STAFFORD – The young girl is slouching on the sofa, torso vertical and upright, head tilted to the side, resting on her hand. She hears the conversation across the room at the kitchen table, but she doesn’t want to intrude. Her mother and grandparents are over there again, telling stories about her father.
Ashlynn Herrmann spent the last few months listening to those stories. The 13-year-old has heard them all, but she is more than happy to hear them again.
Like that time during her dad’s senior year in 1998. He was playing third base for New Bern (N.C.) High School, and his team held a one-run lead in the bottom of the sixth with one on and two out. Whatever you do, he told his pitcher, do not throw it low and away; anywhere but low and away.
The pitch was low and away. He snapped his head up and followed the ball as it sailed through the sky over his left shoulder. The ball – and the lead – was gone, and he was spittin’ mad. But he extended his arm as the batter trotted toward third on his trip around the bases.
“He’s the only guy who sticks his hand out,” said Frank Savarese, who clubbed the memorable home run. “He said, ‘Nice hit, bud. Nice hit.’ That was Kevin.”
Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Ryan Herrmann was 38 years old when he died. He was a decorated Marine Corps pilot who completed the Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course (think Top Gun for the Marines), served four combat tours, and was widely considered one of the best Marine pilots on the planet.
On December 6, 2018, during a routine training drill about 200 miles off the southern coast of Japan, an F/A-18 Hornet collided in midair with a KC-130J Hercules piloted by Herrmann. All five Marines aboard the KC-130J died, including Herrmann. The pilot of the F/A-18 Hornet also died in the accident.
Hermann had recently been promoted and was six months away from moving his family back to Northern Virginia for his next tour at the Pentagon.
The tragedy gripped Prince William County, where Herrmann – the son of a retired Marine Colonel also named Kevin – spent a good portion of his youth, including his first three years of high school at C.D. Hylton. Crews from the U.S., Japan, and Australia spent about 900 hours searching more than 35,000 square nautical miles of the Pacific Ocean. Herrmann was declared dead December 11.
Herrmann was fiercely devoted to his wife, Jennifer, and his three daughters – Ashlynn (13), Savannah (11), and Brooklynn (7). The money raised from Wednesday’s Hoops Fest 24, sponsored by InsideNova and Battlefield Ford, will be placed into a college fund for each of his daughters.
Herrmann carried his competitive spirit like a badge of honor, keeping score during his daughters’ little league basketball games even when the league itself didn’t. He had a sharp wit, was a devout Christian, and loved the Atlanta Braves.
And he always had sweaty palms. Goodness, those sweaty palms.
He would hold his hands in front of the air conditioning vents to keep them cool and dry anytime he drove. He was embarrassed to shake anyone’s hand in church. He even had to prepare himself before he congratulated Savarese as he rounded third after that home run during senior year.
“He wiped his hands because they were sweaty as hell,” Savarese said, finishing his thought with a laugh. “He always wiped them off on his pants.”
* * * * *
Ashlynn sits up straight, listening more closely to the conversation in the kitchen. She’s laughing along with everyone else at the notion that her dad – and the rest of the family, for that matter – rooted against the New York Yankees just because his mother, Mary, rooted for them. Ashlynn even chimes in when the visitor asked how her father liked the Japanese lifestyle. Herrmann reported to Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Iwakuni in July 2006 and served as Executive Officer and the officer-in-charge for several KC-130 detachments.
The Herrmanns enjoyed living in Japan, taking every opportunity to travel the country and soak up its history and traditions. Kevin never did take to the food, though, with one exception.
“He liked CoCo’s Curry!” Ashlynn said, inching closer to the edge of the sofa cushion.
The popular Japanese rice plate was one of the few native dishes the entire family enjoyed together. No matter where he was stationed, Kevin always found a way to track down his American comfort food – steak, burgers, and pizza. That was Kevin; making the best of any situation.
