MOAA Member Dedicated to Honoring Veterans and Their Families

MOAA Member Dedicated to Honoring Veterans and Their Families
Lt. Col. Tom von Kaenel, USA (Ret), made two cross-country bike trips to raise awareness for fallen servicemembers. (Courtesy photo)

By Christina Wood


In 2009, while biking in the French Pyrenees, Lt. Col. Tom von Kaenel, USA (Ret), suffered a devastating accident that dislocated his hip and shattered his pelvis. His extensive injuries were beyond the scope of the local hospital in France, so he was flown to a U.S. medical hospital in Germany — Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.


“I was in a trauma ward there for seven weeks,” said von Kaenel, a Life Member of MOAA. “That's where I saw the Iraq and Afghanistan casualties up close and personal. I could just see the dedication and devotion of the hospital staff, which, in my mind, has made Landstuhl the most sacred place I've ever been.”


And von Kaenel had been a lot of places during his 20-year military career — from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where he graduated in 1977, to Germany, where he was stationed when the Berlin Wall came down. When he was planning peacetime engagement activities as a sub-Saharan desk officer with European Command, he visited 28 African countries. He never saw combat.


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“I like to think that we performed a valuable service during the Cold War, because it frequently threatened to turn hot,” he said. But he knows that being willing to go into combat is not at all the same thing as being in combat.


During the long weeks at Landstuhl, von Kaenel saw firsthand the toll combat can inflict. Watching the medical personnel treat the wounded with compassion and skill moved him greatly. In fact, he says the experience there “radicalized” him. “I was trying to come up with a purpose in my civilian life. That kind of fueled me with this desire to give back.”


He took the first step in pursuing his new found purpose in 2012, riding his bike from Washington State to Washington, D.C., in an effort to bring attention to those who had died in combat. The plan was to stop at predetermined locations across the country, where a ceremony would be held and the names of fallen servicemembers would be read aloud.


In the aftermath of his biking accident in the mountains of Europe, von Kaenel freely admits he also was motivated to prove that he could do it. “But the first day out, I met an 18-year-old widow; her husband, Riley, was a Navy corpsman killed in Afghanistan nine months before that,” he recalled. Then he met another widow and another. “The most searing or poignant event was Memorial Day in 2012, at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., when I met with 12 or 15 Gold Star mothers.”


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He rode cross-country again in 2014 on the same mission. This time von Kaenel started from his native South Carolina, heading first to Key West, Fla., and from there, biking all the way to Juneau, Alaska. And this time, he did it without a support vehicle. It took him 126 days.


After serving and, subsequently, living in Europe, von Kaenel returned to South Carolina in 2012. All of his old contacts were long gone, of course, so he started over, joining organizations and networking. The leadership skills he developed in the Army eventually benefited a number of local causes, ranging from the Rotary Club to the West Point Society and Purple Heart Homes. He also served as president of his local MOAA chapter.


At a time when most others would be slowing down, von Kaenel found a new outlet for his purpose. He had purchased a home set on five acres of land. The property also featured an old barn, which has now been transformed into a veteran’s retreat. Von Kaenel supplied the funding for the project, while a trio of Marines along with the son of a Vietnam veteran provided the manpower.



The Semper Fi Barn in South Carolina provides a place for veterans and their families to gather, relax, and remember. The retreat was the brainchild of Lt. Col. Tom von Kaenel, USA (Ret), who funded the project. (Photo via Semper Fi Barn)


The Semper Fi Barn, as it is now known, provides a safe, secluded place for veterans and their families to relax, remember, and restore themselves. It also creates opportunities to inspire and educate the community about the sacrifices made for them by members of every branch of the military.


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“When your purpose finds you, you can't shake it,” von Kaenel said. “I feel humbled to be able to do this because it didn't come from me, it came through me.”


Christina Wood is a military culture writer.


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