Leaving Afghanistan: Our Longest War | Act 4: Northland family pays war's highest cost

Posted at 11:01 AM, Oct 28, 2014
and last updated 2014-10-30 23:27:13-04

Colleen Katzenberger couldn’t imagine just how much 9/11 would change her Kansas City life or her future family. She remembers vividly watching the images of that day in a high school class.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘this is going to be my generation’s war. This is going to be my generation’s war,’ and then lo and behold where life took me, it absolutely was my generation’s war.”

Thirteen years later and sitting in her Northland home, Colleen took us back to the beginning when life took her to a 16-year-old named Jeremy. They met over the summer while working as lifeguards. They didn’t have their first date until freshman year of college.

“And that sealed the deal, literally.” She said. “We had or first date that Friday and we were an item ever since.”

Jeremy enlisted soon after.

“Probably the hardest conversation I had to have with him was about six weeks out and leaving for basic training. I said ‘I don’t think I can get engaged. I don’t think I am old enough. I don’t think I can do this. I’m committed to you, but I’m just too young.’ And then he left and we wrote letters, good, old-fashioned letters, back and forth. I wrote one every day and he wrote as often as he could and somehow we got even stronger.”

Jeremy proposed to Colleen after his graduation from basic. The two got married 16 days later.

“Oh my goodness, it was so crazy! I think of it now especially as a parent and it blows my mind!” Colleen said laughing.

The two didn’t have much choice. Jeremy only had a 10-day leave, and it was coming a quick two weeks after he proposed. That left one possible weekend for Jeremy and Colleen to tie the knot.

Colleen and their families worked to get all the details ready and their whirlwind wonderful wedding led straight to a loving military marriage with some hard sacrifices. Jeremy soon left on deployment.

“The first one was about three-and-a-half months and the first one, he missed Christmas. He missed our first Christmas.”

NEXT: "Oh my God, is it my husband or my brother!?!"



Army Rangers like Staff Sgt. Jeremy Katzenberger work in secrecy. Their missions are so intense that they get shorter deployments, but they are on a constant rotation. Despite trying circumstances, Jeremy and Colleen stayed strong through several deployments while they were based out of Georgia. Then another life-changing milestone came. Jeremy and Colleen welcomed a baby boy named Everett. Jeremy got to be there for Everett’s birth. That’s something Colleen treasures. Jeremy didn’t get to stay home long. He went back to his incredibly dangerous work.

“The other battalions had not been as lucky as our battalion had been, so it was very false in that security, but it was tough. That was tough.”

In 2011, in the middle of Jeremy’s deployment to Afghanistan, Colleen took then 7-month-old Everett to see family in Kansas City.

“My parents took me to the airport that morning and they came home from the airport and like an hour later, a car pulled up and two men dressed in Class As came to my parent’s door.”

Per Army protocol, they were looking for Colleen and told her parents nothing. Colleen says since her brother is also deployed, she is relieved her parents didn’t realize at the time what protocol they had just witnessed.

Colleen, traveling back to Georgia, knew nothing until she saw close friends at the airport. They had heard the news and worked with the Army to delay telling Colleen until they could be with her at the airport.

Colleen was only expecting her good friend Katie, the wife of another soldier, to pick her up.

“So I had this huge smile on my face and turned to Katie and the minute I saw her face, she has these big blue eyes and they were just filled with tears and I looked at her and thought, 'Oh my God, this isn’t good.'”

Katie and her husband had led Colleen to a small conference room inside the airport where Army officials were waiting.

“And I looked at her and I said ‘Oh my God, is it my husband or my brother!?!’ because they were both gone!” Colleen said. “

“And then a chaplain knelt down on one knee and he started reading this statement and all I heard was ‘On behalf of the United States President, we regret to inform you that Staff Sgt. Jeremy…’ and that was it. That was all I heard. That was all I heard. So I curled up into a ball because what do you do when your world ends? What do you do? I curled into this ball…and then I heard Everett.”

Everett’s tender baby noises, sitting happily in Katie’s arms, ripped Colleen out of her overwhelming grief just long enough for her to compose herself.

“I looked at him and realized my world was not over,” she said.

NEXT: Young Everett learns about his father, and the memories of Jeremy live on with an annual triathlon



Together, Colleen and little Everett started rebuilding their life. So many of Everett’s little mannerisms and actions seem to come straight from his dad. They’re a reminder that is both difficult and such a blessing to Colleen. 

“Jeremy had like crystal blue eyes. They were these beautiful ocean blue eyes and Everett has my brown eyes. So he is both of us. I think that was God’s saving grace in some ways because if I had to look into those eyes that might have been…” Colleen stopped, shaking her head.

“It is crazy when you’re life…I was 26 years old, 26 years old and about to bury my husband. It was in that moment I hadn’t just lost him. I lost my future.”

Their new reality is still difficult today.

“I have great family support, really awesome support, but I am a single mom and those words were really hard for me to utter for a long time.”

Now mostly happy memories fill her days. Before leaving for his last deployment, Jeremy recorded videos reading bedtime stories for Everett. Colleen remembers the one that choked Jeremy up, reading the story ‘Oh the places you’ll go.’

Three years later, she knows Everett is starting to understand what happened to his dad.

“To watch those emotions in your child, I just, I am so protective of him,” she said. “He sees other kids’ dads and he knows and he’ll say it... I think he is now comprehending that when you go to heaven, you don’t come back. And watching that in a 3 ½ year old son who is a great kid... you want him to have a dad and it is just so emotional.”

“I have to keep it together when he tells me he wants to join the army so he can get the bad guys so they don’t get daddy again,” she said.

And now every fall, a local triathlon at Weatherby lake draws dozens, dedicated to Jeremy and the families in his battalion. This year, they raised $10,000. Jeremy’s father Robert, who still has two other sons fighting overseas, can see Jeremy in each and every athlete.

“I tell you, it brought tears to my eyes,” he said. “Watching these people cross the line... it brought back a lot of memories of my son’s persistence and what he would have been like if he had been participating in events like this.”

At the race, so many people come up to Colleen and Jeremy’s parents to tell them stories about the Jeremy they knew.

Colleen has lasting memories of her own.

“The night he walked away from me for the last time, I remember looking at him and just feeling so lucky,” Colleen said. “That love over the six years of our marriage just grew to such a point.”

And when asked if she thought this 13-year war was worth it when there were thousands of other families just like hers who had lost a loved one fighting, she answered that this lost father, son, and husband died fighting in a war in which he truly believed.

“When I buried him, there was a sense of pride... and also anger. [I felt] pride that he was strong enough to fight it and that he believed in it in such a way that he did it for me and he did it for Everett so that we could live in a society that has no comprehension of that evil.”