Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Remembering Andy

Mi Hea Kim caresses her son Andy's face during his funeral.

United States Marine Lance Corporal Andy Kim never saw the barrel flash from the sniper’s rifle as he walked point on a road patrol in Fallujah, Iraq, the first day of November, 2006.

He never heard the sizzle of the bullet as it seared though the air, or felt the burn as it tore into his neck, dropping him instantly dead on the ground just three days after his 20th birthday.

Kim’s death was no more or less spectacular than any other death suffered in any other war. He was just a soldier following orders and serving his country before he was killed in the line of duty by a carbon copy of himself at the other end of a rifle.

Just another tombstone in a cemetery marked with a flag - another kid who will never get married; never have kids; never get old and fat, and yet, his death was so much more than ordinary.

Three years ago this month, Andy Kim’s story unfolded before my eyes. I never met him while he was alive, but for two weeks in November, I got to know Andy very well in death as I traveled with his body to both his funeral in Ann Arbor, and his burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Kim’s mother Mi Hea and his father Don were kind enough to invite me, and Ann Arbor News reporter Jo Mathis, into their lives as they grieved the death of their eldest son. They told us they were “honored” by our presence. Can you imagine that? Honored by our presence.

By them saying that, it changed everything for me. Instead of feeling like a vulture, exploiting their grief, I felt a sense of responsibility to share their grief with our community – with the world.

People needed to know that Andy Kim’s casualty was far from ordinary. It was a death to be felt deeper than just the Anbar Province in Fallujah, where Andy was killed, or South Korea where he was born, or Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he went to school, or Arlington, Virginia, where he was buried. Andy’s death needed to be felt by everyone. His death was our death … my death.

The two weeks I spent with the Kim family are something I’ll never forget, even now, three years later when his death seems more and more trivial as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to spin their wheels and go nowhere.

The images of those two weeks are forever burned in my brain. The irony of his situation has never escaped me.

Andy Kim was not the stereotypical Asian kid. He didn’t excel in school and he got into his fair share of trouble. He was lost, like a lot of 18-year-olds, and then he found God - our God - the western version. Andy tried converting his parents to his newfound Christianity. But they didn’t understand and they resisted.

Soon after he found God, Andy also found the United States Marine Corps. He felt at home there, older and more mature than his fellow plebes because of his strong belief - a belief that made it easy for Andy to voluntarily walk point on road patrols. He had God on his side. He was saved; born again. Andy would take one for the team if he had to. He was expendable.

The other Marines in his unit may not have known that, but his parents did, and so did his kid brother Isaac. Andy told them so in his numerous letters home from the front lines. He may have been afraid of a lot of things, but he was not afraid to die.

The sound of Andy Kim’s lifeless body falling to the ground arrived before the sound of the bullet that took his life. It was a quiet death. The sniper had done his job cleanly – taking out the Marine point man completely undetected. He got his kill - an American, but his fatal shot started a series of events he never could have envisioned when he set his gun sight on Andy Kim’s head.

The news of their son’s fate numbed Mi Hea and Don. They’d left Korea for America when Andy was a 2-year-old. They didn’t want their son mandatorily serving in the South Korean Army upon his 18th birthday. Now their son had been shot dead wearing the battle fatigues of a country they weren’t even from. They struggled with their decision; they struggled trying to find answers and reason. They didn’t have Andy’s God to turn to. They were lost, much like Andy had been after high school.

Like every casualty of war, Andy’s body was about to embark on an amazing journey, logging several thousand air miles before finally being put into the earth. His only belongings - dog tags, a crucifix and a Timex Ironman watch - were removed from his corpse and dropped into a red velvet pouch where they would stay in the shipping crate next to him as he began his long trip home. First, he was flown to Germany, where his body was cleaned and embalmed; then it was off to Dover, Delaware, where his death was officially processed; and finally, Andy's body was flown to Detroit, Michigan, near his Ann Arbor home.

Don and Mi Hea were waiting on the tarmac in the pouring rain at Detroit Metro Airport when their son’s flag draped casket was taken off the plane. They would collapse in grief at the site of the coffin – the first of many times their grief would reduce them to hysterics in the coming weeks.

Andy's dog tag, crucifix, and Timex Ironman watch.

