Down in Ken Kozakiewicz’s basement is an impressive shrine to manhood.
A Buffalo Sabres banner hangs along the stairs. NASCAR memorabilia – mostly featuring his favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. – adorn the walls and shelves.
Knickknacks with a testosterone motif are arranged about. Gnarly skulls and snakes are mixed in with sports items. He keeps rows of heavy metal and alt-rock cassettes: Ozzy Osbourne, Rush, Krokus, Love and Rockets.
On the east wall, spaced apart from the collectibles and trinkets, are a group of items with special meaning.
A large lithograph honoring the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division’s service in Operation Desert Storm holds a place of prominence next to four framed pictures of a memorial at Fort Stewart, the division’s home base. The photos represent duty, honor, valor, victory.
Anyone familiar with Kozakiewicz’s military service would be curious about another photograph.
Where does he keep the unforgettable image that shows his life being wrecked forever? There it is on the basement floor. It’s creased and leaning against a wall, practically wedged between a stereo speaker and the TV cabinet.
That’s where Kozakiewicz wants the photo and where he prefers to keep his memories about Iraq and the devastation he experienced and witnessed there.
“It’s not something I’m proud of,” Kozakiewicz said in the kitchen of his West Seneca home. “It’s not something I want to look at.”
Kozakiewicz’s heartbreaking reaction to the death of a friend touched people around the world. The image, taken by David C. Turnley of the Detroit Free Press, is regarded among history’s most important war photos. It won the World Press Photo of the Year Award for 1991.
Sgt. Kozakiewicz is the photo’s most compelling figure. He cries while seated on the floor of a medical helicopter. His left arm is in a sling, and he’s looking away from a blood-stained body bag. Kozakiewicz has just learned his Fort Stewart roommate, Pvt. Andy Alaniz, was killed in battle.
Cpl. Mike Tsangarakis, his head wrapped in a white bandage, adds another haunting element in the center of the picture. Two medics, still unidentified 21 years later, are automatons amid the grief.
Life Magazine ran the shot in its March 1991 issue with a notation:
“If one experience could summarize the pain of war, it was the death of a friend; if one photograph could contain war’s horrors, it was this one. ... It was Kozakiewicz’s grief-stricken face that looked out from the front page of scores of newspapers, robbing the allied victory of its innocent blush and confirming once again that no war is without its horrors.”
The Buffalo News displays the photo in its lobby alongside photographs such as “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” “The Kissing Sailor” and “Tet Execution.”
Kozakiewicz saw the photo in Stars and Stripes while he was recovering from his injury in Germany. Again, he cried. He said that was the final time.
The photo initially made Kozakiewicz a celebrity. He became a symbol of war’s sacrifice. He made the national interview rounds and returned to a hero’s welcome at Buffalo Niagara International Airport. There were cheers and banners and a horde of supporters. Strangers hugged him.
Since then, life for Kozakiewicz hasn’t been bouquets and Mylar balloons. The same can be said for Tsangarakis or Alaniz’s widow and daughter, who never got to meet her father and would love nothing more than for Kozakiewicz to call her. Kozakiewicz knows this, but he has been emotionally paralyzed by the idea.
All four met with The Buffalo News to discuss how their lives have unfolded.
“We’re seriously messed up. Psychologically, physically,” said Kozakiewicz, who at 44 has been deemed 90 percent disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs and stopped working at Home Depot because of a bad back.
“I’m not the same kid that was over there. You go over there young and innocent and then experience losing a buddy. I’m completely different. I don’t feel that I’m all there.”
‘I lost a lot over there’
Turnley’s photo was taken in the Euphrates Valley on Feb. 27. That’s the date President George H.W. Bush set for the Persian Gulf War cease-fire. The allied forces already had chased Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait.
But the 24th Mechanized had one more job to do. Hussein’s elite Republican Guard was dug in at Jalibah Airfield in Iraq. They needed to be cleared out and their equipment destroyed.
