military service would help his career, Darryl said. Kevin joined the Army on September 16, 2008.
Kevin’s father suspects he encountered military recruiters at Monroe College. The military recruiting process is “ruthless,” he said. Recruiters have to fill certain quotas and particular jobs. “If Kevin had spoken to me, I could have steered him. I could have told him what jobs to take and what jobs not to take… He could have taken just about any job that was offered,” Hill said. “He could have worked in the legal department.”
Although everyone in the family was worried when they learned that Kevin had enlisted, they decided it was best not to frighten him but rather to support him. They held on to the hope that someone with his level of education would be steered towards an office job and away from combat.
Kevin, said his father, was “not a violent person or anything of the sort. I just feared for him because he was not a fighter kind of person. He was a gentle person, and so I didn’t foresee combat for him.”
As Kevin was deciding whether to enlist during the summer of 2008, the debate over U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan was fading from the public discourse. By June, conventional wisdom had solidified around the idea that President George W. Bush’s “surge” in Iraq had succeeded. The war effort was “on a firmer foundation” because of America’s increased troop presence there, one military analyst wrote in an AugustWashington Post column.
When Kevin finally made his decision in September, news from the region was mixed. Early in the month, President Bush announced that the United States would pull 8,000 troops out of Iraq in early 2009. At the same time, the president said he would be increasing troop levels in Afghanistan by around 4,500 troops. The announcement drew little attention initially. But over the next few weeks, the increasingly grim news from Afghanistan began to overwhelm the encouraging news from Iraq.
By mid-September, however, the nation was focused on an entirely different worry: the quickly deteriorating economy. On September 15, Lehman Brothers collapsed and Wall Street went into a panic not seen since 1929. Kevin enlisted the next day.
By October 1, General David Petraeus, days away from taking over the United States Central Command, admitted to reporters that insurgents were gaining ground in Afghanistan. A week later, news leaked that intelligence agencies believed the country was heading into a “downward spiral.”
By February 2009, Kevin had finished basic training at Fort Carson, Colorado, and was deployed to Iraq. The family threw him a send-off with barbecue chicken and his favorite, lasagna. They all went to play video arcade games on 42nd Street and saw a movie through 3D glasses.
By April 2009, Kevin was relocated from Iraq to Afghanistan.
The Last Visit
Kevin came home on leave this past August. His Aunt Sophia thought he looked worn down when he arrived. But after three days at home, she said, “He looked so different, rested and peaceful.” He took his mother and sisters out for lunch and to the movies.
He also traveled down to Washington, D.C. with Darryl Hamilton and one of Darryl’s friends. He had never been to the Nation’s Capitol and wanted to see the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the Frederick Douglass Museum, and other sites. He was always interested in history and museums; his favorites were the Brooklyn Museum and the American Museum of Natural History.
“He seemed like he was ready to be home,” Darryl said. “He was happy to be home.”
While others thought of him only as a quiet young man, Darryl saw him as a playful person who told a lot of jokes. Yet, in Washington, D.C., he seemed “kind of distant” to Darryl. “Like he had a lot of stuff on his mind, like his mind was racing,” Darryl said. “He told me he had seen a dead body in front of him.”
Darryl and Kevin talked about planning something for the next time he came back. Kevin told Darryl he wanted to buy a car, a Chrysler 300. He said that his tour would be ending soon and that Darryl should come and visit him when he was stationed back in Colorado.
The most recent pictures of Kevin are from his trip to D.C. They are still on his digital camera in the family’s apartment. One picture shows Kevin at the World War II Memorial, standing in front of the New York column. Another shows the three men smiling in front of the White House.
Kevin Hill died as the president and his advisers are once again debating U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. The debate turns on two crucial points: whether or not to increase troops by as many as 40,000, and where in Afghanistan the brunt of U.S. forces should be based.
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, America’s top commander in the country, believes the United States should not hunt down the Taliban in rural parts of the country. Our forces “cannot be strong everywhere,” he wrote in a highly publicized assessment last August. Instead, McChrystal argues, American troops should leave remote parts of the county to focus more on protecting civilians in high-population areas. The “key terrain,” he believes, “is generally where the population lives and works” – far from the small town in rural Dehanna where Kevin Hill was on patrol when he was killed.
Kevin’s father knows that this war is different from the one he fought. “We knew the enemy in the first Gulf War. In this war, there’s no one in uniforms to distinguish who’s who. Everyone’s in robes,” he said. “It’s a totally different war.”
He does not believe that President Obama should send any more troops to Afghanistan. And not because of Kevin. “Until Pakistan steps up their responsibility and stops making the border of Pakistan safe havens,” he said. “It will be absolutely useless.”
Kevin’s body is currently at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. His memorial service will be held at John J. McManus & Sons Funeral Home at 4601 Avenue N in Flatlands, Brooklyn at 7 p.m. on Friday, October 16, 2009. He will be buried on Saturday morning at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Queens.
Additional reporting by Rob Anderson, Alessia Pirolo, Daniel Roberts and Mara Zepada