The family of Staff Sgt. Ken VanGiesen of Kane is trying to cope with the brave soldier’s death, especially during this Christmas season.
A member of the Pennsylvania National Guard detachment based in Kane, VanGiesen-- because of his special skills-- was deployed with another unit in Afghanistan when he was killed in July.
To deepen the heartache of the loss, that unit returned to the U.S. just two weeks ago.
The soldier's parents are Tom and Sue VanGiesen of 137 Lincoln St., Kane.
VanGiesen’s death has affected many others-- including his longtime girlfriend Erin Sirianni, his sister Amie Gullifer, his brother Matt and other family members.
The soldier's death also has forever changed the life of his “best friend”—Jon Tomko, a Bradford native who resides in Ellwood City north of Pittsburgh.
Tomko, a sergeant with the National Guard based in Kane, met VanGiesen while the unit was preparing to deploy to Germany in 2002.
“We became really good friends,” Tomko said in describing his relationship with VanGiesen.
When the soldiers returned from that mission to Germany, they both enrolled at Edinboro University in 2003.
“We didn’t know anyone else up there,” Tomko said. “We only had each other.”
Tomko said he and VanGiesen “socialized together” at college. “Whenever we did something, it usually was together,” Tomko said. They both enjoyed fishing and did that together, too, Tomko said.
“I considered Ken my best friend,” Tomko said.
They often traveled together to National Guard training events. Tomko often stayed overnight at the VanGiesen residence along Lincoln Street.
Tomko said he and VanGiesen had a “unique relationship.” “We would get into some heated arguments,” Tomko said. “But they always ended on a high note.”
National Guard leaders have eulogized VanGiesen as a devoted hard-working solider who was one of the best at what he did.
“Ken had the highest standards as a soldier and always put others before himself,” Tomko said. “I looked up to him and I wasn’t the only one. Everyone wanted to be like him. He was a patriot in every sense of the word.”
VanGiesen’s strong military character carried over into his personal life.
“Ken would do anything for you,” Tomko said.
“Most of us are ordinary men who can do great things,” Tomko added. “Ken was a great man.”
Tomko has many fond memories of his enduring relationship with VanGiesen.
In 2010, VanGiesen was hospitalized in Erie as he battled Crohn’s Disease—a bowel disorder.
When Tomko went to visit his friend at St. Vincent’s Hospital, he took along his infant son, Luke.
“I put Luke on the bed and he began crawling all over Ken,” Tomko said. “I was worried that Luke was going to hurt him. Ken just laughed and said ‘let him play.’”
Because VanGiesen rode a motorcycle, Tomko went out and bought his own.
“We had all kind of plans of riding our motorcycles together,” Tomko said.
The “best friends” also were loyal fans of the Steelers.
“We had plans to go to Steeler games and fish and golf,” Tomko said.
When VanGiesen was serving one of his two deployments in Iraq, he received a sand wedge from Tomko.
“I told him he could get plenty of practice with that golf club,” Tomko said.
Tomko, a 1998 graduate of Bradford High School, is still based with the National Guard in Kane.
Tomko said he was “devastated” when he learned that VanGiesen had been killed in Afghanistan with two other soldiers when their Army vehicle hit a buried “improvised explosive device” (IED).