Kozakiewicz, a gunner who never had to fire his M-60 the six months he was in Iraq, was in a unit of Bradley Fighting Vehicles. After a barrage of heavy artillery essentially wiped out Jalibah Airfield, their job was to mop up the area.
He recalled riding across the desert and toward the airfield for about 10 minutes when his Bradley got smoked by two armor-piercing rounds.
“Somebody made a very grave error,” Kozakiewicz said, his voice dropping into a low rumble. “I’m still angry to this day that the incident occurred. There’s no rhyme or reason for it.”
Two words got stuck in his throat.
“Battlefield confusion,” Kozakiewicz said, slowly rapping his ring against the handle of a coffee mug.
A commander’s inquiry examined what happened at Jalibah Airfield. “Battlefield confusion” was the verdict. The Bradleys had been scotched by friendly fire.
An American tank unit was supposed to protect the Bradleys, but it mistook them for enemy targets. Three Bradleys were bombarded with 120 mm sabot rounds, rockets made of radioactive, depleted uranium and 2½ times denser than steel.
Two U.S. soldiers were killed, eight wounded. Two survivors had severed legs; another lost an eye. Kozakiewicz was lucky. He escaped with a broken left wrist – but a lifetime of scars.
“I still haven’t totally adjusted,” said Kozakiewicz, who returned home and developed a drinking routine that escalated to a case of beer a day – every day – until he stopped in 1994. “I lost a lot over there.”
Kozakiewicz and Tsangarakis talk regularly. Each understands what the other has been through. Nobody else really does. They meet in Baltimore every two years for depleted-uranium checkups. The Department of Veterans Affairs wants to make sure exposed soldiers aren’t toxic. They’ve both been divorced and don’t have children. They’ve both had financial troubles. They’re both on anxiety medication. They’ve both admitted to contemplating suicide in the past but insist they’re way beyond that now. They both see psychiatrists for post-traumatic stress disorder.
And they both went through debilitating mental funks after revisiting their time in Iraq for this series.
“The interview is tearing me apart,” Kozakiewicz said over the phone last week. “This is something that we live with but don’t talk about.”
A few days after Kozakiewicz’s initial interview, he tested himself in a dramatic way.
His experiences in Iraq made him terrified of open spaces. In a restaurant, his back must be against the wall. He struggles with mall parking lots. He gravitates toward tree lines when he’s near a field. Rural driving causes panic attacks. He’s unable to drive down Route 16 to Delevan, where his fiancee’s parents live.
“When you hit that open, country area?” Kozakiewicz said. “I can’t do it. I’ve tried. I have to pull over, and she has to drive.”
Despite those potential predicaments, he and his fiancee drove cross-country to visit his father in Tucson, Ariz.
As expected, Kozakiewicz had problems when the landscape expanded on the other side of the Mississippi River.
He climbed into the backseat of their new Ford Escape, the tinted windows helping him hole up. But he still needed to mentally prepare each time they drove over a bridge. His anxiety intensified when they reached the desert Southwest.
“Wow. This kid is really messed up,” Dan Kozakiewicz said. The Vietnam veteran and former Army recruiter hadn’t seen his son in eight years. “There are a lot of things he’s being cheated on in life because of what he’s dealing with.
“It’s sad to see him like that. It’s awful, actually. It hurts me a lot.”
During the visit, Ken tagged along when Dan walked his border collie-lab mix. Their path took them to a bridge that spanned a 7-foot-deep desert wash. Dan thought Ken was next to him, but turned around to see his son frozen at the foot of the bridge.
“I said ‘It’s not that high, man.’ And he said ‘I can’t,’ ” Dan Kozakiewicz said. “It shocked the hell out of me.
“I didn’t realize it was that bad. He still has all that baggage.”
Struggling to reach out
Andee Alaniz is on a desperate quest to know her father. She’s 21 now, older than her father was when he died in Iraq.
She wants Ken Kozakiewicz’s help.
He’d love to give it to her, but right now he’s incapable.
“Talking to Ken Kozakiewicz has always been a big goal of mine, because he was there,” Andee said in her mother’s home in Noble, Okla. “He was my dad’s roommate. He got to hear him talk about a lot of things.”
