Farewell to Kevin O. Hill, Son and Soldier

Home Brooklyn Life Farewell to Kevin O. Hill, Son and Soldier

By Terry Baynes and Alessia Pirolo

The coffin of Kevin O. Hill at a funeral home in Flatlands. Photo: Baynes/BrooklynInk
The coffin of Kevin O. Hill at a funeral home in Flatlands. Photo: Baynes/BrooklynInk

Army Specialist Kevin O. Hill was laid to rest at Cypress Hills Cemetery on Saturday morning, the day after his family, friends and fellow soldiers gathered at a quiet ceremony to bid him farewell.

Kevin, who was 23, was killed on patrol in a remote section of Afghanistan on October 4. His remains were transported to Delaware, and then on to Brooklyn where, on Friday night, visitors gathered in a cold room at John J. McManus & Sons Funeral Home in Flatlands. At the front of the room stood Kevin’s closed casket, draped in the American flag. On one side, a portrait of Kevin in college cap and gown rested on an easel. On the other, a photo of Kevin in his army uniform.

At the back door, Kevin’s older sister, Chinyere, hugged guests and thanked them for coming. She and her younger sister, Shantel, wore Kevin’s dog tags around their necks, occasionally holding them. Chinyere passed out yellow ribbons with the gold embossed writing: “Spec. Kevin Hill, 6-14-86 to 19-4-09,” for guests to pin on their lapels.

As 7 o’clock approached, his immediate family took seats in the front row of arm chairs. His parents, Oslen and Mahalia Hill, sat directly in front of the coffin. “I never thought I’d bury one of my kids,” Oslen had said a week earlier. He served as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division during the First Gulf War. He hung his head down. Next to him, his wife Mahalia sank into her chair.

Behind them, a tall man in a navy blue uniform sat erect, his gray head jutting above the crowd. Army Brigadier General Thomas Cole was the only person in uniform to sit near the family section.

Uniformed men and women who never knew Kevin stood at the room’s perimeter. Firefighters, in thick black pants with suspenders and metal carabineers, gathered in one corner. Two police officers looked on from the back of the room. Men in blue shirts from the Transportation Security Administration faced each other on opposite sides of the room, feet apart and arms folded behind their backs. Kevin had worked for the TSA at Kennedy Airport throughout his four years at Monroe College.

The service opened with a reading from the Bible by a woman in the audience: “To everything there is a season.” It was the verse Pete Seeger used in his Vietnam-era song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” The reader continued with “A time to be born and a time to die.” She slowed down for: “A time of war, and a time of peace.”

Late arrivals trickled in until almost all of the hundred chairs in the room were filled.

Kevin’s grandfather, Oslen Hill Sr., delivered a eulogy to his grandson in his Jamaican accent. He described Kevin as a “quiet, well-beloved and respectable young man.” He recounted a day the family had spent on Coney Island. On the way back, a group of teenagers were making a commotion on the train. He stood up and yelled at them, hoping the teens would pay attention to an older man. But his voice drowned in the mayhem. When Kevin yelled, “Knock it off; knock it off,” the crowd hushed immediately. “Kevin didn’t speak much,” said Hill Sr.. “But when he did, it made a difference.”

Hill Sr. described Kevin as an ambitious young man, “committed to a goal.” Kevin wanted to work for the Secret Service and believed experience in the Army would help him to advance his career. Hill Sr. also suspects Kevin wanted to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. Both had served in the military.

After several family tributes, General Cole took the podium to speak on behalf of the Army. Cole, who never knew Kevin personally, described him as “a leader by his actions and by his kind heart.” He was quiet, not one to promote himself, but “a source of inspiration to the unit,” Cole said. He explained that Kevin had a “very dangerous job.” He worked for the Engineer Battalion doing route clearance work, searching for and disabling roadside bombs and IEDs. “I can tell you that Kevin saved a lot of lives,” said Cole. “And he sacrificed his life.”

Confusion lingers over how Kevin died. According to the Department of Defense, Kevin died from wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his unit. Army officials informed the family that he was shot while out on patrol on a road near the Pakistan border. A friend from Kevin’s platoon called the family from Afghanistan to say that there were several explosions. Cole reported, after the service, that he did not know exactly what happened on the day Kevin died but that the Army will conduct a full investigation.

During his tribute, Cole thanked Kevin’s family and friends for their own sacrifice. “You too are paying the price for our freedom, for security, for a better world,” he said. He praised Kevin as an American hero.

“He was my hero,” said Kevin’s mother, Mahalia Hill, after her daughter, Chinyere, helped her to the podium. “When I’m down, he pull me up; he hold me. When I say no, he say, ‘Yes, you can do it.’ No man was better to me.” She said that Kevin looked cold, standing at the door before he returned to Afghanistan. But he insisted he would be alright.

On the right side of the room, a group of 10 middle-aged men and women stood at attention throughout the service. They wore no uniforms, but when they moved, they moved as a group, almost in formation. The shortest and possibly the oldest was Marlowe Fletcher. He had the face of a general, a stiff jaw and fixed eyes surrounded by wrinkles. He wore a black leather jacket with an American eagle on the back and the phrase: “The nation which forgets its heroes will itself be forgotten.” He wore a cap of the 173rd Airborne Brigade—his son Jacob’s unit.

Jacob Samuel Fletcher died in Iraq on November 13, 2003 when a roadside bomb exploded his bus. Since then, Marlowe Fletcher, an Air Force veteran of the Vietnam War, has been a member the Gold Star Fathers. For the past six years, he has attended the wakes, funerals, and memorial services for every fallen soldier from New York and Long Island. “It’s our job to support the families,” he said. “It’s what we do.”

At the end of the ceremony, servicemen and women filed past Kevin’s coffin to pay their final respects. Some rested a hand on the foot of the casket.

When it was Fletcher’s turn, he paused in front of the coffin. He turned to Oslen Hill, who was bent over, his head hanging almost between his knees. Fletcher reached for Hill’s hand and helped him to stand up. The two veterans looked at each other and then at the coffin. They stood shoulder to shoulder, Hill’s dreadlocks hanging over his suit; Fletcher wore his son’s cap. Fletcher barked a command and the men saluted. Their salute hung in the air for a few seconds. Then the two fathers collapsed into each other and hugged.

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