When CW2 Kevin Reichert boarded his Apache helicopter for the last time, he was part of a task force supporting the NATO intervention in Kosovo. It was a place he had barely even heard of… but I know it well.
My dad, Ramiz Tafilaj, is from Kosovo and, as a kid, I spent every summer there with my family—until things got so bad I couldn’t go. More than 10-thousand people died at the hands of Serb forces. And you’ve probably seen the pictures of more than a million Kosovars forced out of their homes, walking for weeks, sleeping in refugee camp sites, trying to reach neighboring countries. My own family was somewhere in the masses and it took us months to find the ones who escaped and survived.
When Kevin talked to his wife, Ridgeley, an hour before he took off on his mission, he had seen for himself. “Honey,” he said to her on what neither realized would be their last phone call, “You should see the devastation these people are enduring. I’ll do whatever it takes to free them.”
But what it took, was something the family had never imagined. Kevin’s helicopter crashed in Albania.
It has been almost 18 years since Ridgeley Reichert lost her husband…and Carissa (9), Chris (7) and Colten (4) lost their father.
Kevin and his co-pilot, CW3 David Gibbs, were the first American soldiers killed in the Balkan conflict.
For years, my father has wanted to find their families.
“Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence was written with the blood of these soldiers. We will never forget them.”
In February, on Kosovo’s 9th Independence Day, my parents and a friend—renowned Kosovo historian, Jusuf Buxhovi—journeyed from Texas to Wisconsin to meet the Reicherts.
Those military kids who lost their father so long ago aren’t kids anymore—Carissa has two kids of her own, Chris helps with the family business and Colten is studying history at the University of Wisconsin, focusing on the Balkans. And Ridgeley, that military spouse who endured the ultimate sacrifice and was left to raise three kids on her own, runs the family farm.
“Two million people are living in freedom and without fear because of your husband,” my dad told her as she watched her son meticulously clean the framed photo of Kevin’s helicopter.
“For the first time since Kevin passed, I feel like my life has meaning,” she said.
My dad and Ridgeley swapped stories of pain, sacrifice and mutual respect.
“Because of your husband, my country’s dreams are alive,” he told her. “Kevin did something for my people that I couldn’t do myself.”
My dad gave the family a plis, which is a traditional Albanian hat worn by many of our family members. Chris said his dad would have been proud to see them all together and knowing his father didn’t die in vain carries him through the tough times.
My family and the Reicherts are friends now—sharing an unbreakable bond. What’s next? They’re working on a trip to Kosovo next year to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of the country’s independence, and hoping to get in touch with the other pilot’s family.
By Besa Pinchotti, Communications Director