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Published: 6/17/2007

Close-knit town stays that way in pilot's death

BY JANET ROMAKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Sonnenberg Sonnenberg
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Kevin Sonnenberg, left, and Bob Kane pose for a photo.
Kevin Sonnenberg, left, and Bob Kane pose for a photo.
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Hub Hauser recalls the pilot as an All-American boy. Hub Hauser recalls the pilot as an All-American boy.
JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge
Marlo Kirn, left, says Mr. Sonnenberg s death will strengthen the community.
Marlo Kirn, left, says Mr. Sonnenberg s death will strengthen the community.
JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge
The sign at the American Legion Post says all the town
can say at the moment for its native son who died in Iraq. The sign at the American Legion Post says all the town can say at the moment for its native son who died in Iraq.
JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge

McCLURE, Ohio - Threads tying this close-knit community together tightened with sorrow as word spread that a native son had been killed in Iraq.

"Rest In Peace Kevin" was the message posted on a board outside of the American Legion Post 332 yesterday.

Maj. Kevin H. Sonnenberg, 42, a pilot with the Ohio Air National Guard's 180th Fighter Wing at Toledo Express Airport, died Friday when the F-16 fighter jet he was flying crashed during takeoff about 50 miles north of Baghdad.

The single-seat fighter was on a mission to support a ground forces operation. The cause is under investigation, Air Force officials said.

The Sonnenberg family has declined to talk with the media. Several residents of this Henry County community, about 35 miles southwest of Toledo, yesterday said they would not comment either, out of respect for Mr. Sonnenberg and his relatives.

"We're a small town. It hits everyone hard, really hard," said a customer at a downtown business who didn't want her name published.

Down the street, Marlo Kirn, an assistant at the McClure Pro Hardware, predicted that the death of the McClure resident would strengthen the community.

"It will make us stronger. It will make us all stronger," she said. "When we lose someone, it does not matter if they're family or not. In a small town, everyone is close."

Close enough to know that Mr. Sonnenberg, who was assigned to the 112th Fighter Squadron, a subunit of the 180th Fighter Wing, used to tip the wings on his jet when he soared over town en route to Dayton or some other destination. A tip of the wings let his family know he was up there and he was safe, said Hub Houser, past commander of the McClure American Legion.

"He would fly over his folks' house - they live a mile south of town - and he would wave his wings," said Mr. Houser yesterday as he held a photograph of Mr. Sonnenberg and Bob Kane, former post commander, that was taken after the pilot presented the post with an American flag.

"In 2002, Kevin flew overseas and he had that flag with him. When he came back, he gave the flag to the post," said Mr. Houser, who is mourning the pilot's loss.

"I've known Kevin ever since he was a baby," Mr. Houser said. "He was an All-American boy. He never got in trouble. He was a community man, a community kid."

Mr. Houser recalled that Mr. Sonnenberg "got married in the last year" to a Toledo woman.

An online version of the winter, 2007, publication of Napoleon Area Schools' district newsletter includes a photograph of school officials with Napoleon graduates Kevin Sonnenberg (class of '83) and Brad Glanz (class of '92) who, according to the publication, had "recently presented an American flag to Napoleon Area Schools. The two men carried the flag in Brave 55 Flight on the 9th of September, 2005, when they flew over Iraq on a combat mission in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Major Sonnenberg and Captain Glanz are members of the Ohio Air National Guard and have served two tours of duty in Iraq and are expecting to begin their third tour of duty in Iraq in May."

An employee at a carryout in McClure said yesterday that sadly, Mr. Sonnenberg was scheduled to come home from Iraq in a week or so.

Barry Conley, McClure's postmaster, recalled yesterday that the last time he saw Mr. Sonnenberg, he told the pilot to "be careful" over there.

"I knew him when I was in the [Army] Reserves," said Mr. Conley, noting that they would compare stories. "We talked about it before he left. He really liked flying those planes."

When he crashed, Mr. Sonnenberg was flying an aircraft normally based in Tulsa, Okla. The F-16 was deployed overseas to the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, which has headquarters at an air base near Balad, Iraq, about 50 miles north of Baghdad. The crash occurred at

12:27 a.m. Friday, about five miles north of the Balad base, according to a U.S. Central Command Air Forces spokesman.

Last month, 350 members of the 180th were deployed to Iraq for 45 days.

The 180th includes pilots; aircraft and vehicular mechanics; munitions specialists who build bombs and load them on planes; truck drivers; security police, and engineers. They range in age from 18 to about 58.

"It makes me sick to hear about someone else who's died over there," said Joyce Schlembach of Napoleon, who came to McClure to attend a local festival. "My son was a helicopter pilot and I couldn't wait till he got out."

Several McClure residents yesterday said they have relatives in the military.

Darlene Akeman, who works in McClure, said her son Anthony, who is in the Navy, just "reupped. We know he'll have one more tour. He'll end up over there in Iraq. They're all ending up there."

Mr. Houser said "lots of kids from here join the National Guard or the Reserves." They do so partly because "they believe in our country yet," he said, and partly because "it brings in extra money. These are kids. When you are just starting out, everything's so expensive."

"Support Our Troops" magnetic ribbons were for sale yesterday at the Village Dairy Bar; across the street at the Pop & Son Carry-Out, a "United We Stand" emblem was stuck fast to a frozen food case stocked with ice cream, pizza, and breakfast pastries.

American flags, displayed on utility poles along the street, fluttered in the breeze as a steady string of cars streamed into town yesterday afternoon. Many motorists were en route to the 28th annual McClure Radish Festival in the local park.

Just inside the huge red-and-white festival tent was a hand-written notice: "Media No Comment," a telling sign in the small town that many residents were reluctant to talk about what happened to one of their own.

It's too soon. It's all so sudden, residents' statements and behavior suggested.

Mr. Houser figures the post will attend Mr. Sonnenberg's funeral as a unit. "It will be military all the way," he said.

Yesterday Mr. Houser and other members of the American Legion served as the honor guard at the funeral of a World War II veteran.

"We're losing them fast. This is the ninth World War II vet from our little town," Mr. Houser said. "The vets, they're all getting older. Losing this young Kevin, it hurts the whole town."

He shifted his weight on the sidewalk, squinted into the sun, and cleared his throat. "You wonder why the Good Lord doesn't take one of us," Mr. Houser said. "I guess He takes the good ones."

Contact Janet Romaker at:

jromaker@theblade.com or

419-724-6006.



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