Abby Knapp hides her emotions.
“I’m not the typical girl,” she says. “I hold ’em in.”
So it was her husband, Mike, a blue-eyed soldier from Overland Park, who cried at their wedding in 2008 and at the birth of their daughter, Kinsley, last summer.
“I was permanent smiles,” Abby says. “I knew he was going to take care of me the rest of my life.”
Abby loved Mike’s soft side, but sometimes she got a little embarrassed when he showed it on Facebook.
“I love you babe,” Mike wrote on Abby’s wall in January. “You are my sunshine, my queen, my beautiful princess.”
In November, the 28-year-old Army sergeant deployed to Afghanistan with his field artillery unit. Abby and Mike hated being apart, but he took pride in his duties, and she liked feeling independent. Mike told Abby not to worry about him, so she didn’t.
They stayed in touch with instant messaging and, when the connection was strong, Skype. That’s how Mike watched Kinsley stand up for the first time.
In the spring, Mike was finally cleared for two weeks of leave, and Abby planned to meet him in Orlando, Fla. She imagined it would be like paradise. They would touch and kiss and talk whenever they wanted, lounge together in the sun by the pool, and take Kinsley to SeaWorld and the beach. Mike wanted Abby’s parents to come along to watch the baby so they could have some time alone.
Every conversation ended with the same two words.
Days before he was to leave Afghanistan, Mike was killed when an enemy rocket apparently struck an ammunition supply. The explosion was so violent that the Army needed to use DNA to identify his body.
Mike’s friend JaBraun Knox, a 23-year-old sergeant from Auburn, Ind., with a wife and infant son, also died, and another soldier was badly burned.
Around noon that day, Abby came home to her parents’ house in Overland Park and saw two uniformed officers standing in the dining room.
“He’s hurt,” she told them. Silence. “Where’s he at?”
There was a long pause before one of the officers started to read a statement. Abby can’t remember any of the words.
“He’s OK,” she repeated over and over for what felt like minutes. She looked down at 9-month-old Kinsley, staring up from her car seat, and sank into a chair. Abby shielded her face with her hands as her parents and sister wrapped their arms around her. Abby didn’t want to be touched — she needed to be alone. So after signing the necessary documents, she left Kinsley with her family and shut herself in the basement for the rest of the day.
“I lost it,” she says.
The next morning, Abby was on a plane to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, accompanied by a casualty officer from Fort Leavenworth assigned to assist with all her duties as a Gold Star wife.
Abby held a sleeping Kinsley in her arms as six expressionless men from the Army’s Old Guard unloaded Mike’s and JaBraun’s flag-draped caskets from a cargo plane. JaBraun’s wife, Courtney, was also there.
Over the last decade, thousands of women and men have stood in that spot and watched as what remained of their husbands and wives finally came home from Iraq or Afghanistan. Abby never thought she’d be one of them.
When she saw her husband’s casket, the 27-year-old widow held in tears and a deep urge to get closer.
“I knew Mike was there,” she says. “All I wanted to do was see his body, be with him. I never got the opportunity.”
The next day, Abby and her family boarded another plane to Orlando. The trip had already been booked, and everyone needed the distraction.
“It was the best week,” Abby says. “We went to the pool, SeaWorld, Cocoa Beach. And then another day we went to the Gulf Coast — Clearwater Beach. The sand is like powdered sugar, it’s so soft.”
Abby put Kinsley in a raft so she could float on the water, which was clear and blue as Kinsley’s eyes. Mike’s eyes.
Abby loves to travel.
Before moving back to Overland Park, she and Mike lived in Tacoma, Wash., in a downtown loft with views of Mount Rainier and Puget Sound. Every weekend was a new adventure — they visited tulip farms and forests and went kayaking on rare sunny days. Once, they took the ferry up to Victoria in British Columbia, rented a moped and zipped along winding coastal roads.
Abby wrapped one arm around Mike and snapped photos with her free hand. He made her feel so safe.
“I’m sure we looked goofy, but Mike loved every second,” Abby says.
Abby got a job in marketing while Mike was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. He was assigned to howitzers but really wanted to become a helicopter pilot. Together, they made new friends and found a church that helped them strengthen their faith and their marriage.
“Everything was ours,” Abby says.
Abby was the planner, and Mike went with the flow. That worked well for them, says Abby’s mom, Marla Brassfield.
