Strangers linked by iconic Desert Storm photo finally meet 24 years later - The Buffalo News

Share this article

print logo

Strangers linked by iconic Desert Storm photo finally meet 24 years later

UNIONTOWN, Pa. – Twenty-four slow, burning years have passed since Sgt. Ken Kozakiewicz got wrecked to his soul.

Raw from a battle that ended moments before, dazed from the two missiles that smoked his Bradley Fighting Vehicle and weary from traversing an ungodly expanse of Iraq desert, Kozakiewicz did what any man would.

He read the name on the dead soldier’s identification card, looked away from the bloody body bag and wailed.

Kozakiewicz’s helpless, primal howl became the signature image of Operation Desert Storm. The picture, taken by David Turnley, showed war’s wicked truth and is considered one of military history’s most provocative photos.

Kozakiewicz, his broken left hand in a sling, had been guided into a medical evacuation helicopter after the Jalibah Airfield rout Feb. 27, 1991. The battle was among the final objectives of a dominant campaign to expel Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein’s army from neighboring Kuwait.

Kozakiewicz and Cpl. Mike Tsangarakis were about to be whisked away. Then a body bag was loaded onto the helicopter floor. Kozakiewicz demanded the dead soldier’s name.

A medic reluctantly handed Kozakiewicz the ID for 20-year-old Pvt. Andy Alaniz. In the center of the photo, Tsangarakis lifted his head bandages to glimpse the sack at his feet.

“I was just dumbfounded,” Kozakiewicz recalled Friday. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. He just got married. There’s no way.’

“Then it hit me like a ton of bricks.”

The vulnerable moment was seen around the world, running on the cover of Parade magazine. For 24 years, the photo has embarrassed Kozakiewicz but buoyed Alaniz’s high school sweetheart, who became a 19-year-old, pregnant widow.

“I don’t see my husband in a body bag,” Catherine Alaniz-Simonds said Friday. “I see a man crying. I see my husband surrounded by people that loved him. This picture shows the true meaning of war. Not everybody came home.”

Alaniz-Simonds yearned to meet Kozakiewicz for 24 years. The Army lied about how her husband had died. She craved the tiniest bit of knowledge about her husband from the men who spent more intimate time with him than she did.

-----

Strangers linked by iconic photo meet after 24 years (photo gallery)

-----

Her search to locate Kozakiewicz in West Seneca took 21 years, partly because he didn’t want to be found. Once found, he was terrified to speak with her.

Kozakiewicz, Alaniz-Simonds and Tsangarakis began to communicate three years ago at BuffaloNews.com. They introduced themselves in the comments sections beneath a four-part series about how their lives turned out. Then they shifted to Facebook.

All the while, though, Kozakiewicz and Alaniz-Simonds never spoke.

That changed Friday in Uniontown, Pa., where a pastor with ties to the Jalibah Airfield attack arranged a meeting this weekend.

Before the meeting, Kozakiewicz was petrified at the prospect of coming face to face with Alaniz’s widow and 24 years worth of demons.

Kozakiewicz is every bit the man’s man. He has a gruff exterior accentuated by a buzz cut and speaks with a smoker’s growl. He wears three silver rings he calls skull-crushers. His father, a retired Army recruiter, once said Kozakiewicz “wanted to be Rambo” upon graduating from Orchard Park High.

But Kozakiewicz dreaded an encounter with the 5-foot-5 Alaniz-Simonds.

What would he say? What could he say? Would it be enough to ease her pain? Will this help him heal or cut him to the bone all over again?

“We’ve developed a relationship,” Alaniz-Simonds said at the thought of meeting Kozakiewicz. “I feel like I already know him, so I’m not nervous. I’m just excited to hug him and tell him how glad I am that he’s here.”

Alaniz-Simonds and her second husband drove from Noble, Okla., and arrived in Uniontown on Wednesday.

Kozakiewicz wasn’t to arrive until Friday, and there still was a chance he could back out.

He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and is on full disability. Open spaces give Kozakiewicz panic attacks that prevent him from driving on highways. Even with his fiancée at the steering wheel, there were no guarantees.

