Wounded veteran is standing tall, looking to the future
By MICHAEL VITEZ | The Philadelphia Inquirer | Published: July 6, 2014
Kevin McCloskey, 27, is getting married in May to a girl he first kissed under the Wildwood boardwalk in fifth grade. At least that's what he says. She swears it was the summer after sixth grade, maybe seventh.
"Every time he tells the story," says Bridget McGeehan, 27, "it gets earlier and earlier."
Kevin and Bridget, who grew up blocks apart in Mayfair, own a house now in Elkins Park. They have two dogs, a mastiff, Murdock, who pees at the slightest excitement, and a tougher little terrier named Dean, as in Martin.
Kevin bartends two nights a week on Frankford Avenue. He pivots behind the bar with a dexterity you only get on the job.
Two or three days a week, Kevin golfs. On a good day, he scores in the low 90s, although he did wrap a 6-iron around a tree this spring on not such a good day.
Six years ago last month, Kevin was blown up in Afghanistan. When he saw out of his left eye that he had no legs - his right eye had shrapnel in it, and is now blind - he told his guys to let him die on the mountain: "I don't want to go home like this. Just let it go."
He has come home. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about his life is that it can be so ordinary - celebrating his birthday last week in North Wildwood, watching the World Cup at the Piazza in Northern Liberties, drinking beer after bar-league golf outings.
An estimated 22 American veterans commit suicide every day, according to a 2013 Veterans Affairs report. Tens of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans struggle with addiction or post-traumatic stress disorder. The VA has been widely criticized for its handling of these and other problems.
"We hear about all those veterans who have issues," said Pat Dugan, a municipal court judge who also runs Philadelphia's veterans court. "They become the headlines. We're not hearing about guys like Kevin. They go and serve and come home and become citizens. Kevin is the best example. He's a bartender. He stands on his feet working."
Dugan asked Kevin to speak at the Korean War Memorial at Penn's Landing on Memorial Day.
"This city has brought me back," Kevin said that day. "My family, my friends forced me to walk, to work. I wouldn't have made it without them."
After graduation from North Catholic High School in 2005, Kevin worked a year restocking fruit at Capriotti Brothers on Frankford Avenue before joining the Army. He wasn't driven by patriotism, at least he didn't realize it at the time. He wanted to prove to himself and his family that he could get his act together. He thought he'd get a great experience, come home, and get a union job like his father and brother.
After four months in country, on June 8, 2008, he was driving in a convoy of Humvees. Kevin doesn't remember the moment before the explosion, but his passengers told him he spotted the improvised explosive device and tried to swerve.
The driver's-side front wheel took the brunt of the blast. The others walked away, one with a broken leg. Kevin's right wrist and pelvis were shattered. His legs were gone - the right above the knee, the left below it.
His lieutenant had told him he didn't have to go on that mission. He had suffered a bad sunburn the day before. But his unit had taken fire two weeks earlier returning from the same village, and Kevin couldn't let his guys go without him.
He spent the next 12 weeks in an induced coma at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, waking only briefly. He remembers only enough to know how horrible it was.
His sister, Michelle McCloskey-Alicea, dealt with her grief through poetry. Seeing Kevin in the ICU the first time, she wrote:
His eyes slowly opened with an intense gaze. Searching for clarity in this tragic haze.
And when his eyes stared up at me, We both began weeping at reality.
I took his hand in mine
Longing for words to ease his mind.
Yet there were no words, only cries
For bitter anguish has no disguise.
Kevin had 12 surgeries, and spent 16 months in Texas healing, getting therapy.
His mother moved in with him at first.
Two of his best friends from home - Chucky Dugan and Alex Ryzinski, who will be attendants in his wedding - flew down to visit.
"They bitched me up," Kevin says. "'Dude, stop being a baby. Get up. There's guys who got it worse.'"
Early in his recovery, Kevin was in the hospital elevator one day in his wheelchair, without legs.
A burn patient - ears, nose, lips disfigured, his face scarred - looked at Kevin and said, "Oh, man, it feels good to walk around today."
Kevin fired back: "Oh, I had a great shave today" - something the burn victim obviously couldn't do.
The burn victim loved it. He'd been busting on people hoping somebody would bust on him right back. The two visited often in the hospital.
Kevin flew home for the first time on Halloween, 2008. Police escorted him up I-95 from the airport. A flag the size of a small state flew from a firetruck outside his house.
"Every person I knew my whole life was standing there with a flag in their hand," he said. "Friends were clapping and crying. I didn't know what to do at first.
"That's where reality hit me in the face. That's when I knew I can't ignore it. I got to do this for them. It's not just for me anymore. I got to get back to who I am. I got to get off these crutches for them."
That first Christmas, home for a visit, he was just beginning to put full weight on his prosthetic legs. He was at a bar and had to urinate. His friends threw his crutches across the room. Kevin yelled for 20 minutes, then finally got up and took a step, and another, shocking himself and everyone else that he could walk.