The red pouch with Andy’s dog tags, crucifix and watch were given to Mi Hea and Don - all that was left of their son. The Ironman watch was in perfect condition, still set 6-hours ahead to Iraq-time. Now it was keeping a post-mortem timeline. A timeline that began the moment it was slipped off Andy’s lifeless wrist. If only Mi Hea and Don could have those 6-hours back, maybe their son would still be alive.

In two days, Mi Hea and Don would have relatives flying in from Korea and Japan to attend their son’s funeral. The Kim’s younger son Isaac, a junior in high school at the time, became both the family’s travel agent and translator as the family dealt with the business side of death.

Isaac didn’t have time to feel the numbness his parents felt. He didn’t have time to cry. He was too busy gathering photos of his brother for the funeral, picking up relatives at the airport, translating for his parents to the Marine Corps, the funeral home director, the folks at Arlington National Cemetery – anyone who didn’t speak Korean.

The Marines from Lansing descended on Ann Arbor too – dozens of them. No fallen comrade would go unguarded. For the next two weeks, Andy’s flag-draped casket would be watched over by America’s finest.

A private showing of Andy’s body preceded his public funeral. Only Mi Hea, Don, Isaac, and 20 or so family members were there when the casket lid was opened for the first time since it arrived in the states. The last time Mi Hea had seen her son, he was living … breathing – warm. The sight of Andy in uniform, lying dead in a casket was more than she could take. Her grief needed no translation. Instantly she burst into tears and turned away. Then she ran to her son, bending over the casket and collapsing on top of his chest.

There was no sound in the church; nothing to drown out Mi Hea’s quiet moaning as she gently stroked her son’s face over and over. Nothing to block out the emotion of the moment as she kissed his forehead, then wiped her tears off his brass uniform buttons with her handkerchief. Mi Hea wouldn’t leave Andy’s side. She wouldn’t let Don or Isaac pull her away. For 20 minutes she repeated the same ritual of stroking his face, kissing his forehead and wiping her tears off his uniform.

Eventually, Mi Hea’s tears would dry and she found herself stumbling to the first row in the church with Don and Isaac by her side. The public soon would be in to see their son. Within an hour the church would be packed with Andy’s friends and relatives. Several World War II veterans also would show up to honor Andy.

Mi Hea and Don double over in tears as the lid to Andy's casket is closed for the last time.

When all had paid their respects, the lid to Andy’s casket was slowly lowered shut. Mi Hea and Don followed the path of the lid with their bodies, bending over as the lid dropped lower and lower. Soon, they were almost sitting on the floor, trying to savor one last glimpse of their son. Both burst into hysterics when the lid was closed for good. For an hour, at least, they'd seen their son again, but now he was truly gone and it was too much for them to handle as they doubled over in sea of tears.

But Andy’s burial still was a week away. His relatives all would stay in Ann Arbor until it was time to fly to Washington D.C. for the final leg in Andy’s journey. In the interim, I got permission from the local funeral home to visit Andy’s flag-draped casket in the home's basement where he was kept for the week before the burial.

Andy's casket in the basement of the funeral home, waiting to be crated and flown to Arlington.

It was a powerful sight. One that very few get a chance to see. The stars and stripes of the American flag stood out with such boldness in an otherwise dreary setting. For 15-minutes I stayed with Andy’s body. Nearby, another casket containing the body of 19-year-old boy killed in a car accident, waited for its funeral to start later that day.

A Marine guard would be dropping by soon to check on Andy’s body. I was told this happened every day the entire week he was in the basement. I wondered where Mi Hea and Don were at that moment while I was with their son. I wondered what Andy would say to me if he were still alive. I wondered if he knew the young man in the casket next to us. It was strange to be standing between the dead bodies of two young men whose ages didn't add up to mine combined.

I shut off the lights and left both boys behind. Grieving relatives of the young man killed in the car accident already were filing in upstairs. I’d be back at the funeral home in a few days when they would prepare Andy for his final journey to Arlington. I decided to accompany Andy and his Marine escort to Detroit Metro Airport for their flight to D.C.

Driving next to the hearse carrying Andy's casket down I-94 was odd. How many folks passing us could guess the hearse contained a fallen Marine? Once at the airport, Andy’s casket, already packed in a shipping crate, was removed from the hearse at the airfreight warehouse. To us, Andy Kim was a fallen hero; to the airport, he was 450 pounds of air cargo marked “human remains.”

Andy's Marine escort, and Northwest Airline employees salute his body as it's loaded onto the plane.