“This is very scary and nerve-wracking for me,” Kozakiewicz said before the meeting. “But it has to be done. The unknown ... Will this bring closure? Will this find healing? I know there will be a better friendship, but I’m very nervous, very scared.

“I’m scared, but I’m willing.”

The true face of war

Operation Desert Storm was a television show to most Americans.

For the first time, we watched a war as it happened. CNN showed airstrikes live and aired the latest news around the clock. We could see missiles fired from a safe distance, and a sensational fireworks display.

The United States dominated the Iraqi forces. Setbacks were rare. Even so, the Pentagon censored news reports that depicted death or military suffering.

Back home, few realized the cost of war until the haunting photo of Kozakiewicz, Tsangarakis and Alaniz’s body bag appeared on Parade magazine’s cover June 9, 1991.

“Some of us were taken, and some of us weren’t, but everybody rolled the dice where they were going to come out,” said Staff Sgt. Kary Varnell, part of the 24th Infantry Division that swept the Jalibah Airfield. “Were they going to come out alive or with PTSD or mangled?

“Part of bringing that awareness out and bringing this healing to Catherine has been that photo, and yet it has to be a horrible burden for Ken.

“It has to be something he doesn’t enjoy seeing. I mean, you talk about your PTSD triggers. That’s got to be the mother of all triggers right there.”

Kozakiewicz owns a large copy of the photo, but he keeps it tucked between a stereo speaker and a TV cabinet in the basement of his home.

Alaniz-Simonds, meanwhile, cherished the photo almost from the moment she saw it. She displays it in her suburban Oklahoma City living room.

“Ken’s name probably has been mentioned thousands of times to me over the past 24 years,” Alaniz-Simonds said. “When guests come into my home and they see the curio cabinet with the photo and mementos from my husband, they always ask about Ken.

“The photo was on the cover of several magazines, and they’re still writing about it today. I mention his name and say, ‘This is the true face of war. It’s not ticker-tape parades and cheers. It’s body bags and flag-draped caskets.’ The angst on his face shows it.”

The photo also helped Alaniz-Simonds discover the truth about her husband’s death mere hours before the ceasefire. The Army first claimed Andy Alaniz was killed when he drove his Bradley over a land mine.

But rumors swirled over the coming weeks about the deaths of Alaniz and Pvt. John Hutto, another soldier killed at Jalibah Airfield. Parade magazine presented a break: proof an independent observer was there.

Alaniz-Simonds tracked down Turnley, and the Army’s version of events quickly unraveled.

Alaniz, Kozakiewicz and Tsangarakis were in different Bradleys hit by friendly fire. The Army called it “battlefield confusion,” a term that still makes Kozakiewicz scowl.

The 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment veered too far east from its intended position. Amid the chaos, the 3-69 took small-arms and indirect fire. It mistook the Bradleys for Iraqi forces and unleashed as many as 16 armor-piercing, 120 mm sabot rounds.

Sabot rounds are made with depleted uranium, radioactive and 2½ times denser than steel.

Tsangarakis’ vehicle was struck first. One soldier died; two others lost legs.

A sabot whooshed through the right side of Alaniz’s vehicle. It avoided the other seven soldiers inside but cut Alaniz in half.

Kozakiewicz’s vehicle was the only one struck more than once, and the only one without a death.

“I know survivor’s guilt is really hard for people,” Alaniz-Simonds said, “but at the same token, there’s so much I wouldn’t know had it not been for the guys that survived.”

A sabot missed Kozakiewicz by six inches, close enough that he must visit the Baltimore VA Medical Center every two years to make sure he’s not radioactive. He usually visits with Tsangarakis while there.

“All I know is I got lucky,” Kozakiewicz said. “I got really, really lucky. That’s the only way I can live with it, to know I was very lucky.”

The Persian Gulf War was one of the most efficient in American history, with 148 American servicemen and women killed in combat. But the Pentagon disclosed in August 1991 that 23.6 percent of the deaths were fratricides.

“We were ticked when we saw that photo,” said Ewing Marietta, a military-intelligence officer who briefed the troops two nights before the Jalibah Airfield raid. “We thought that picture was private and that it shouldn’t have been taken.”

Marietta is pastor of the Liberty Baptist Church in Uniontown. He recently heard how the government mishandled Andy Alaniz’s death and will preside over a ceremony Sunday morning to honor him.

