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Educating the children of our fallen heroes

When Lives Converge (The Stories of Two SOWF Students) by John Mohr

When lives converge By John Mohr

I believe people come into our lives for a reason.  Makenzie and Brennan are a great example – they are two kids from military families with no connection growing up in entirely distinct parts of the world.  It’s the summer of 2005, Makenzie is in Germany with her parents.  Her father is a Special Forces Army Master Sergeant with the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), based near Stuttgart.  Brennan is just coming back from Europe while his father is serving in the Special Forces with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment fighting in Afghanistan.  Theirs is a story of two fathers; two brave veterans and two families whose lives were forever changed by war. 

Meet Makenzie Keith:

Makenzie is a 22-year-old super-senior attending Clemson University majoring in Criminal Justice.  She is an outgoing, fiery, and articulate young lady that has lived through a great family sacrifice for our country.  Clemson is her dream school.  Makenzie is one of two children born to Chris and Kelley Keith. She has a younger brother that is also in college at High Point University in High Point, N.C.  When not studying, Makenzie is on a mission to help other people.  She is what you call a "Military Brat" – a term of endearment and respect in military culture.  Born in Colorado, she is the daughter of Sgt. Christopher James Keith.  A native of Lyman, South Carolina, Chris began active military services in 1984.  He was a talented infantryman and, after serving in many assignments, he volunteered and was selected for Special Forces training at Fort Bragg in 1991. Upon completion of the Special Forces Qualification Course as a Communications sergeant, Chris was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group at Fort Devens, Massachusetts.  When the group moved to Fort Carson in 1994, Chris went with it, serving there until 1996, when he was reassigned for his first tour with the group’s 1st Battalion in Germany.  In 2000, Chris was brought back to the U.S. to serve as a Special Forces instructor U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg.  After five years and a variety of instructor positions at the schoolhouse, Chris returned to Germany and the 10th Group for a second tour in December of 2004, where he was preparing for deployment on a mission to Afghanistan.  The 10th Special Forces Group was responsible for operations within the EU command.  Better known as the Green Berets, due to their distinctive headgear, these soldiers are tasked with conducting missions involving unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance and counter-terrorism.  From the start of the War on Terrorism, the 10th Group was deployed numerous times in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

“It’s humbling for me to know that communities like Hampton Hall and Belfair support the Lowcountry Foundation in providing the college funding for kids like us – it’s just awesome”

“My fondest memory of dad was when I was 8 years old he took me out on my very first date.  We had a dinner together – just father and daughter. I still have the blue dress I wore that evening.”

At the age of 10, Makenzie was enjoying school and the experience of living in Europe.  There were routine family cook-outs with members of her dad’s military team and their families.  “We all knew each other”, she says, “The families were a tight bunch”.  In mid-June 2005, Chris took the family on vacation to Italy.  “I remember that trip vividly, it was our last real time together” Makenzie sadly recalls.  Just three days after their return to Germany, on June 27th, 2005, while conducting a routine training exercise near the base, Sgt. Keith collapsed while running during physical training.  He died from cardiovascular disease. “Dad was an incredible athlete for his age.  He could run sub-four-minute miles.” says Makenzie.  “At the time, I was too young to grasp the finality of it all, but I remember that dad was a special man.  He was always calm, confident and controlled – he knew who he was and was strong in his faith.  My mom described him as the perfect man.  To me, the word that describes him best is -- admirable.  People strived to be like him.  If he were here today I would tell him that I love and miss him terribly, but I keep pushing forward in hopes of making you proud of your little girl.” 

Makenzie is a scholarship recipient from the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.  The Foundation fully funds 100% of her tuition and living expenses to attend Clemson.  The scholarship is made possible through the generosity of organizations like the Lowcountry Foundation for Wounded Military Heroes.  “It’s humbling for me to know that communities like Hampton Hall, Belfair and Berkeley Hall support the Lowcountry Foundation in providing the college funding for kids like us – it’s just awesome”, explains Makenzie. “It’s a huge financial relief for me and my single parent mother.” 

 

Now, Meet Brennan Goodnature:

In the military its’s called Deployment.  If you’re a military child, its referred to as ‘Operation Here We Go Again’.

Brennan is a 25-year-old super-senior preparing for graduation from Clemson with a major in Biological Science.  He is a big, smiling, somewhat head-strong, young man -- but a kid at heart.  Another Military Brat – he was born in Fort Bragg, lived in Fort Knox, Fort Hood, Fort Irwin, Fort Leavenworth, moved onto Mannheim, Wiesbaden, Frankfurt, back to Leavenworth, then Naples Italy before landing at Fort Dix.  He is one of two children born to Mary and Cory Goodnature.  They were high school sweethearts that later divorced.  “When I was very young, my parents separated, and mom later remarried my step-dad, a West Point graduate and Army officer. We traveled the world on step-dad’s many assignments while keeping in contact with my dad Cory who was serving in the Army and stationed in Savannah.”  

