American Hero

01.12.14

Why Was My Son Killed in Fallujah—and His Murderer Set Free?

The mother and father of Marine Captain John McKenna remember their remarkable son, from the first life he saved while still a boy, to his death while attempting to save a fellow Marine--and the moment they discovered that the sniper who shot him down still roams free.

The Iraqi sniper who killed Captain John McKenna and Lance Cpl. Michael Glover was later captured by their fellow Marines who honored the fallen commander’s principles by bringing in their captive without so much as a scratch or bruise.

The sniper was subsequently freed by the Iraqi government and he might even now be back in Fallujah with the Al Qaeda forces that have taken the city where McKenna and Glover and so many other fine Americans died.

Yet, however much she wishes her son’s killer would spend the rest of his days behind bars and however hard it may be to know that Islamic militants now occupy the very place where he was killed, McKenna’s mother believes that what happens now in Iraq is a worry for the Iraqis themselves.

“It is not our war,” Karen McKenna said on Monday. “It is a civil war. It’s their problem. Not ours.”

But she also voices a firm belief that we initially went into Iraq with what she terms a “high minded” purpose.

“Once Saddam Hussein was out of the picture, we really didn’t belong there anymore,” she then adds.

She is equally certain that her son’s life was not wasted.

“He did a lot of good over there,” she says.

The most obvious good was with the Iraqi children, who called him “Captain Candy” and flocked to him for sweets that always filled a pocket of his fatigues. But that was only part of the much larger good he did in showing people of all ages—Iraqis and his fellow Marines and those of us back home—the absolute best of what it means to be a true American. He demonstrated it by the way he lived and by the way he died.

Video screenshot

As al Qaeda-related forces take over cities in western Iraq, global news outlets discuss the implications of brewing unrest and a potential civil war.

McKenna was quite literally an Eagle Scout as he grew up on East 2nd Street in Brooklyn. He demonstrated that he had the makings of a future Marine after his mother sent him on a last minute errand to a nearby deli. He still had not returned a considerable time later.

“I said, ‘If he’s playing hockey on Greenwood Avenue, I’m going to skin him alive,’” she recalls.

She was waiting out on the front porch when she heard him call out to her from behind a rose bush.

“Mom, it’s not what it looks like, I’m alright,” he told her.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“You’ll see, but it’s alright,” he said.

He stepped into view and she saw he was covered in blood. He quickly explained that it was not his own, but from a boy some other kids had spun around and around before finally letting him go head first into a curb. The other kids had moved to flee but John had told them to call 911.

“John sat there and held the boy’s head together,” she says,

The doctors later said the boy might very well have died if young John had not aided him until an ambulance arrived.  John went on to Binghamton University, where he rowed crew. He of course wished to serve his country and he was among the first wave of Marines into Afghanistan after 9/11.

The sniper was subsequently freed by the Iraqi government and he might even now be back in Fallujah with the Al Qaeda forces that have taken the city where McKenna and Glover and so many other fine Americans died.

Following his return, McKenna joined the New York State Police. He was the happiest of troopers, but when his Marine unit scheduled for deployment to Iraq in 2006, he volunteered to go.

“He wouldn’t let his men go without him,” his mother says.

McKenna, now 30, was the best kind of combat infantry officer, smart and focused and brave and fair, with a clear and unshakable sense of the right thing to do, big or small. His fellow Marines revered him.

Toward the end of the second week of August, McKenna was up around the clock, running a convoy and staging raids and processing prisoners. He nonetheless took the trouble to walk the length the Marine base just outside Fallujah to  say two words to Marine Cpl. Joe Fasanella, an intelligence liaison who had been taking great care in documenting the evidence against each prisoner.

“Thank you,” McKenna said.

McKenna here proved to remain an Eagle Scout in the very best sense amidst the bloodiest and most harrowing fight in the war. He also remained a Marine. He used precious time when he could have been resting to brainstorm with Fasanella about ways to make future raids more effective.

“He was all about the mission,” Fasanella recalls.

A day or two later, on August 15, the mission was a street patrol through Fallujah. The Marine on point was 28-year-old Lance Cpl. Glover. He was the well-liked and highly regarded nephew of FDNY Chief Pete Hayden, who commanded the rescue effort inside the north tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. 

“Uncle Pete, I feel I have to do something,” Glover had told Hayden in the aftermath.

Glover had enlisted in the Marines and before he was deployed to Iraq, Hayden presented him with a small cross made from World Trade Center steel. Glover had a tiny hole drilled in the top and he was wearing the cross around his neck as the street patrol came to an exposed intersection in Fallujah. He was leading the way to the opposite corner when he was mortally wounded by a sniper.

McKenna and everybody else knew that the sniper was just waiting for someone to come to the wounded Marine’s aid. But McKenna was not going to leave Glover sprawled unattended in the street.

McKenna dashed from safety into the most mortal danger. He knelt beside Glover just as he once had by that injured boy back in Brooklyn.

“Ignoring imminent peril from heavy incoming fire, Capt. McKenna ran into the intersection in an effort to save his downed Marine,” reads the citation for the Silver Star that McKenna was awarded posthumously. “Completely exposed to enemy fire, he calmly knelt next to the stricken Marine to assess his condition. As he began to drag the Marine to a covered position, Capt. McKenna was hit by enemy fire and mortally wounded.”

