As a child, Bufford “Kenny” Van Slyke was frightened of many things. He was scared of heights and being left alone in the dark. He was afraid to swim. Big, rumbling roller coasters terrified him.
But he overcame those fears as he grew older, eventually becoming a man willing to fight and risk his life as a Marine.
Van Slyke, 22, was killed on Feb. 28 while conducting combat operations in Iraq’s Al Anbar province, according to the Department of Defense.
His father, Keith Van Slyke, of Nine Mile Falls, said Kenny Van Slyke was at a checkpoint outside of Fallujah when he was shot in the shoulder. The bullet ripped through his back and killed him.
On Saturday, the family of this young Marine honored his memory by flying the American flag at half-staff near their home in north Spokane County.
“He wanted to be a warrior,” said Kenny’s older brother, Dan Van Slyke, of Nine Mile Falls. “He could have gone and done something safer, but he wanted to serve his country. …
“We were best friends,” he added. “He was my hero.”
Although Kenny attended public schools in Oak Harbor, Wash., he spent his summers and many holidays with his father’s family in Spokane.
Little by little, he conquered his childhood fears by wrestling and hanging out with his brother, as well as spending time outdoors – fishing, hiking and even panning for gold with his father, a former Navy airdale and now a technical sergeant with the Washington Air National Guard.
“He blossomed into a daredevil; he became a man,” said his brother, recalling how Kenny eventually became drawn to snowboarding, BMX bike-racing and other sports.
Growing up in a military environment – his mother, Cindy Lee Fischer, and stepfather, Bill Fisher, of Bay City Mich., also served in the Navy – it was no surprise to family members that Kenny followed in their footsteps.
He had considered the Army, Navy and Air Force, his father said, but in the end, “he wanted to be a Marine and be all he could be.”
Kenny, whose home was Bay City, Mich., was assigned to Marine Forces Reserve’s 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division, Saginaw, Mich.
Just a few months before he was deployed to Iraq, his wife, Kortni, gave birth to their only child, a son named Kaiden.
“Kaiden was the light of his life,” said Dan Van Slyke.
Keith Van Slyke described Kenny as “a tough kid who always liked trying the hard stuff.”
In January, Kenny called his father by satellite phone to tell him how he helped stop a weapons-smuggling incident outside of Fallujah. “He was so proud of the bust,” Keith Van Slyke recalled. “He was really excited.”
His stepmother, Trish Van Slyke, said she wishes she could have told him how proud she was of the sacrifice he made.
“When Kenny was growing up, he was afraid of so many things,” said Trish Van Slyke, who became a member of the family when Kenny was 9 years old. “It made me adore him – he was so precious and true to life. He was not afraid to be afraid. …
“Then he overcame those fears. I find it so honorable that this kid ended up facing the greatest fear of all by protecting this country’s freedom.”
The Van Slykes had planned on flying Kenny, his wife and son to Spokane for a family reunion in May. Now, they’ll be traveling to Michigan next week for the young man’s funeral.
As they mourned on Saturday, members of the family spoke about Kenny’s zest for life and his perpetual smile.
“No matter what kind of trouble or pain he was in, he always smiled,” said Trish Van Slyke. “The world is missing out on a human being who was absolutely awesome. He was really a good person. … We’re all going to miss him.”