by Angela Sykora
Kathy Penich Garross, a Beach Park mother whose son, Army Sgt. John M. Penich, died in Afghanistan in Oct. 2008, believes when something bad happens, something good has to come of it.
Shortly after her son’s death, her family established the Sgt. John M. Penich Memorial to help active military, veterans and their families in whatever way they could—from sending care packages overseas to funding service dog training to helping returning soldiers with housing.
Saturday, Aug. 29, marks the 7th annual Sgt. John M. Penich Memorial Poker Run, a fundraiser that grows bigger each year thanks to community support.
Whether you ride a motorcycle or drive a truck, all vehicles are welcome. The cost is $15 per driver and $10 per passenger. Participants can register on the day of the event. For more information, visit www.sgtpenich.org/events.html.
The run begins at 9 a.m. at Stone Creek Grill in Winthrop Harbor and includes five stops, the first being Sgt. Penich’s gravesite at Mount Olivet Memorial Park in Zion. Participants are given flags to place at the gravesite, which his mother said is a “heartwarming sight.”
Other stops include American Legion Post 293 in Silver Lake, Wis.; Captain’s Quarters in Antioch (where lunch will be available for purchase); KC’s Cabin in Spring Grove; and Tina’s Somers Inn in Somers, Wis. At each stop, participants draw a hand of poker.
The run will conclude at Stone Creek Grill by 4 p.m. to begin an evening that features food specials, a live band, live and silent auctions, 50/50 raffles, door prizes and more.
“Stone Creek has been so wonderful and accommodating that we decided to begin and end the event there,” said Penich Garross, noting everyone is welcome at this family-friendly event.
Those who can’t make the poker run are encouraged to stop by Stone Creek for all the evening’s activities.
“We have so much stuff to raffle. My daughter-in-law Nicole Penich does a tremendous amount of footwork to get raffle donations, and I make a quilt every year,” Penich Garross said.
Items to be auctioned include White Sox tickets, a team-autographed Green Bay Packers football, tickets to a Marriott Theatre show in Lincolnshire and a home theater system. Raffle tickets will be also be sold for a custom Remington 1911 R1 45 gun.
The first year the fundraiser was held Penich Garross said they hoped to raise just a couple thousand dollars, but it brought in $10,000. Every year it’s different, she said, so they never make a goal.
“We don’t put a figure on it. It’s in God’s hands,” Penich Garross said.
The proceeds go directly toward helping active military, veterans and their families.
Penich said it was so important for her son, who was a squad leader, to “take care of his men.”
“He worried about them,” she said. “The day before he died I talked to him and he was telling me what to get for his men. So that’s what we’re doing for him now, taking care of his men and whoever else needs it.”
“None of us take a penny,” Penich Garross said. “We’re all volunteers. One-hundred percent of our proceeds go to the charity.”
Last winter, the memorial charity helped a veteran who was sleeping on a park bench while his wife and three children lived on an Indian reservation, find an apartment so his family could reunite. The charity paid the security deposit and their first two months of rent.
“They’re doing great,” Penich Garross said. “They actually moved into a bigger apartment.”
In 2012, the charity funded a $12,000 wheelchair-accessible garden at the Union Grove Veteran’s Home in Union Grove, Wis., which features a patio area and fountain. Every July, the charity hosts an ice cream social and classic car show for those vets.
When asked what her son would think of all the good his namesake charity was doing, “I’m sure he would say it was awesome,” his mother said.
“This gives me something to do for him.”
Called to Serve
Sgt. John Penich, a graduate of Zion-Benton High School, was 22 when he enlisted in the Army in 2006. He was assigned to Viper Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, as a light infantryman rifleman.
“He came home one day and said he was driving down the road and saw this recruiting station and felt like he was suppose to go in. He just felt a calling. He was a good leader,” his mother said.
Within a year and a half, Sgt. Penich was promoted to sergeant, which at his age, was almost unheard of. He then became a squad leader.
“He was highly sought-after,” his mother said. “One of the generals said it was an honor to serve with him.”
Sgt. Penich was deployed with his battalion to eastern Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in July 2008 and was posted to Korengal Valley, Konar Province. During the two and a half months he was in Afghanistan, Sgt. Penich fought in three major battles. His mother said John earned three major awards for fighting in those battles.
In one battle, Sgt. Penich picked up a large, tripod-based machine gun that weighed hundreds of pounds and started shooting in circles after calling in for ground and air support.
“The enemy thought they were getting ambushed on all sides, but it was just John, going around and round,” his mother said. “They said there was no way he should have been able to pick that up and do that. He was given the strength he needed at the time.”
Sgt. Penich was killed in action on Oct. 16, 2008 during a firefight. He was 25. His mother said he intended to have a career in the military and planned to enroll in Ranger School.
“He was going to be a general one day.”
Sgt. Penich’s many awards include the Silver Star Medal, Bronze Star Medal with Valor and posthumous Bronze Star and Purple Heart Medal. He was also awarded the Brigade Soldier of the Year Award in 2007.