By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Killeen Daily Herald
Staff Sgt. Chris Kiernan was a tough tanker nicknamed "General" who could intimidate soldiers, but there was one thing that made him cry, his little brother Sean said Thursday morning.
The Kiernan brothers were watching a cartoon one day about a bulldog and a kitten. The bulldog despised the kitten, who would nestle on his shoulder. While their owner was baking cookies in the shape of cats, the kitten fell into the dough and the bulldog dumped the bowl onto a pan and slid it into the oven.
Realizing what he had done, the bulldog became sad and took a cat-shaped cookie and rested it on his shoulder. While the bulldog was mourning the loss of his little friend, the kitten popped out of the bowl – it turns out it had been there all along and the bulldog rejoiced.
The cartoon ended and Sean looked over at his big brother. Tears streamed down Chris' face.
"Staff Sgt. Christopher Kiernan – the soldier, the war hero, the tough guy – he cried at cartoons," Sean said with a smile.
Sean, family members, friends and soldiers gathered at St. Paul Chong Hasang Catholic Church on Thursday to honor Chris' life.
He died May 6 in Baghdad, Iraq, while serving with the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
Chris was the first Fort Hood soldier killed in action whose remains were flown directly to Fort Hood. Before a January policy change, Texas soldiers' remains were flown from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to Dallas or Austin. Now remains will be flown to a regional airport with 5,000 feet of runway nearest the family's home.
Sean joked that over the years he had endured some abuse at the hands of his big brother and wanted to exact some bittersweet revenge – things a soldier would not want other soldiers to know, like the cartoon story.
He recalled that Chris had an enormous head and had to be fitted with a special-sized helmet when he enlisted in the Army. A baseball cap looked like a yarmulke on Chris, Sean said, and he was even nicknamed "Fathead" by his fellow soldiers. Of course when Chris was promoted to sergeant, it was "Sgt. Fathead."
But it wasn't a gigantic head and emotional connection to kitten cartoons that made Chris stand out, Sean said. He was an incredibly warm and generous person who was deeply in love with his wife, Donna. Chris and Donna were like an old pair of shoes, Sean said, because they fit together perfectly.
The two met in 2000 and were married in late 2001. The wedding celebration lasted five days in Cajun country in Louisiana – something those who attended are still talking about. Family and friends sent Chris off in typical style Wednesday night with a big party in Killeen.
Chris would have wanted to impart two lessons, Sean said. The first was that people should never take themselves too seriously. The second lesson would be for his fellow soldiers to exhibit humaneness and compassion.
Chris served in some of the worst places on Earth, Sean said, and he was worried about the civilians in each country he was sent to. He was always motivated by the belief he was helping others.
Following the morning funeral service, riders from the Patriot Guard escorted Chris' remains and his family to San Antonio's Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. The three-mile-long procession made the 150-mile journey, most of the path on Interstate 35 cleared by law enforcement officials.
Throughout the route, people paid their respects when seeing the motorcycles surrounding the white hearse with a 1st Cavalry patch on the side.
Fishermen at Stillhouse Hollow Reservoir put down their poles and held their hands over their hearts, motorists stood on overpasses and waved flags, law enforcement officials and emergency medical technicians parked their vehicles along the highway and saluted, a car dealership in Austin hung its giant American flag at half-staff and paid tribute to Chris on its electronic billboard.
At the white-stone-filled cemetery, a caisson delivered Chris' casket to the memorial site, and the family released doves to symbolize his return home.
Brig. Gen. (promotable) Daniel P. Bolger attended the funeral and burial, part of the Army's effort to make sure a general officer attends every soldier's funeral. Bolger is commander of the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk, in Louisiana, an appropriate fit for a soldier who was named an honorary Cajun by Donna's family.
Commanders are always telling leaders to set an example, Bolger said. Young soldiers will follow that example and pass it on to others.
"It's awful hard when you have to go out in the bullets and say, Follow me,'" he said, but Chris did just that.
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7547