For months, Kevin Rankel struggled with understanding why he had to be without his son.

He struggled to fathom what his son, Sgt. John Rankel, did in June 2010 when a unit came under fire in Afghanistan, risking his life to protect six other Marines.

John Rankel ran 600 yards to join the other unit nearby that was under fire. He called for artillery support, and was told he and the other Marines were too close and they needed to move back.

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So he got each of those other men safely back before trying to move. When he got up to move, he was shot, his father said.

Kevin Rankel told the story he’s shared many times to a group of students at Center Grove Middle School North as part of the school’s annual Veterans Day program, a therapeutic process for him that also helps students see what being a veteran truly means.

He asked the group of middle school students if they could have done what his son did.

“Could you have done what John did? I know I couldn’t have,” Kevin Rankel said.

He imagines himself on that battlefield freezing in fear or moving to safety before the other men with him.

“My son, my hero, did not,” Kevin Rankel said.

Kevin Rankel spoke about his son, who attended Center Grove schools for part of middle school and high school. He was joined by 163 veterans who were recognized during the program, a record for the school, said Travis McMahen, seventh-grade social studies teacher who organized the program.

The goal of the annual event is to teach students about freedom and what it means, citizenship — that when you are called upon, you serve — having pride in your country and about the selflessness and grit that John Rankel showed, McMahen said. Students read winning essays they wrote about what freedom means to them, and veterans were recognized for their service.

Kevin Rankel’s family does not have a history of military service, and he can’t relate to what the other veterans in the room have gone through, he said. In fact, he struggled to understand why his son was so insistent on enlisting, and tried multiple times to encourage him to go another route, taking him on college visits and talking about potential scholarships to play football at Ball State University or Franklin College, which were both interested in John Rankel, he said.

It wasn’t until he said goodbye to his son when he left for basic training that he truly understood John Rankel’s commitment, he said.

As others were slowly walking to the bus, John Rankel ran to it, he said.

“I was convinced at that point, it was really what he wanted,” Kevin Rankel said.

Since his son’s death, he has heard from so many of the men and women who served with him about what a great Marine John Rankel truly was. He excelled in his training, and he was promoted to corporal and then sergeant. He always wanted to get better, and he inspired others to do the same.

At one point, John Rankel had considered leaving the military to go to college. But then, he learned his unit was being deployed, and he knew he had to go.

His father asked him why he needed to go, and he said, “Pops, it’s the right thing to do.”

And when he learned his unit was not going to Afghanistan as originally planned, he found a unit that was. He trained hard and worked to earn the respect of the unit, and he quickly did, his father said.

For his bravery on the battlefield that day in 2010, John Rankel was awarded both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, and a compound in Afghanistan was named after him.

After losing his son, Kevin Rankel would find himself looking at the American flag outside his home and wondering why this had to happen, he said.

But he was able to find comfort in knowing that his son died doing what he loved, and he had an impact on so many others.

“While I miss my son every single day, I so appreciate what people think of what he did during his time on this earth,” he said.

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Annie Goeller is managing editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at agoeller@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2718.