Like the time he broke his elbow the summer before his freshman year at Appalachian State. Kevin was a lifeguard on base at MCAS Cherry Point (N.C.), where his father was stationed. He noticed a woman struggling with her umbrella, so he thought he’d lend a helping hand. When he did, the umbrella came crashing down, slicing open his finger. Kevin being Kevin, he fixed the umbrella, wrapped his finger, and climbed back into the lifeguard chair, “which he never should have done,” Mary said. “It was a super hot day, like 100 percent humidity. He’s up there, and all of a sudden he doesn’t feel good.”
Dazed from both the heat and the loss of blood, Kevin fell out of the chair and shattered his elbow against the edge of the concrete as he splashed into the pool. He underwent surgery, during which several pins were inserted, and spent his entire freshman year at Appalachian State rehabbing. Kevin attacked his recovery with the same drive and determination as he would a video game in a buddy’s basement.
“He doesn’t take no for an answer,” Savarese said. “He was a no-quit kind of guy.”
He was also known to embellish a story every now and then, an accusation Savarese levied and the Herrmanns proudly confirmed. It wasn’t enough that he broke his arm and needed surgery. Oh, no.
“He would totally blow it way out of proportion. ‘Oh, I lost so much blood! I revived myself in the water!’ Are you kidding me?” Savarese said. “He’d always talk with that smirk, too. Kev and Kev have that exact same smirk. His dad used to wink at you when he was bullshitting with you. Little Kevin did the same thing.”
Savarese also grew up in a military family. His father, like Kevin’s, retired as a colonel, and all four men were trained aviators. The Herrmanns and Savareses followed each other around the country, sharing nearly every duty station since the mid-1980s. They watched each other’s kids, vacationed together, and now they mourn together.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends, unfortunately, in this line of work,” Savarese said. “But in this case, with Kevin, that was the hardest one for me.”
* * * * *
The young girl who started on the sofa is now seated at the end of the kitchen table, next to grandpa Kevin. She’s made the transition from listener to participant.
Ashlynn has her mother’s long brown hair and her daddy’s relentless work ethic. The daughter of a military man, she knows all too well how to pack up for the next move. She has attended seven different schools, but her grades are always the same: straight As.
Ashlynn’s sisters have also gathered around the table. Savannah and Brooklynn were outside shooting hoops, but it’s starting to get dark.
They’re just in time to hear the story – again – about how her parents first met. They were both visiting family in New Jersey over Christmas break during Kevin’s senior year of college, and they first laid eyes on each other at a party through mutual friends. Jennifer, a graduate student at the time, immediately took to Kevin.
“Very handsome,” she said. “Just very confident. We started emailing, then calling, then visiting. The long distance thing worked out.”
They were married less than two years later in October of 2003, and Ashlynn was born a few years after that.
Jennifer hasn’t slept much lately. No one has. Kevin’s death occurred while the family was preparing to move back to Northern Virginia. Immediately following the accident, the entire Herrmann crew, including Jennifer’s parents and friends, flew to Japan to help Jennifer and the girls transition back to the United States.
In the few months since, the Herrmanns have attended multiple memorial services for Kevin, including one in Triangle on February 23 at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church. The 800-seat church was nearly full by the time the service started. A man played the bagpipes out front, and the receiving line for Kevin’s parents was 20-deep for the better part of an hour before the service.
Five eulogies were given on that sad, rainy February afternoon, including moving tributes from Kevin’s brother and sister, Dustin and Kaitlyn. Dustin’s most vivid memories are of those Saturday mornings as a kid, when baseball was all that mattered.
“Every weekend, we’d wake up, eat breakfast, and head to the baseball field, just the three of us Herrmann boys,” he said.
Savarese’s parents, Colonel (Ret.) and Mrs. Mark Savarese, remembered Kevin as a big brother to their daughter, Amy, who was a freshman at Appalachian State when Kevin was a senior. Kevin assured the Savareses that their daughter would always have someone looking out for her, someone to point her in the right direction when she veered off path.
He considered it a gift, then, to have three daughters of his own. Ashlynn smiles as her mother and grandparents talk about the qualities Kevin instilled in his children despite his tragically brief time as their father. Her grandpa extends his arm, and she places her hand on top of his. Just as he closes his hand over hers, he quickly jerks it away. Everyone at the table erupts in laughter.
It seems Ashlynn has sweaty palms. Just like her daddy.