Cory Goodnature was perhaps one of the best Special Operations helicopter pilots called to rescue a SEAL Team on the night of June 28th, 2005 in eastern Afghanistan.


Brennan’s dad was a Chief Warrant Officer (CW3) in 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment known as the “Night Stalkers.”  This is a special operations unit of the Army that provides helicopter aviation support for its troops.  Its missions include attack, assault, and reconnaissance, usually conducted at night, at high speeds, at low altitudes, and on short notice.  Cory was perhaps one of the best Chinook helicopter pilots.  On the night of June 28th, 2005, in eastern Afghanistan his unit was called to rescue a SEAL Team pinned down under fire in the high mountains.  The Night Stalkers answered the call, scrambled two Chinooks.  Corey was co-piloting the lead craft with 16 men onboard.  As his helicopter hovered over the drop-zone, enemy fired a rocket propelled grenade into the craft.  The explosion sent the Chinook flaming down the mountainside.  All 16 on board were killed.  It was one of the largest single loss of American troops in Afghanistan.  The failed rescue attempt was later the subject of a well-known book and film called the “Lone Survivor”.

Brennan explains, “I was just 12 years old when dad died.  Being in the Special Operations, he never talked about his deployments or missions – but I know he did his share of duty.  The best word I use to describe my dad is – commanding.”  He was a leader, people listened to him.  A religious man, an avid outdoorsman, Cory loved nature.  He and his two boys would often go fishing together.  With tears in his eyes, Brennan recalled his fondest memory of his dad -- “One time when we lived in Savannah, he promised to take my brother and I fishing but it was raining too hard to go outside.  No matter, dad filled our bathtub with water, and we happily broke out our poles sitting at the edge of the tub – fishing with dad.  I wish he could be here today.  I’d give him a big hug and tell him that I am doing my best to make him proud.”

Like Makenzie, Brennan is also a scholarship recipient from the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.  He was the first student to be awarded with a scholarship from the Lowcountry Foundation partnership.  He receives 100% of his tuition and living expenses to attend Clemson University.  A gifted athlete, Brennan played high school football while living in Italy for the Naples American High School.  “Our team traveled all around Europe playing American football” he explained with a grin.  On a dare from his college roommate, he tried out as a walk-on for the Clemson Tigers team.  After two attempts, he got the call --“We want you to come to practice tomorrow – you’re on the team” said the Tigers coach.  Out of more than 100 players trying out for the 2015-16 season that semester, Brennan was one of only four to make it as a walk-on running back playing in his final year of eligibility for the nation's No. 1 ranked team.  He explains, “It was the year we went to the national championship and I got to play on the field – but only briefly.” It was the Tigers last home game.  He was put in for one play and ran 7 yards. A fun fact is that Brennan led the team in rushing that year on a ‘per yards/per carry’ statistic.  “Playing for the Tigers was an incredible experience, recalls Brennan.  “When standing on our field at game time in front of 80,000 Tiger fans you can feel the ground shaking up your cleats.”  While the Tigers finished with a great overall season, they lost the national championship to Alabama Crimson Tide. 

Crazy coincidence or meant to be? 

Is it a crazy coincidence that these two kids’ paths should cross in South Carolina?  Think about it… two veteran fathers, two families, and two kids -- not knowing one another but each traveling on similar paths.  Two soldiers serving in the Army Special Operations – Chris and Cory.  Both men die in June 2005 within a span of 24 hours of each other while bravely serving our country.  Their two children now both attend Clemson University.   Then, ten years after their fathers’ deaths, practically next-door neighbors on the Clemson campus, their lives converge.  Brennan notes, “We just recently met in the fall of 2016 when I received a call from the Special Operations Warrior Foundation saying Makenzie and I needed to connect-up.”  It was an instant friendship.  Today, they share a strong bond - like brother and sister.  “We tell each other everything, says Makenzie, I know that I would have not made it through my first year at Clemson without Brennan –we are best friends for life now.” 

Their meeting was in no small part due to the generosity of our Lowcountry community.  This May, Makenzie and Brennan will be at Hampton Hall to participate at the 8th Annual Wounded Heroes Golf Classic held at our course and at the Belfair Golf Club.  They are looking forward to meeting and thanking many of our generous residents for supporting them. 