The regard their comrades held for McKenna and Glover translated into the intensity of their hunt for the sniper who killed them.

“My base was empty because everyone was out in the city trying to find the shooter,” Fasanella later wrote to McKenna's parents.

The sniper was identified as Muhammad Awaaad Ahmad al-Muhammadi, sometimes known as Muhammad Issa Abdullah Abu Jasmin. His photograph revealed one physical attribute that promised to make him immediately recognizable.

“The guy had the biggest ears of any Iraqi we'd ever seen,” Fasanella said.

The unit was still hunting for the sniper on Sept. 29, with less than 48 hours before it was scheduled to depart Iraq. Glover's roommate then spotted those unmistakable ears.

The young Marine found himself face to face with the sniper who had killed his buddy and his captain. He could have ended it right then and there.

“Rather than squeeze the trigger, he didn't,” Fasanella said. “He made a moral decision.”

One factor in the decision was no doubt the young Marine’s own moral sense. But that had been fortified by the teaching of his captain, who had told them that a dead prisoner had no value, whereas a live one could provide intelligence leading to more raids and captures.

The sniper nicknamed Big Ears arrived at the base not just alive, but unharmed.

“He came in without a scratch,” Fasanella recalled. “I was shocked.”

Fasanella understood that the prisoner owed his life to the living spirit of the very captain he had killed. The sight of Big Ears standing completely unharmed was the opposite of those images of torture and abuse from Abu Ghraib.

The funeral for McKenna was held at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Brooklyn, where he had been baptized three decades before. He was eulogized by Rev. Joseph Fonti, a childhood friend who had grown up on the same block.

“I pray that I can emulate his courage,” Fonti said.

Glover’s funeral was held the next day at St. Francis de Sales Church in Rockaway, which had also seen the funerals for a dozen people who perished on 9/11. His cousin, Pete Hayden, Jr. read part of a letter that Glover had written from Iraq.

“I took an oath—and it’s the best oath I ever took. I’m at peace if I come back with parts of me missing. And I’m at peace if I don’t come back at all.”

The families of McKenna and Glover were assured that “as long as there is a Marine in Iraq, the sniper will remain in jail.” They learned otherwise only after McKenna’s father wrote a May 16, 2011 letter to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates. John McKenna III noted in the letter that the sniper who killed his son and Glover had been captured by their fellow Marines.

“The temptation to get instant justice was strong,” the father wrote, “but his Marines told me, ‘Capt. McKenna taught us that if we turn in an insurgent we might get more intelligence which will lead to additional captures and confiscation of weapons and plans.’”

The father went on to say that the last he had heard, the sniper had been incarcerated at Camp Bucca (named after FDNY Fire Marshal Ronnie Bucca, who died in the south tower of the World Trade Center.)

“Since our armed forces have a much reduced role in Iraq, I am not sure [of] the status of the sniper's case,” his letter continued. “My family and the family of Lance Cpl. Michael Glover very much hope that you would be able to provide us with updates as to the status of this individual.”

Nearly three months later, the father got a response in the form of a four-paragraph letter dated Aug. 4, 2011, signed by William Lietzau, deputy assistant secretary of defense for rule of law and detainee policy.

“Consistent with our legal obligations under [the] Iraq Security Agreement, Ahmad was transferred to Government of Iraq control in June 2010 pursuant to an Iraqi criminal warrant...Ahmad's case was reviewed by an Iraqi court, and he was ordered released on October 25, 2010, because of a lack of evidence,” the letter reported.

McKenna’s father was stunned.

“Not to have called me or notified me,” he told me. “Sort of like a kick in the gut.”

He was thinking of the Glover family along with his own.

“Sickening,” he said.

Karen McKenna later observed, “Of course they had no evidence. All the guys who would have testified against him were back in the United States.”

A good number of those Marines join the McKenna family at a gathering held every year on the anniversary of his death. They begin by attending Mass, proceed on to the cemetery and then head for the family’s present home in upstate New York.

“For what would be John’s favorite part, beer and sandwiches,” the mother reports.

She says of her son, “I miss him terribly every day. I miss him, his niece misses him, his sister lost her best friend and of course my husband will never be the same.”

Among her favorite memories of her son is the way he would burst in through the back door and slide across the kitchen floor, calling out to her.

“‘Hey, mama!’” she remembers him saying. “‘Hey, mama!’ and a big hug.”

In his honor, the family has established the Captain John J. McKenna IV Military Courtesy Room at Albany International Airport. The recent weather made military people particularly grateful for a place to have a snack and a soda and maybe watch TV or go online or make a phone call while waiting out a travel delay.

The room is staffed by volunteers who join the McKenna family in keeping his spirit alive by offering a little cheer to those who remain no less ready to go into harm’s way despite the outcome of our two longest wars.

That Iraqi sniper might be free and his Al Qaeda pals may have taken over far away Fallujah, but the very fact that he is alive is a testament to the Marine captain for whom the room is named. 

And the military men and women who pass through the McKenna room are continuing proof that we are not diminished despite our heartrending losses. 

 “If the president says go, they go,” Karen McKenna says. “Can’t we at least give them a cup of coffee?”