On 10th anniversary of Iraq War, two New York families share the ultimate pain

By Corky Siemaszko New York Daily News

After her soldier son was killed while on a mission in Iraq, Sophy Haynes embarked on one of her own — to unravel the riddle that was Sgt. Schyler Haynes.

Sophy Haynes, whose son Sgt. Schuyler Haynes was killed in Iraq seven years ago, says she continues to learn about him even though he is long gone. Andrew Theodorakis/New York Daily News

Sophy Haynes, whose son Sgt. Schuyler Haynes was killed in Iraq seven years ago, says she continues to learn about him even though he is long gone. Andrew Theodorakis/New York Daily News

“My son was always a very private person,” she said Tuesday. “We knew so little about him. Questions normally one would know the answer to, we didn’t know. He kept so much of himself to himself.” Now, as the nation marks the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, Haynes said in some ways she feels closer to her son than she did before he was killed in 2006 at age 40.

And that, she says, “has been a great comfort to me.”

“I discovered that everybody who knew him loved him,” said Haynes, 85, of Manhattan, who has been in regular contact with the soldiers her son served with in Iraq.

“He did things like help out one of his soldiers who had a drug problem. He helped another soldier with a rocky marriage. He did things like that that he never told us about.”

Haynes said her son was a “good soldier” who did not question the mission in Iraq, but she always harbored deep misgivings.

“There’s a difference between this war and World War II,” she said. “It was clear the Second World War had to be fought. This war was based on a lot of misinformation.”

Schyler Haynes didn’t have to be a soldier. Born in Manhattan and raised a lawyer’s son on the upper West Side, he attended boarding school and graduated from Trinity College with a history degree.

“His father wanted him to clerk for a Supreme Court judge,” said Haynes, a retired assistant dean at the Juilliard School.

But Schyler, a descendant of Revolutionary War Gen. Philip John Schyler, chose the Army instead.

Haynes said she supported her son but fretted about his safety when he was deployed to Panama and later to Kosovo.

“He never talked about what he experienced,” she said. “Once I was bringing him some mail and I saw a medal, a Bronze Star, on his bed. He said it was nothing. He said everybody got one.”

When Schyler was deployed to Iraq the first time, “he went and did his duty like a good soldier,” she said.

“I think he felt he was doing some good,” she said. “I know that when he went over for the second time, he was pretty sure he wasn’t coming back alive.”

Schyler left behind a list of email addresses of people to contact if something happened to him and posed for a picture with the cat he had adopted Rembrandt.

“He hated to have his picture taken,” his mother said. “That sort of set some signals off.”

The doomed sergeant was leading a convoy through Baquba, a guerilla hotbed northeast of Baghdad, when his vehicle was blown apart by a bomb.

“I just thanked God he didn’t leave behind a wife or kids,” his mother said.

It was then, Haynes said, that she began making pilgrimages to Fort Hood to meet the soldiers Schyler served with.

“It was amazing,” she said. “Colonels would come running out and say, ‘Haynes’ mom is here!’ Soldiers who served with him would come up and tell me how he was like a second father to them.”

Haynes said that to her, Schyler was the little boy she played catch with because his father was too busy. He was the big brother who doted on baby brother Robbie, who is now 43 and has Down Syndrome. He was the young man who got elected president of the student council but didn’t tell his parents, because “he was too modest.”

Karen and John J. McKenna III accepted a Silver Star for their late son. Jeremy Bales

Karen and John J. McKenna III accepted a Silver Star for their late son. Jeremy Bales

“Talking to the soldiers, I started learning so much more about him,” his mother said. “I learned he’d repeatedly turned down promotions because he didn’t want to be an officer.”Friends described how Schyler would be joking around with the troops “about very elementary things and then he’d walk to his quarters with the London Times tucked up his arms.”

“He went to boarding school,” his mother said. “He had tennis lessons. And yet he was able to relate to people at every level.”

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Karen McKenna said her son John had no doubt he was fighting the good fight when he was cut down by an Iraqi sniper seven years ago.

To Marine Capt. John McKenna IV, a proud and patriotic son of Brooklyn, Saddam Hussein was a tyrant and a threat to America, his mother said.

“He totally believed in it,” said McKenna, who now lives near Saratoga with her husband, also named John. “Saddam Hussein was still there and John had seen and heard what this man was doing to his own people.”

But a decade after the war that claimed her 30-year-old son began, McKenna no longer believes in the mission.

“I think to some extent we were deceived,” said the still-grieving mom. “The goal was to get Saddam Hussein out of there. We shouldn’t be there anymore.”

McKenna, a New York state trooper who volunteered to serve in Iraq, was killed during a firefight with insurgents in Fallujah in 2006.

His mother said he died trying to save another New Yorker who was killed in the same battle, 28-year-old Michael Glover of Queens.

“When they first told me John was dead, I didn’t believe them,” McKenna said. “When they told me how he died, I knew it was him. That’s the way he was, always helping people.”

McKenna grew up playing soldier in the Kensington section and his funeral at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church drew hundreds of state police and Marines, as well as former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Since then, McKenna said she and her husband have tried to channel their grief into helping soldiers returning home from Iraq.

Among other things, they opened a military courtesy room in their son’s name at Albany International Airport. And McKenna says she meets regularly with other Gold Star moms.

“Each of us has lost a child and we’re the only ones who understand,” she said. “Almost to the person why ask ourselves, why are we still there? Why are we still involved in this?”

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