Face of Defense: Soldier Sings for Love of Music
By Army Sgt. James Sims
139th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
SPRINGFIELD, Ill., March 11, 2011 The little girl climbed the stairs to her room and shut the door. The world faded away as she grabbed her hairbrush and took the stage before an imaginary audience of thousands of screaming fans.
Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Kohany sings the national anthem at the retirement ceremony for Brig. Gen. Ronald Morrow, deputy commander of the Illinois Army National Guard, in Springfield, Ill., Jan. 22, 2011. U.S Army photo by Sgt. James Sims
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
For as long as she can remember, Army Staff Sgt. Jennifer Kohany of Chicago, an Illinois National Guard intelligence analyst with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 33rd Brigade Support Battalion in Champaign, has been singing in front of the mirror in her room as she did growing up in Valhalla, N.Y., or in a stadium filled with thousands of people before various military functions and sporting events.
“I can't remember not hearing Jenny sing,” said Debbie Kohany of Oak Lawn, Ill., the soldier’s mother. “She was in chorus from first grade all the way through graduation of high school. I would so love hearing her sing at home when she was in her room, whether it was opera, country or rock. When Jen sings, her face lights up and her eyes sparkle. You can see how much she loves to sing.”
Kohany continued her passion while attending Columbia College in Chicago.
“In college I was involved with Columbia College's chorus, and considered a major in vocal performance, but decided instead to major in American sign -language interpretation,” she said.
When Kohany was in basic training, one of her drill sergeants emphasized the importance of being aware of U.S. military history, in addition to learning basic warrior skills. She was randomly chosen and asked if she knew the national anthem, she said, and having grown up in a patriotic family, she did.
Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the British attack on U.S. forces at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812.
“They called me to the front of the ‘war room’ and called everyone to attention while I sang,” Kohany said. “The drill sergeants stood there in shock that not only did I know the words, but I actually knew how to sing, as well.”
Since then, fellow soldiers have asked her to sing at various events.
Kohany was part of the Illinois Army National Guard’s largest call-up since World War II and deployed to Afghanistan with the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team in 2008. During her deployment, a contest called Phoenix Idol showcased the talent of soldiers serving in Task Force Phoenix.
“A good friend of mine, Staff Sergeant Adam Gordon, was the emcee of Phoenix Idol and asked if I would come out on New Year’s Eve and participate,” Kohany said. “I obliged, with no intention of entering the competition, because I had a pretty hectic schedule and didn't really have the time to learn and practice music for each week’s category.”
Kohany did not win the contest, but was noticed by several soldiers on Camp Phoenix. She was introduced to Tom Negovan, a WGN reporter from Chicago, while he was visiting Camp Phoenix to do a three-part series on Afghanistan, she said.
“[Negovan] interviewed me, and asked if I would have any interest in singing at a Cubs game when I returned back to the states,” Kohany said. “Sure enough, we stayed in touch, and as soon as I had a number to call, I was receiving a call from a Cubs publicist, asking if I'd be available to sing for the opening.”
Though she grew up as a Yankees fan, Kohany said, she also likes the Chicago Cubs. Singing in front of 40,000 people, with her friends and family present, was amazing, she added.
“Listening to someone who has given their blood, sweat and tears for this country and then so passionately sings our national anthem gives me chills every time,” said Army Staff Sgt. John Robinson of Champaign, who served with Kohany as a chaplain’s assistant in Afghanistan. “I believe every time someone like Jen sings it, she does it as an honor to our nation and for those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
Her most meaningful performance came in June 2005, though not on the happiest note, Kohany said.
“My mom had been engaged to one of the most incredible people I've ever met, Eamonn,” she said. “They had put off getting married while I was in college, but because of the closeness of our relationship, I referred to him as my stepdad. My mom manages a small Irish bar on the south side of Chicago. Every so often, I would stop in on a Friday night when Eamonn could persuade me to sing on karaoke night. He was really the only person who could charm me into singing there, and always asked me to sing ‘Angel’ by Sarah McLaughlin; both mine and his favorite song.”
That January, a friend of Eamonn’s died, and he asked Kohany to sing a couple of songs at the wake. After the church ceremony, someone approached Eamonn and complimented the voice of his “daughter.”
“He acknowledged his pride, and it was one of the prouder moments in my own life,” Kohany said. “Little did I know that only six months later, Eamonn would pass away, while at work, at 1 o’clock in the morning.
“It was one of the hardest things that I've ever had to do,” she continued, “but I knew it would mean the world to my mom and family. So at his memorial ceremony, I sang ‘Angel.’ That certainly wasn't my favorite performance, but it was the most monumental. It was hard, and I knew that if I could get through the song that I could do nearly anything, and I know that he would've been proud.”
Kohany said her mother has encouraged her to pursue a career in singing, but that she sings for the love of singing, not the love of fame.
“I do it because I enjoy it, not because I'm trying to get discovered or anything like that,” she said. “Since high school, she has urged me to pursue a singing career, but I've found my niche with the military, and I'm pretty happy with that.”