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KANE â€“ There's a somber mood today at the Kane Armory along Chestnut Street where the local National Guard unit is undergoing its monthly drill.
The unit-- Detachment 1, Company A, 128th Brigade Support Battalion (BSB), Second Brigade of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard-- is mourning the loss of Staff Sgt. Kenneth VanGiesen, who was killed Monday while serving with another Guard unit in Afghanistan.
VanGiesen joined the Kane unit of the Guard after graduating from Kane Area High School in 1999. He has previously participated in one deployment in Germany and two tours of duty in Iraq and has 1,400 "mobilized days" in overseas' deployment with the Guard.
He has lived in Millcreek Township near Erie while working full-time in the maintenance shop at the new National Guard complex in Cambridge Springs for the past four years. But VanGiesen still retained his link with his "home" unit in Kane and came back for monthly drills in his role as a military truck driver.
"He was assigned to our unit," Sgt. Julie Wilson said Friday. "He was one of us."
Wilson, the former Julie Progar of Sheffield, has been the administrative Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) at the Kane Armory for more than nine years.
She has known VanGiesen virtually her entire 12-year career in the National Guard.
"I joined in February 1999 while I was a junior in high school," Wilson said. "Kenny joined in July 1999 after high school."
With tears welling in her eyes, Wilson described VanGiesen as a "dedicated soldier who never complained about anything." "He just made it happen," she said.
"I've been in the military for 12 years," Wilson said. "It's not every day that you meet a soldier like Kenny. He would do anything for anybody. Everyone looked up to Kenny and respected him. He was always making you laugh-- no matter what."
She learned Tuesday that VanGiesen had been killed in Afghanistan.
"That was the worst day of my military career," she said.
Wilson has been married for over five years to Sgt. Ryan Wilson, a Port Allegany native. They met while serving together at the Guard unit in Kane. The Wilsons have two children and reside in Sheffield.
Wilson said an Army chaplain would be at the Kane Armory today to be available for counseling.
VanGiesen built many relationships with other soldiers at the Kane unit, but his closest friend is Sgt. Jon Tomko of Ellwood City. Tomko traveled to Kane earlier this week to visit with Tom and Sue VanGiesen, parents of the fallen soldier, at their home at 137 Lincoln St.
Tom VanGiesen said Friday that his son's death has had a devastating effect on Tomko because of their enduring friendship.
"Jon has stayed at our house and Ken stayed with Jon," Tom VanGiesen said. "They were very close."
Wilson said two other Kane unit soldiers-- Staff Sgt. Robert Morrow and Sgt. Albert Caldwell, both from the Erie area-- also were chosen along with VanGiesen for deployment in March in Afghanistan with the Pennsylvania National Guard's 131st Transportation Company, 213th Area Support Group, based in Philadelphia and Williamstown. The unit was due to return to the U.S. in September, Wilson said.
The NCO at the Kane Armory said the 131st unit has been in Afghanistan since November and tapped VanGiesen, Morrow and Caldwell come over in March because "they needed some leadership soldiers."
The Kane unit now has 52 soldiers. Because it's involved in transportation, the Kane unit is one of the few National Guard groups with "slots" for females, Wilson said. Of the 52 soldiers now based in Kane, 19 are females, Wilson said.
According to Wilson, "about 22" soldiers from the Kane unit are training for a scheduled deployment in January in Kuwait with the 55th Brigade of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.
Wilson said the Kane unit has had soldiers deployed before in the Middle East.
"Until now, they've all come back," Wilson said. "Kenny is our first casualty."
Her voice cracking with heartfelt emotion, Wilson said "there really are no words to describe" the loss of VanGiesen, a fellow soldier and friend.
"It's not just because of the type of soldier he was," Wilson said. "It's because of the kind of person he was."
Pick up a copy of the Saturday, July 23, 2011 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.