“Abby’s the last of four, and she was always kind of a princess,” Brassfield says.
When Mike asked Marla and her husband, Tom, for permission to marry their youngest daughter, they asked him if he knew what he was getting into. He told them he did and promised to treat her like a princess.
At their wedding in 2008, Abby wore a sparkly tiara and a strapless white gown with a three-foot train. She changed into a hot pink dress with a black sash and shiny folds of fabric cascading to the floor before the reception. The groomsmen sported matching pink ties, but Abby let Mike wear silver.
Mike grew to love Abby’s four cats — Princess, Chad, Chief and Cheese — and her favorite TV drama, “One Tree Hill.”
One thing they didn’t agree on was when to have kids. Mike wanted a baby as soon as they were married, but Abby didn’t feel ready.
Everyone could tell how much Mike wanted a family, says his friend Simon Peery.
“He lit up when he was around my daughter,” Peery says. “He had this look in his eye, like he was really happy to be around kids. And they all loved him.”
Mike finally convinced Abby to try for a baby in late 2010. She gave him one month.
Weeks later, Abby took a pregnancy test and watched a faint blue line appear.
“Mike did not believe it,” Abby says. “He ran to the store and bought three more.”
He wanted a boy; she wanted a girl, and she always got her way.
“I’m going to have a little princess now,” Mike told Abby when they found out. That’s when Abby became Mike’s queen.
Abby thanks God for Kinsley and so many other things.
It was a blessing, Abby says, that brought her home to Overland Park just a few weeks before Mike was killed.
“We got her home just in time,” Marla Brassfield says. “You can see God’s fingerprints all over this.”
Over the past two months, Abby has been cocooned with love from family, friends and members of her church, Legacy Christian Church.
Her family stepped in to care for Kinsley when Abby needed to drive to Fort Leavenworth to sort out Mike’s will or fill out paperwork with her casualty officer, who always seems to be giving her things. So far he has sent her nine lockers full of Mike’s bubble-wrapped possessions, a wooden hope chest to store uniforms and medals and a fat binder called “The Days Ahead: A Survivor’s Guide.” Tabs divide the binder’s hundreds of pages into neat sections with titles such as “burial” and “coping.”
She never imagined all the paperwork, or the strange and difficult questions she’d have to answer.
Should we wash his bedsheets and uniforms before sending them home?
No, Abby told them. They might still smell like him.
Would you like photos of his body included in the official report on his death?
She thought hard about that before answering yes.
“I’ll probably put them away and never look at them,” Abby says. But they’ll be there, she adds, “if I ever need closure.”
Closure isn’t possible just yet. Abby says it’s hard for her to grasp what happened to her husband. That he’s really gone. She believes he’s in heaven, and that makes her happy. But it makes her stomach hurt to think about his final moments here on earth.
“I’ve heard that it was an instant death,” Abby says. “That’s what his buddy over there believes. It makes me sick to think otherwise, because he was burned. I hope he was just … immediate.”
On Memorial Day, Mike’s casket arrived at Kansas City International Airport. Abby stood on the tarmac in front of TV news cameras, just as she had in Delaware. Sunglasses shielded her eyes as they filled with tears. That night, at the funeral home, she asked if she could have a moment with him.
Once alone, Abby wrapped her arms around the casket. She spoke to Mike.
I need you.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” she says. “My tears were all over the pretty flag.”
Abby lifted the lid and saw only Mike’s uniform inside — his body had been cremated. She was proud to see the uniform covered in medals and awards.
The following day, services for Mike were held at Legacy Christian Church. Mike loved music, so the ceremony was filled with songs. Abby stood in the front row as the band played one of her husband’s favorites, “I Will Rise.” She closed her eyes, tilted her face upward and clasped her hands in front of her heart as she sang along with every word.
No more sorrow, no more pain.
Faith was the foundation of Abby and Mike’s relationship.
When they were introduced by friends in 2006, Abby was a marketing student at K-State, and Mike was a National Guardsman just returned from Kosovo.
Mike joined the National Guard in 2003. He felt a duty to serve the country and liked the idea of following in the footsteps of his father, who was in the Air Force, and his grandfather, a former Marine. The decision didn’t surprise Mike’s friend Simon, who says he knew even in high school that Mike would grow up to be a soldier, firefighter or police officer.
