After his son was killed in Iraq in 2006, John McKenna began running a foundation that served injured Marines.
But mailing out checks failed to satisfy him. So when a friend asked whether he wanted to help create a special room for traveling military personnel at the Albany International Airport, he said yes.
The Capt. John J. McKenna IV Military Courtesy Room opened in March 2010. Since then, almost 12,000 military personnel have visited.
The room, on the third floor of the airport, is designed to look and feel like a living room. There is a flat-screen TV and comfortable chairs, an Xbox and a variety of DVDs, as well as pillows and blankets, magazines, a supply of food, a refrigerator and a microwave. Also provided is Internet access and free phone service.
The idea is to offer service members a comfortable place to rest and relax during their travels.
“People often ask me whether I’m doing this to keep my son’s memory alive,” McKenna said. “That’s not why I’m doing this. If you knew my son, you’d never forget him. This is what John would want me to do — to take care of his fellow warriors.”
The impetus for the military courtesy room came from Albany County Sheriff’s Lt. Doug Buzzard, who was bothered by the sight of service members sleeping on the floor of the airport during long layovers.
“I felt that we could do better,” said Buzzard, whose son serves in the Army and is based in Korea.
The typical user of the military room is between 18 and 25 years old. Visitors are asked to sign a guest book and present a military ID.
The majority of people who use the room are stranded because of flight delays and cancellations, or because of long layovers. Military recruits also visit the room before traveling to their basic training sites. Soldiers stranded overnight are offered free hotel rooms; so far, about 200 soldiers have taken advantage of the hotel offer. Families of service members are also welcome in the courtesy room.
Buzzard said the room will likely see more use in the coming weeks as service members travel home for the holidays.
The courtesy room is staffed seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., by more than 100 volunteers, many of whom are military veterans and parents of active service members.
Niskayuna resident Dina Astemborski decided to volunteer in response to an advertisement. Her son, 1st Lt. Stephen Astemborski, is based at Fort Carson in Colorado.
“The advertisement piqued my interest,” Astemborski said. “I have a son in the military, and I thought, ‘That might be something I’d like to do.’ ” Her job, she said, is to see whether the soldiers who visit the room need anything, and to make sure they’re comfortable. “I’m so proud of the military and the service members, and this is a way to give back and meet other families,” she said.
Joining Astemborski in the military courtesy room last week was Albany resident John Nardolillo, a Vietnam veteran and member of the Capt. William Dale O’Brien Detachment of the Marine Corps League.
“It’s nice for the soldiers to have somebody to talk to and relate to,” he said. “They’re happy and they’re so grateful.” He said he generally doesn’t discuss the war with visiting soldiers. “We chat about the service, what it used to be like,” he said.
Last week, Astemborski and Nardolillo talked with a young soldier traveling home to Louisiana from Afghanistan. He spent the night in the room after a sheriff’s deputy noticed him in the terminal and directed him upstairs.
Capt. John J. McKenna joined the Marine Corps in 1988 and completed tours of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. He left the military in 2003 to become a New York state trooper, and patrolled the airport before being assigned to Troop F in Kingston. But he decided to return to active duty and was called up for service in February 2005 and sent to Iraq. While patrolling the streets of Fallujah in 2006, he was killed by sniper fire while dragging a fellow soldier to safety; for his actions, he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.
A portrait of the younger McKenna hangs on the wall of the military room, and a display contains his “challenge coin.”
Challenge coins feature an organization’s insignia and have traditionally been carried and collected by service members. McKenna’s coin reflects his two passions: One side features the Marine Corps insignia, an eagle atop a globe with a banner stating “Semper Fidelis” in its beak; the other side features the uniform hat worn by the New York state troopers.
“He loved being a Marine, and he loved being a trooper,” McKenna said.
The Capt. John J. McKenna IV Military Courtesy Room falls under the umbrella of the Tri-County Council Vietnam Era Veterans Inc. The elder McKenna said the room has received incredible support from local veterans groups, as well as groups that support military members and families, such as the Blue Star Mothers.
The airport provided the space. In 2011, the room doubled in size, to 430 square feet, with BBL Construction Services in Albany donating the labor and materials for the $50,000 project. Most of the furniture was donated.
“This area has an incredible appreciation for veterans,” said McKenna, of Clifton Park.
The military room’s website contains testimonials from service members.
“I am a future soldier shipping off for basic training,” wrote one soldier, who stayed overnight after his flight was rescheduled. “I just wanted to take this time to thank you for all your outstanding courtesy toward me.”