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Man grieves over loss of civilian wife, killed in Bagram rocket attack

Civilians wait by a bus stop on Bagram Air Field in this Feb. 2012 photo. According to the U.S. Army Civilian Human Resource Agency, there are about 2,750 civilians deployed overseas, helping to keep the lights on, toilets flushing and shelves stocked with goods.

The rocket came over a wall 7,000 miles away. Now, a man sits alone and smokes in his kitchen in Pungo, Va., mourning his wife.

Kathleen "Kitti" Pennell, a civilian contractor working in Afghanistan, was killed Nov. 29 at Bagram Air Field by what the military calls IDF -- indirect fire. Official details are scarce, but Joe Pennell was told that his 53-year-old wife died in her quarters when an insurgent-fired rocket hit her barracks.

One of her colleagues, Albert Henry Haas of Illinois, was also killed. Two others were wounded.

Attacks are almost routine at Bagram, a U.S.-run base outside Kabul that shelters tens of thousands of military personnel, contractors and Afghan workers. Incoming mortar rounds and rockets -- mostly old, Soviet-made models -- trigger sirens and a scramble for bunkers, but few inflict serious damage.

One found its mark as Thanksgiving Day drew to a close. Kitti, a flight coordinator for a company that hauls military supplies, was probably asleep when the rocket sailed over the base's perimeter around midnight.

"They tell me she never knew what hit her," Joe said. "I hope they're not just saying that to make me feel better."

Joe speaks his mind. Grief has no filter -- not in a house that's suddenly more shrine than home. Kitti is everywhere in the white brick rancher on Munden Point Road -- her clothes, her projects, her photos, her voice still on the answering machine.

And yet, she's nowhere.

"I want to see something in the paper besides stories about some Muslim or Islamic kid getting killed by a drone," Joe said. "Americans get killed over there, too, just doing their jobs."

Joe, a manager at the Navy Exchange at Oceana Naval Air Station, apologized for his housekeeping. His wife left for Afghanistan Nov. 3, the latest rotation in her two-months-on, two-months-off job with AAR Corp. "I usually junk up the place pretty good when she's gone," he said, "then I do a whirlwind cleanup before she gets home."

Married for nine years, the couple had no children, except for Joe's grown son from a previous marriage. They met through a website, with Joe falling for Kitti's "infectious smile, her laugh, her can-do. She had no negativity."

Kitti accepted the Afghanistan gig three years ago. At Bagram, Joe said, she became a "Klinger" -- a reference to the wheeling-and-dealing character from the old "M.A.S.H" television series: "She was a fixer -- always trading things, this for that, to get things done."

The pay was good, and the work felt important. But Joe worried about Kitti's safety, and neither liked the time apart: "When we were hugging goodbye the last time, I told her, 'We need to figure out a way to stop this crazy train.' "

Joe was at his own job when news of her death arrived. "My boss called me to his office. The cops were there. I thought I was being accused of something."

He met Kitti's coffin at Dover Air Force Base, then accompanied her body home to Indiana. She was buried next to family, wearing a pink suit Joe had picked out of her closet.

On the threshold of his new reality, Joe does what people do when a loss is fresh. He clings to the present tense. He describes the couple's half-done kitchen remodeling project as something "we've got to finish." When he says his wife "was" fun, he quickly corrects himself: "She is fun."

The military hasn't issued a report yet, just confirmation that the attack and the deaths occurred. Joe says the servicemembers who escorted Kitti back to the U.S. assured him "that the people who did this are no longer with us. I guess that's something."

Joe isn't sure what he'll do next. His boss told him to take off as much time as he needs. From his seat at the kitchen table, he stares out the window at a quiet, dead-end street. In the driveway, a sticker on Kitti's car reads, "I love Jet Noise." A "Don't Tread On Me" flag flutters in the cold wind.

"I've just got to get through Christmas," Joe said.

He reaches down to scratch the ears of a dog lying at his feet.

He lights another Marlboro.

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