He emerged from the bathroom and found his buddies in a puddle of tears.
One night, in the fall of 2009, 15 months after his injury, he posted on Facebook: "Another lonely weekend in Texas. I can't wait to come home."
Ryan Sullivan, a Marine veteran from Mayfair who had been injured himself, now a city cop, saw Kevin's post. He was at home, waiting to hit a bar in Northern Liberties. Sullivan had waited months to come home after his own rehabilitation.
He got home from the bar at 3 a.m., went online and booked a 7 a.m. flight to San Antonio. He called a sober friend to drive him to the airport.
Sullivan arrived in San Antonio about 9 a.m.
He called Kevin.
"What's your address?"
"What are you sending me?" Kevin asked.
"Dude, I'm here. At the airport."
"The %$#@ you are!"
They got a case of beer. Then went to a dueling-piano bar. They woke up the next morning with matching tattoos, from Elvis, "TCB" - taking care of business. TCB meant Elvis could count on you. TCB now meant these two could count on each other.
Sullivan said, "Let's go to Vegas."
They flew there. The weekend cost $7,000, Sullivan said. Worth every penny. To this day, when Kevin McCloskey needs to talk military, to vent, Sullivan is his man. Sullivan will be in his wedding.
At no charge, contractors rebuilt the McCloskeys' basement, where Kevin lived for nearly three years.
"He was struggling," said his mother, Joann. "Just to reestablish himself in the community and the world. He wasn't bad. He just wasn't ready to get out there."
Kevin rarely left in daytime. "It was like I was trying to cover up for myself," he says. "Make it seem like it wasn't what it was."
Joann McCloskey said Kevin always had tenacity.
"You have to have that in you to get out of such a deep, dark spot when you realize your life is totally horrible," she said. "How do you dig that deep?"
Despite his pain, emotional and physical, he avoided addiction. "From day one," said his mother, "once he was able to make his own choices, he chose the minimal amount of medication he could take."
In time, he emerged from the basement.
"The last two years," his mother said, "have been more about him becoming independent and rejoining the world."
Bridget had a lot to do with that. And golf.
When she heard about his injury, Bridget wrote on his Facebook page. 'Thinking of you.'
He started calling from Texas. She had a boyfriend but she'd always take Kevin's calls. The boyfriend didn't like it and didn't last.
When Kevin came home for a visit, she'd see him. Their friendship just grew.
Love hit her like a lightning bolt.
"I never had feelings for Kevin in that way," she said. "I loved him as a friend and would do anything for him. It was really out of nowhere. I realized one day, he's really good-looking. That was it for me. I just knew."
"I feel like I am pretty good at figuring out his mood now," she says. "If he's feeling depressed, I know it has nothing to do with me. I got really good at separating that. He knows I'm there if he needs to talk. If he needs space, I'll give him a day."
"I feel like in the last couple years, he's really become way more comfortable with the situation," she says. "He's able to wear shorts now. Two years ago he wasn't able to do that. He's finally embracing 'This is who I am now.' "
Kevin says he has accepted his injuries. "It's almost like a different life now," he says.
Putting on prosthetic legs, most days, is "like tying my shoes."
But not every day.
"If I go golfing and then have to bartend," he says, "next day I'm going to be sore. I'd say once a month, I have that day where I say, 'WTF, I really don't feel like putting my legs on. . . ..' That's when I tell myself, 'You're feeling bad for yourself' . . . And I move on."
Kevin is close to Tim Rayer at Prosthetic Innovations, who helped design and fit Kevin with his legs. Rayer played a big role in getting Kevin into golf, taking him on outings, improving his swing.
"I can't say enough good things about Tim," said Bridget. "It takes a special person to give this much."
Many times Kevin has fallen swinging a golf club. And he still falls on occasion. But keeps getting up.
"Golf changed his life, no doubt," said Kevin's older brother, Mike, a glazier. "He can do stuff outside, which is huge. He can compete and talk trash and all that stuff."
Kevin says he'd like to get a job at a golf club. He also has been speaking in schools, and would like to do more. But he has no urgent need to work. For his sacrifice, the United States gives him $5,000 a month. And Mayfair hosted a fund-raiser soon after his injury, and that money helped him buy the house. Bridget also works as a waitress at Parx casino.
Kevin is proud of his service, a big supporter of the U.S. military. He usually keeps his opinions to himself, but as he wheeled his trash to the curb the other night, he had this to say about the escalation of fighting now in Iraq:
"I kind of feel like we should stay out of it," he said. "We lost all these people. Now this stuff is going on again. Are we going to go back again and lose some more? For something we can't fix right now? We can't fix it."
Kevin did his duty, paid his price, and has done his best to move on. If life is an attitude, perhaps this is a good example of where Kevin McCloskey is:
After golf the other night, he and two friends stopped at a bar and played Quizzo. They lost, but won a round of drinks because Kevin came up with the best team name - "3 players 4 legs!"