I wasn’t allowed on the tarmac with the Marine escort or Andy’s body, but I’ll never forget how every person at the gate pressed their faces to the window as they watched his casket get loaded into the belly of a Northwest Airlines jet. Several saluted once they saw Andy’s Marine escort and realized it was a fallen soldier being put on the plane. The next day I was on a plane myself with Mi Hea, Don, and Isaac, bound for our nation’s capitol.

Whatever grieving the Kim’s had set aside for a few days, came rushing back at the site of Marine Honor Guards carrying their son’s casket through Arlington National Cemetery. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. The rows of grave markers stretched out over the hillside in perfect white lines behind Andy’s gravesite. Apart from Mi Hea’s soft sobbing and birds singing, it was quiet. 

The pace and precision of the Marine Honor Guards was a true thing of beauty. The ceremony was short, maybe 15-mintues, but it was powerful. The sound of Taps ringing off the grave markers broke the silence and reduced everyone to tears. Andy Kim deserved such a burial – every fallen soldier deserves such a burial.

United States Marine Corps Honor Guard members carry Andy to his final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery.

Television crews from Washington were there; photographers and writers from the Washington Post were there as well. I asked them why they were interested in covering the death of a Michigan Marine. They told me anytime they get clearance from the relatives of the deceased soldier; they cover the burial.

A half an hour later it was over. Before we had left the cemetery grounds, U.S. Marince Lcpl. Andy Kim was lowered 6-feet into the same Virginia soil that thousands of other soldiers from several wars, as well as several U.S. Presidents, now call home.

Three years later, I still think a lot about Andy Kim, especially today - Veteran’s Day. I think of all our veterans, my brother included, who have risked their lives, or have given their life, for our country. It makes me humble. It makes me proud.

Andy Kim died a quiet death on November 1, 2006. But it didn’t go unnoticed, and it never will.


  1. Lon, My name is David Shin and I was Andy's youth pastor during his high school days. Thank you for writing this. No words can possibly describe fully the journey so far, but yours comes very close.

    Thanks for remembering Andy.

  2. How easy we forget the repercussions and ramifications of a lost life.

    Beautifully written.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Dear Lon,

    My name's Jean, a friend of Andy's in college. Thanks for honoring and remembering Andy in this way. It means a lot to all of us.

  4. Hi Lon - I'm a friend of the Kim family. They visited Arlington this past weekend as they have done the past two Novembers. Thank you for the moving entry.

  5. Dear Lon,

    My name is Yong Woo Kim, another friend of Andy from the church we attended together in Ann Arbor. I actually just came back from his grave in Arlington today, so this tribute is timely and much appreciated. Thank you for this.

  6. Hi Lon,

    I am also a friend of the family. Thank you for taking the time to write this eloquent memory of Andy. He meant so much to all of us, and this entry truly captures the essence of one individual life in our lifetime. Thank you for remembering him.

  7. Lon,

    You have a special gift, what a wonderful tribute. Thank you.

  8. A beautiful tribute. I did not know Andy, but I knew many like him in another time and place.

  9. Though I never knew Andy, I can easily see that his life and death touched many people. Thanks so much for taking all of this in and giving veterans the dignity they deserve.

  10. Hello! I am also a member of the church Andy attended in Ann Arbor. Thank you for this beautiful written piece and for remembering Andy.

  11. It's MEN like Andy that humble those around him with his dedication and courage, serving the country we call home. However, it's MEN like yourself that humble those around the world for remembering and sharing the memories of those we are so proud of.


  12. Dear Lon,

    Thank you so much for the recount of Andy's death and all that ensued afterward. Andy really meant so much to all of us, especially to our church community. His life and death are testaments of God's sovereignty and grace to us. Thank you for being a part of his story.

    Thank you.

  13. Lon, thank you for such a beautifully written tribute. I wish every fallen soldier's life could be chronicled this way. For nearly eight years we gave up the right to mourn our fallen military publicly. It is ultimately up to the parents or loved ones to decide just how public their mourning will be, but we become far too detached and complacent when we allow ourselves to think of these deaths in terms of numbers instead of real lives cut short in their prime.

    We need to see those bodies. We need to see pictures of them in their youth and as civilians. And we need to see the grief of the people left behind. We need this so that we can decide for ourselves whether these sacrifices are worth it. I hope the families understand.