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Tragedy strikes, hope triumphs

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Jay Ostrich
  • Public Affairs Office
For 12-year-old Rhiannon Kerstetter, the joys and simple pleasures of celebrating a birthday have long since passed. As fate would have it, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 came on her special day. Since then, this daughter of Senior Master Sgt. Michelle Kerstetter, 193rd Special Operations Wing's finance supervisor, has looked upon her birthday with a sense of foreboding and dread.

"Bad things always seem to happen on that date," said Kerstetter, whose husband Staff Sgt. Jason Kerstetter, serves in Pennsylvania Army National Guard.

So when Rhiannon anxiously asked her mother what terrible things would happen year, Kerstetter, a mother of five, lovingly reassured her that nothing bad was going to happen.

As the family awaited a special birthday phone call from the child's grandmother in Kentucky, her worst nightmares would painfully unfold. Indeed, the call would come from there, but it wasn't from her beloved grandmother.

"They were gone," said a teary-eyed Kerstetter.

Her sister had called to break the news. Their mother, Karen Comer, and sister-in-law Tracy Burke, a mother of three, had been found murdered in their home along with a family dog.

According to police reports, a gunman entered the residence and shot the two women while three children were still inside the home. The children hid for more than nine hours before 9-year-old son, Matthew, called 911 for help.

In the weeks following the investigation, Kerstetter has opened up her heart and already bustling home to her 2-year-old niece and nephews, 9 and 4.

Love and support for the children flows with abundance, but overcoming financial hardships and added responsibilities for a grieving household of 10 has presented Kerstetter with significant obstacles.

Between getting the children to school, taking them to counseling, balancing daily routines and traveling to Kentucky for custody and criminal court proceedings, this Guard family is stretched thin, said Kerstetter.

"Sergeant Kerstetter has always been in the role of taking care of the needs of others and now she could use a little help," said Master Sgt. Sherri Foy, force sustainment supervisor and friend. "It just broke your heart to look at that gorgeous little girl and realize she no longer had a mommy. I just knew we had to do anything we could to help them."

Several members of the unit past and present were among the first to step up and relieve some of the stresses. They provided help with meals, chores around the house and access to resources that would help restore some normalcy to the household.

But for the children, the nightmare would continue. On Oct. 15, Kentucky State Police arrested military police officer, Sgt. Brent A. Burke, 29, stationed at Fort Campbell. The father of the two youngest children was charged with two counts of murder, burglary, three counts of wanton endangerment and cruelty to animals.

Although the children are getting steady counseling to help with coping, the effects of this tragedy are ongoing.

"The kids have hidden under the table thinking it was the robber coming back again," said Kerstetter. "It's sad to see."

But love and hope are taking an even stronger hold of the family, said Kerstetter. Just knowing her Guard family is standing behind her, has come as much relief.

"For the Guard, this is about family," said Foy. "We would like to take as much off their plate as possible in order to let this family bond and heal."

Providing gift cards for food, entertainment and gas, as well as toys and clothes will make a difference, said Foy.

Just as Americans rebuilt after the tragic losses of Sept.11, Kerstetter and her family will look to heal and grow stronger with a little help from her friends in the Pennsylvania National Guard.

For more information on how to contribute to the children's trust or to help the family with daily needs, please contact Sandy Scott, 193rd SOW Family Support Group coordinator at 717-948-3155.