“He was always thinking about protecting everybody else,” Simon Peery says.
Abby was immediately attracted to Mike.
“He was a good-looking guy,” Abby says. “Ripped and muscular and amazing.”
They became official a couple days before Valentine’s Day, when they met halfway between Manhattan and Overland Park at the Olive Garden in Topeka.
“We had the same ultimate goal in life,” Abby says. “We wanted to raise a Christian family and serve the Lord.”
The following year Mike was on a break from Iraq when he surprised Abby with a Coach purse and matching wallet. She was too excited about the purse to notice him get down on one knee.
After they married, Mike and Abby worked together to bolster their faith, volunteering with junior high students and joining a church group for young married couples.
They prayed together when Mike found out he was going to Afghanistan and when Kinsley was born two months early via emergency Caesarean section.
Doctors hooked a 3-pound, 6-ounce Kinsley to oxygen and feeding tubes and performed tests every day to determine if she was developing properly. At first, only Abby was allowed to hold Kinsley. Mike asked if he could be the one to change her diaper every three hours. It was a scary time, but a happy one, too. A home movie shows Abby cradling Kinsley, smiling sleepily despite the tubes in her nose and mouth. Mike leans his unshaven face close and kisses his daughter’s pink forehead.
Kinsley’s eyes widen and focus as Mike coos to her.
“This is your daddy,” he says.
“I love you, little girl.”
Because Kinsley was premature, Mike got months instead of weeks with her. Abby counts this among her blessings from God. But it still hurts everyone to know what Kinsley has lost.
“I really feel bad for Kinsley,” Marla says, “because she had such a good dad.”
“He lived life, loved people and would help anybody. Kinsley’s going to be that way.”
Abby says Kinsley has her dad’s sense of humor and his ornery streak. Kinsley also has Mike’s eyes, nose and hair — in fact, she looks so much like him the family nicknamed her Michaelina.
Kinsley, Abby says, is “joy joy joy.”
The other day, Kinsley crawled up the stairs by herself for the first time, and Abby’s first thought was to call Mike. She has found other ways to feel close to him.
When Mike’s laptop arrived boxed in bubble wrap with the rest of his things, Abby opened it and noticed the keys were all covered in dust. The desktop background was a photo of Abby and Kinsley smiling at a wedding the weekend before Mike was killed. Abby figures he pulled it from Facebook.
The Army also shipped home Mike’s wedding ring, a charcoal band of tungsten Abby wears on her right ring finger. They chose that metal because they’d heard it was indestructible, and it must be, because it survived the explosion without a scratch.
At night, she sits alone in the apartment she has made in her parents’ basement and rereads Mike’s instant messages and Facebook posts.
“I miss the love of my life and my daughter so much,” he wrote on April 5. “Can’t wait ‘til June.”
When the tears come, she doesn’t try to stop them.
Last week, Mike’s ashes were buried at Arlington National Cemetery across the river from the Lincoln Memorial.
Abby held the arm of a two-star general as she walked behind the horse-drawn carriage carrying the casket. They walked past thousands of simple white headstones arranged in neat rows.
Abby felt so vulnerable without Kinsley in her arms.
The burial included a 40-piece band and a 21-gun salute and a flag-folding ceremony.
“It was all a blur,” Abby says.
Afterward, Abby took a moment alone at the gravesite and said goodbye. She tried to wrap her mind around the fact that Mike was gone. To feel closure. She couldn’t do it.
“It’s still hard to realize he’s not coming home,” she says.
Two days after the burial, Abby and her family returned to take an official tour and visit Mike’s grave one more time. Abby took a stone from the site and left behind a photo of herself with Mike that she kept in her wallet.
Now at home in Overland Park, Abby’s settling into a new normal. Her appetite is back, and she’s starting to look forward to things again. The Royals asked her to throw the first pitch at their game against the Texas Rangers on Aug. 3. She’s planning a getaway to Cancun, Mexico with a couple of her girlfriends. And in the fall, she’ll start working on her business degree at a local college.
Abby says that every year in May, she’ll take Kinsley on a trip, and they’ll talk about Mike. How much they miss him. How much he loved them both.
The first of those trips is 10 months away, but Abby already has a destination in mind. She’s really looking forward to seeing Arlington National Cemetery in spring.