“I learned the picture provided Catherine the information she needed to get through this,” Marietta said. “Who knew? So immediately, my mind turned from not liking the picture to – bam! – OK, I can like the picture.”

Whatever closure this weekend might provide for Alaniz-Simonds, her tragedies have been generational and recurring. Heartache isn’t in her DNA, but it somehow runs in the family.

A widow at 19, Catherine moved back in with her parents in Eagle Pass, Texas, and then went with them to Oklahoma City. Her father, U.S. Customs Service agent Claude Medearis, was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing four years after Alaniz died in Iraq.

The bomber, Pendleton native Timothy McVeigh, drove a Bradley Military Vehicle in Operation Desert Storm, just as Andy Alaniz did.

While testifying on behalf of victims at McVeigh’s trial in Denver, Catherine met former Oklahoma City police officer Keith Simonds, a first responder to the bombing. They were married beneath the Survivor Tree, a 90-year-old elm across the street from where the Murrah Federal Building stood.

When Andy Alaniz died, he didn’t know Catherine was carrying a baby girl.

Andee Alaniz turned 24 on May 13. Five days later, her boyfriend, Thomas Martin, was killed while racing his motorcycle. He crashed headfirst into a parked car in a residential Oklahoma City neighborhood.

Martin left behind Andee to take care of their seven-month-old daughter, Sawyer Michele, who began crawling the day after he died.

“I know what she’s going through because I went through it myself,” Alaniz-Simonds said. “Now she knows what her daughter’s going to be going through because she went through it.”

The accident threatened the Uniontown trip. Andee Alaniz, who pushed to meet Kozakiewicz as much as her mother did, stayed home.

“Right now, my anger level is pretty high,” Andee Alaniz said of it all.

“My mom’s only been talking about meeting Ken for 24 years. I’m sure eventually I will get to meet him, but hopefully on better days.”

Kozakiewicz wondered if the Alaniz family’s latest disaster might make this weekend too much for everyone to handle.

“All of that added to the stress,” Kozakiewicz said. “I didn’t want to feel like I was imposing on them.

“The timing felt all wrong for this.”

The meeting

Alaniz-Simonds couldn’t sleep at the thought of finally seeing Kozakiewicz and hugging his neck. She was wide awake at 3 a.m. Friday, a bundle of nerves.

Up in West Seneca, Kozakiewicz hadn’t left yet. Any concerns about him bailing out became moot. He and fiancée Cindy Greiner finished babysitting her granddaughter and made the five-hour drive.

“With Cat being the strong woman she is, even with all the things going on in her life,” Kozakiewicz said, “I felt if she was still willing to go ahead with it, then I would.

“There was no hesitation whatsoever, no backing out, no second thoughts.”

Uniontown is about 45 miles south of Pittsburgh and surrounded by military history. The birthplace of Gen. George Marshall was founded July 4, 1776. Fort Necessity National Battlefield is 13 miles away.

Another bit of history, albeit under the radar, was about to take place here. Kozakiewicz arrived at the Hampton Inn on Main Street just before 6 p.m. and checked in.

Behind him in the lobby, Keith Simonds passed through on his way for a coffee. Simonds had seen only Turnley’s photo of Kozakiewicz, and Kozakiewicz had never seen Simonds. They had never spoken.

But, almost like a bride and groom on their wedding day, a dramatic moment was about to occur. Neither would have wanted to spoil it. Besides, Kozakiewicz was jittery from the road and unprepared. Watching from the car, Greiner held her breath.

“I heard a Southern drawl,” Kozakiewicz said of Simonds’ voice, “and I thought, ‘I am not turning around.’ ” Kozakiewicz’s stress subsided when Simonds walked around the corner and out of view.

Kozakiewicz needed a cigarette. Somewhat settled, he went into the hotel’s George C. Marshall Conference Room, gathered his thoughts and psyched himself up to end a widow’s 24-year quest.

“I think I’m ready,” Kozakiewicz said, jimmy legs bouncing uncontrollably.

“I’m nervous. I’m scared. But who wouldn’t be?”

He smiled. But, first, another cigarette.

