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Legacy of fallen son comes home to Santa Rosa

Army Lt. Andrew Powell on Saturday brought this sign from Afghanistan to Jim Connolly, left, in Santa Rosa in honor of his son, Sgt. Ryan Connolly, who was killed in combat in 2008. The forward operating base where the soldier was serving has been renamed in his memory.

KENT PORTER / THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Published: Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 6:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 6:23 p.m.

A token of the legacy of his son's death in Afghanistan came home to Santa Rosa resident Jim Connolly on Saturday, almost as if he was getting back a tiny piece of his son.

Sgt. Ryan Connolly, 24, was just 14 days away from leaving the war zone when he was killed by a roadside bomb on June 24, 2008 in Nangarhar Province, near the Pakistan border.

A sign later erected above what had been known as Forward Operating Base Khogyani officially renamed the longtime Afghani fortress FOB Connolly in honor of the young medic.

That smudged Plexiglas sign — dirt still lodged around the corner mounting bolts — was delivered to Connolly on Saturday by an Army lieutenant who served as executive officer of the base last year.

“I don't really have anything from when he was there,” Jim Connolly said afterward, “so this is at least a part of him.

“I probably won't clean it,” he added. “It's got that Afghan dirt.”

Lt. Andrew “Red” Powell also brought with him an American flag that, on the day the sign was brought down, flew above the base in sight of the Tora Bora hills, where Osama Bin Laden and his faithful once hid.

“It's an honor,” the soldier said, “for me to be able to perform this for you guys.”

The photos, medals and flags Connolly and his wife, Cindi Connolly, have collected in recent years fill a small area of their living room in Santa Rosa's St. Francis area.

In his den hangs a framed photograph of several soldiers at the base entrance — the sign emblazoned with his son's named clearly visible through the razor wire above the reinforced walls.

Connolly said he wasn't sure where he would hang the new additions. The sign is much larger than he had imagined.

But it will, he said, eventually belong to his 5-year-old granddaughter, who lives with her widowed mother in central California.

“It's going to be part of our family tradition,” the elder Connolly said. “His memory will be passed on that way.”

Ryan Connolly grew up in Santa Rosa, watched his older brother go off to war and enlisted in the Army in 2005.

He served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade as a combat veteran in Operation Enduring Freedom and had just been promoted to sergeant when he died.

Jim Connolly and his brother, Concord resident Bob Connolly, said the move to name the base in the Piner High School graduate's memory was initiated at the base had to make its way to the Secretary of the Army before it was approved.

The outpost was built on the site of a historic mud and rock fortress owned by a Northern Coalition warlord before it was leased to U.S. forces. It started as a tiny operational base but at its peak held 300 coalition forces and perhaps 1,200 members of the Afghan army, Powell said.

He said his task at the base last year was to downsize it as the U.S. presence in Afghanistan diminished. He and others in his position were told, he said, to ensure all memorials were preserved, given the uncertain future of each base. FOB Connolly currently remains open.

Jim Connolly said he's been struck through the years by the Army's commitment to the families of those who don't make it home, in the way of photos and notes from the base and various gestures of concern from soldiers who didn't even know his son.

The new artifacts, so connected to his loss, are welcome, he said, even as he continues to grieve.

“It's been horrible,” Jim Connolly said. “It still is. Today is a very emotional day.”

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