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Beach Park charity keeps son’s mission alive

Army Sgt. John Penich pictured here 2008 Restrepo former military post Afghanistan was killed line duty Oct. 16 2008. |

Army Sgt. John Penich, pictured here in 2008 in Restrepo, a former military post in Afghanistan, was killed in the line of duty on Oct. 16, 2008. | Special to Sun-Times Media

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Sgt. John Penich Memorial “Lock-in” fund-raiser will be held beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday at Best Western Plus, 2723 Sheridan Road, Zion. For more information, call (847) 249-4399 or visit

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Updated: January 14, 2013 4:49PM

BEACH PARK — After her youngest son was killed in Afghanistan in 2008, Kathy Garross and her family channeled their grief into helping others.

Army Sgt. John Penich, 25, of Beach Park was a team leader for an elite mountain warfare squad in the now defunct Restrepo outpost in the dangerous Korengal Valley of northeastern Afghanistan. A strapping man and a decorated soldier, he saved the lives of some of his men five weeks before he was killed.

“His main worry was his men,” said Garross, 58, a retired hairdresser who has three other adult children.“He asked for things for his guys. The day after he died, I went to my son Jeff and said ‘Let’s do something to keep taking care of his guys.’”

That’s the aim of the not-for-profit Sgt. John Penich Memorial Inc. fund.

“We wanted to touch veterans in small ways to make their lives better,” said Garross, co-founder. “We’re a small charity, but hopefully we’ll keep growing.”

The fund, which has raised more than $75,000 to assist men and women who have served, or are serving, in the armed forces, will garner proceeds from a “Lock-in” to be held beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Best Western Plus, 2723 Sheridan Road, Zion. During the event, willing “inmates” will contribute their “bail” to the fund. Participants will also donate goodies for “Spoiling You” packages the fund sends to troops stationed in Afghanistan.

Lock-in organizer Kathy Luke, a Winthrop Harbor trustee, whose son, Joshua, 25, is serving in the Navy, said she wants to help Garross help the troops.

“All of these kids are our kids,” Luke said. “They fight for all of our freedoms. I send my son packages, but there’s always a guy at mail-call who doesn’t get packages.”

A previous Lock-in raised $3,300 and enough goods to fill 80 Spoil You packages. A list of favorite items can be found at

The memorial fund has made mail-call a happy event for hundreds of servicemen and women, but it has accomplished much more. It helped to pay for a memorial garden at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at Union Grove, Wis. Last spring, the Garross and Penich families, and members of the fund’s board, helped plant the garden, which also features a gurgling fountain and patio. An electric door opener was also installed so disabled veterans could access the garden without help.

The fund has also paid for two service support dogs for veterans struggling with PTSD and brain injuries. Early donations to the fund went to the Wounded Warrior Project. Another value of the fund is the outreach involved, which allows Garross and board members to educate people about the often unmet needs of the less than 1 percent of the current U.S. population who have served on active duty.

“So many people don’t understand what our military lives with and what our challenges are,” Garross said. “We let people know they’re not getting the support they need.”

The fund also helps keep alive the memory of a boy, a 2001 Zion-Benton Township High graduate, who loved motorcycles, hunting, animals and the outdoors. It is a reminder of the thoughtful young man who made a habit of giving his mom apricot roses — a cherished memory Garross carries on a tattoo.

“We miss him so much,” said Garross. “He’s my gentle giant. I called him my ‘big boy.’ He was 6-foot, 3-inches, 250 pounds. I never thought I would have to face losing a child.”

By helping veterans young and old, Garross said, “We’re doing something for John.”

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