Andee has learned all she can from her mother’s perspective. Andee craves insight filtered through someone else.
Andee’s relationship with her father’s family in Corpus Christi has been contentious and unrewarding. She insisted she’d like to be closer to her grandparents, but she’s torn. She called them “fake” but expressed guilt for feeling that way.
The last time Andee visited her grandparents, she said, they were more interested in showing her off like a trophy than helping her understand her roots.
Andee routinely Googles her father’s name in hopes that new information will pop up from an old classmate or Army buddy. What she sees most frequently are her mother’s in-memoriam blogs and Turnley’s famous photo.
She sees Kozakiewicz crying for her father and badly wants to speak with him, but her efforts have been fruitless so far. For years, she couldn’t locate Kozakiewicz. He has had her number for about a month, but he has been too anxious to call.
“I want to know more,” Andee said. “I just always thought Ken would be a big help with a lot of things. And maybe I can make him feel a little better about what happened.”
Perhaps more than reopening the wounds of Iraq with a reporter, finding out Andee wants to talk to him has freaked out Kozakiewicz. He doesn’t know what he would say to her. He’s afraid of what she will ask him. He’s concerned that what he can tell her won’t be enough. He doesn’t want to disappoint anybody.
Kozakiewicz doesn’t open up easily. He said he and his fiancee never have spoken about his time in Iraq or about the photo in the 10 years they’ve known each other. And he only gives her first name, Cindy, because he doesn’t want her involved in the story.
“It’s scary. Very scary,” Kozakiewicz said upon hearing Andee was searching for him. “I can’t do this. There’s no way in hell I can go through this. I’m having problems going through my feelings.”
But, in a flash, Kozakiewicz switches to a different mindset, illustrating his inner conflict.
“I have to call her,” he said. “I will call her. I can’t ignore that she wants to talk. But when? I can’t give you a certain date.”
Kozakiewicz’s father and fiancée have urged him to reach out to Andee. They say that if he had died in Iraq, then he would want Alaniz or Tsangarakis to speak with his children.
Kozakiewicz agrees with them, but following through is not that easy. The timing plagues him, too. The interviews and the long drive to Arizona have put him in a volatile mental state.
But once he gets himself together, Kozakiewicz insisted, he’ll take care of his obligation.
“They’re looking at it from the outside in,” Kozakiewicz said. “I’m inside, and I can’t see out.
“This is messed up.”
Mixed feelings, raw emotion
Atop the TV cabinet in Kozakiewicz’s basement is a replica of the leg lamp from “A Christmas Story.” In the movie, the father exclaims, “It’s a major award!” Yet there’s no sign of Kozakiewicz’s Purple Heart.
The photo that made him famous is a crumpled afterthought. It means more to other people than it does to him.
“To me, this photo captures the tremendous burdens that our fighting forces bear when they go into harm’s way,” President George H.W. Bush told The Buffalo News in an email. “They understand the risks, yet they go into the breach anyway. I can sum it up in three words: duty, honor, country.”
Kozakiewicz’s late mother, Marcy, was proud of the photo, because it showed her son’s valor at a vulnerable moment.
Dan Kozakiewicz proclaimed, “That picture sucks, actually.” He didn’t know his son had been wounded in combat when he first saw the photo on a Buffalo News rack at the corner store.
Ken Kozakiewicz begrudgingly conceded the photo has value, but he added that “people think I look like a p–-y.” That would seem an outlandish sentiment, but this is the son of an Army recruiter who Dan said “wanted to be Rambo” when he graduated from Orchard Park High.
“It shows that people have emotion,” Ken Kozakiewicz said while looking at a copy of the photo. “This is the reality of finding out somebody has died. This is raw emotion. To me, it shows people there is humanity in war over a fallen comrade.”
Kozakiewicz shrugged and slipped the picture back across his kitchen table.
“With or without that photo, I would live with it every day,” Kozakiewicz said. “The feelings are still the same as they were that day.”
Fourth of four parts.