Specialist Kenny Leisten threw back his head and laughed at Vinni Jacques' joke. The two men sat in their Humvee as Kenny drove along a remote road north of Baghdad.
All of 20 years old, Kenny was the picture of American youth. Raised in Cornelius, he joined the Oregon National Guard at 17. Feisty, quick-witted and loyal, he made friends with ease. Kenny was one of those kids who made his mark wherever he went.
One more laugh, and Kenny vanished in a storm of smoke and flames. Struck by an IED and the Humvee was blown 20 feet into the air by the explosion. It was July 28, 2004.
When I read of Kenny's death, I wanted to tell his family how terribly sorry I was for their loss. Since I didn't know them, I wrote a letter to the News-Times expressing my sorrow.
Little did I know that this tiny first step would lead me down a path that would later find me in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
A few months after I wrote the letter, Sgt. Jacques invited me to greet Kenny's battalion, the 2-162 Infantry, as it re-turned home. Together, we drove up to McChord Air Force Base, where on the tar-mac I came face-to-face with the men for the first time. As I watched their emotional homecoming, I knew right then I had to write about these incredible Oregonians.
Half a year later, the battalion deployed to New Orleans. I went with them and slept on the ground next to Sgt. Jacques for three weeks as these Oregonians brought order out of chaos in Louisiana. While on patrol, we encountered rotting corpses and corrupt cops. We ate MRE's, and showered with bottles of water. By the end of it all, these men had become my brothers; I love them as I love my own kin.
Two years and two months after Kenny's death, my book, "The Devil's Sandbox,' hit the shelves here in Oregon. It is the story of Kenny's Oregon National Guard battalion and the finest men I've ever met. Writing the book became an emotional bloodletting for me as I got to know these great kids who didn't make it home through the eyes of their friends and family. I grieved for them as if they were my own.
Recently, Sgt. Jacques and I went on the Mark and Dave Show, on KEX radio, to talk about Kenny and some of the other events the Oregon Guard experienced in Iraq.
Ken Leisten Sr. happened to be taking a break at work and heard our interview. When it ended, he called Vinni, full of excitement that 'his boys' were on the air.
That night, Vinni and I drove to Portland and met Ken at his place of work.
In the parking lot of the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts, I handed him a copy of the book. He opened it to a photograph of his son. The expression on Ken's face can-not be described, but I will never forget it.
Ken reached for me and I found myself engulfed in a huge bear hug. He held on to me with such fierceness that I could hardly speak. My own father has never hugged me so hard.
His son deserved this, and it was the least I could do for these wonderful men. Their legacy is one of loyalty and courage in the face of a truly barbaric enemy. It was an honor to tell their story.
Whatever success I have as a writer or a man, this meeting with Ken will be the moment I most cherish. On the way home that night, the tears came again. This time, I felt like part of the family.
John Bruning Jr. is working on a new book, 'Full Battle Rattle,' about a soldier who is up for the Medal of Honor for his service in combat at Fallujah.