Do you think that everything in life happens for a reason?  The older I get the more I think it’s true.  Last month I covered Part 1 of the story of Mackenzie and Brennan - amazing kids, two strangers on the road of life whose paths converged.  Makenzie’s and Brennan’s lives were forever changed by the sacrifice of their fathers, two brave soldiers serving in the war of Afghanistan who did not know one another.  In the summer of 2005, in the space of 24 hours, both men suddenly died leaving behind young families to find their way.  Ten years later their children’s paths crossed while attending Clemson University.  

The fathers of Makenzie Keith and Brennan Goodnature were both with U.S. Special Operations Forces.  These were special soldiers – not everyone can meet the exacting standards of elite teams like Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and Green Berets.  Since the 9/11 war on terrorism began, Special Operations Forces have faced many challenges and today they are the military’s go-to-force for difficult and dangerous missions.  Makenzie’s father Sgt. Christopher Keith, a Green Beret, was a member of the 10th Special Forces Group –based in Germany serving a second tour of duty when he died on a training exercise.  Brennan’s father was helicopter pilot with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment known as Night Stalkers based here in Savannah.  He died in a tragic failed rescue attempt that was later the subject of the movie called the Lone Survivor. 

The death of a Special Operation soldier is often just a news headline for all of us but not for the fallen fighter’s family.  Most Americans will never hear about their sacrifice and that of their wives and children who suffer the crushing loss of a husband and father.  So, what happens to them?  Who helps these families?  Well, thanks in part to the generosity of people in the Lowcountry, residents of Hampton Hall, Belfair and Berkley Hall to name a few, the Lowcountry Foundation for Wounded Military Heroes (LFWMH) is helping to make a difference for these families by partnering with the Special Operations Warrior Foundation.  Makenzie and Brennan are two students benefiting from the funds raised by LFWMH.  Theirs is an inspiring story of people in need and people helping each other out.  

A Daunting Mission -- Sending Fallen Heroes Kids to College

1980 Iran Hostage Rescue Team provided the impetus for SOWF funding college tuition to children of fallen soldiers

Here is how it started.  In 1980 after the daring attempt to rescue 53 American hostages in Iran, which ended in tragedy when a helicopter collided with a parked C-130. Eight soldiers were lost leaving behind 17 children.  The survivors of the failed rescue mission known as Operation Eagle Claw made a commitment to take care of those 17 children by putting them all through college.  “What evolved from their efforts became the beginning of our Special Operations Warrior Foundation (SOWF), says retired Master Sergeant Sgt. Calvin Markham who now serves as SOWF Operations Officer.  

Our local Lowcountry Foundation for Wounded Military Heroes (LFWMH) has partnered up with SOWF to help fund college for surviving children of Special Operations soldiers from the Lowcountry who lost their lives in the line of duty.  “We play a small part for a great cause” explains Russ Spicer, a Hampton Hall resident and founder of the LFWMH.  “Thus far our foundation has sponsored Makenzie and Brennan to attend college at Clemson.  LFWMH contributes the funds -- SOWF provides the support services that ensures full financial assistance for these two great students.”   

“I am beyond thankful for the help I have received from SOWF and the people that support it.  SOWF provides incredible help to me -- support above and beyond the GI Bill – e.g. extra tuition fees, all of my living expenses, even pet care.  They check on me several times a month to see how I am doing.  They treat me like family – it’s just awesome.”    --- Makenzie Keith

It’s a daunting mission – SOWF is committed to provide scholarship grants, not loans, to the children who survive Special Operations service members who lost their lives in service to our country.  “Today, 1,071 service members have left behind 1,272 children”, Sgt. Markham sadly notes.  “We have 310 college graduates, 154 students now attending college and another approx. 800 children in need of college funding.  And, we gain about 60 children per year.” 

“The team from SOWF are like second moms.  We have a great relationship.  If I need anything they get back to me.  I consider them family.”  -- Brennan Goodnature

SOWF establishes a lifetime relationship with families shortly after being notified of a fallen soldier. “Our support services and involvement with the family ramps-up once the children enter high school,” explains Lisa Delong and Lisa Berardicurti, SOWF Financial Aid & Scholarship Counselors.  “Our counselors work with the family to prepare the student for college entrance exams and assist with their applications.  We do whatever it takes to help get these kids into advanced education programs or colleges of their choice”.  SOWF counselors have been working with Makenzie and Brennan for many years and noted, “These two students are extremely hard workers with a great work ethic—they have their struggles but never quit– we are super proud of them.”  

SOWF operates entirely on private and corporate donations to accomplish its mission.  The foundation consists of a small team based in Tampa FL. For more info visit www.specialops.org.  


 


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