Upstairs in her room, Alaniz-Simonds got the green light to come down.

She cried the moment she entered the room. She gave a pitter-patter clap.

He rose from his seat with a grin.

On her tiptoes, she latched her forearms around his brawny neck. He hugged her tightly with both hands. They slowly rocked back and forth.

Two strangers, who together had dealt with such an intimate tragedy from a distance, had closed their gap at long last.

The first person to grieve for Andy Alaniz embraced the role he never asked for but suffers with day and night.

“I said I wasn’t going to cry,” Alaniz-Simonds yelled. “Oh, my God. It’s so nice to finally meet you.”

Kozakiewicz, through his low chuckle, repeatedly told her to stop crying.

“Oh, you’re shaking like a leaf,” Kozakiewicz said.

“It’s so good to finally hold you,” Alaniz-Simonds said.

He looked her in the eye and asked, “Are you OK?”

“Are you?” she sobbed.

“No,” Kozakiewicz replied with a laugh.

Epilogue

Kozakiewicz and Alaniz-Simonds spent quality time together throughout the weekend. They attended a reception Friday night, recorded some radio interviews for Marietta’s show and then went to a late-night diner.

They visited Saturday morning at the hotel. While watching her granddaughter on a video chat, Alaniz-Simonds turned the phone so Kozakiewicz and Andee Alaniz could say hello for the first time.

“I love technology,” Alaniz-Simonds said. “Andee was excited. She had a big-ass smile on her face.”

Kozakiewicz and his fiancée attended an afternoon cookout with Alaniz-Simonds and her husband.

“It’s like we’ve known each other forever,” Alaniz-Simonds said Saturday afternoon. “It feels very comfortable.

“I knew once he met me he’d realize his fears were ridiculous because there should be no guilt. I don’t ever want anybody to feel that. I knew in my heart a lot of his fears would be alleviated.”

Sunday promises to draw more emotion from them.

Marietta, the pastor at Liberty Baptist Church, has arranged Operation Restoring Order. The service, he said, will “redo the funeral and honor Andy the right way.”

When Alaniz was buried in his hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas, his family thought he had driven over a land mine because that’s what the Army told them.

“There was a lot of hurt with what took place, a lot of pain because there was friendly fire,” Marietta said. “This is our do-over. This is our turn to reach out to Catherine in love.”

Some members of Alaniz’s unit will attend Sunday’s ceremony. He will receive a rifle salute. The chaplain who presided over his original field service will be there. The same bugle used at his first funeral will play taps.

Turnley is scheduled to be at Sunday’s ceremony. Marietta ordered hats in the same style Alaniz wore – the brim rolled up in a quirky way many of his fellow soldiers tried to imitate – for the veterans to wear.

The flag that was draped over Alaniz’s casket, improperly folded after flying over his aunt’s Native American reservation, will be refolded. Kozakiewicz then will present it back to Alaniz-Simonds.

“The burden that Ken carries for having had that picture taken and shared, maybe it has set and festered for a while,” said Varnell, who rode his motorcycle from Cleveland, Tenn., to oversee the rifle salute. “But I know that picture in and of itself has been responsible for bringing people together who then had discussions and healed.”

“There were a lot of us to the left and to the right who are just meeting 24 years later.”

Kozakiewicz lamented that it took him that long to muster the courage required for this weekend.

“It’s been therapeutic,” Kozakiewicz said. “I’m still going through the healing process, but we’re getting there. This had been quite beneficial. This has been a major event in my life.”

Alaniz-Simonds glowed.

“I feel complete,” Alaniz-Simonds said. “My biggest fear was I was going to die and never have met these people.

“Now if, heaven forbid, something happens to me on the way home? Fine. I feel complete.”

-----

The complete series, published in June 2012:

Part I:  The picture of the cost of war

Part II: Heartache without end

Part III: Still reliving the nightmare of war

Part IV: Devastation wrought by death

-----

Nearly three years after the series ran, Tim Graham wrote this story:

Strangers linked by iconic Desert Storm photo finally meet 24 years later

PHOTO GALLERY: 60 images of Catherine Alaniz-Simonds and Sgt. Ken Kozakiewicz of West Seneca meeting for the first time.

There are no comments - be the first to comment