The earth was still fresh on the young GI’s grave when, in the predawn darkness of April 15, 33 Navy and Air Force jets screamed over the Mediterranean toward Libya. For the first time, America was using its awesome military power to strike back at terrorists. “When our citizens are abused or attacked anywhere in the world, we will respond,” President Reagan said. “If necessary, we shall do it again.” The action was not without cost: Two fliers, Capts. Fernando Ribas-Dominicci, 33, and Paul Lorence, 31, were reported missing after the bombing strike, international relations were strained, and the long-term repercussions were yet to be reckoned. But in the U.S. there was wide support for the raid, thanks to what the President called “direct, precise and irrefutable evidence” of Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s involvement in a terrorist outrage, the bombing of a discotheque in West Berlin. The blast left 230 people injured and two dead, including Sgt. Kenneth Ford. His life was just the latest lost to terror, but this time the crime would not go unanswered. To this life, attention would be paid. This is the story of Sergeant Ford.
Ken Ford was, in many ways, an all-American kid. He came not from a rich or prominent family but from one whose values were grounded in home and church. He wasn’t a top-grade athlete, but he tried hard and he loved sports. He respected his elders, but he loved to make jokes, some funny, some groaners. He was no straight-A student, but he finished his schooling and was always trying to better himself. “When he was 6 years old,” recalls his mother, “he said, ‘When I’m 35, I’m going to be President.’ He was a special kind of kid, encouraging other kids to get involved with church and school. He was curious about everything. At times, he seemed older than his age.”
Kenny Ford grew up in the tough, black working-class neighborhood of northwest Detroit, son of Robert Beecham, 43, an auto worker, and Alice Ford Beecham, 41, a housewife who once worked for a company that manufactured contact lenses. “I guess I brought the kids up kind of strict,” she says. “They had chores to do—dishes, cut the grass, wash walls. Kenny never complained. I used to come home from work and Kenny would have the furniture in the living room all rearranged. He loved to surprise me.”
At the center of the family’s life was the Flowery Mount Baptist Church, where Kenny, his parents and younger brother and sister attended services two or three times a week. Kenny sang in the choir, achieving something of a reputation as a cut-up and a comedian. “He was a comical guy,” says his pastor, the Rev. Floyd Moore. “He cracked a lot of jokes and carried on a lot of foolishness. But he let people know when it was over. He knew when to play and when to cut it off for business.” He was, in fact, quite serious about his Christianity, and he wasn’t afraid to show it. He was a deacon in the church at 17, visiting the sick, helping to plan parties and picnics. “He was the kind of guy who could talk about Jesus on the street and nobody would make fun of him,” says Rufus “Poochie” Morton, 18, who once played on a Little League team coached by Ford. “He wasn’t perfect, but he treated people good. He’d see younger guys fighting and he’d come between them. I remember him telling me, ‘Stay on weights [bodybuilding], hit the books, stick with it and everything will be fine.’ ”
Although he was small for the game—he never grew taller than 5’6″—Kenny Ford was mad for basketball. He liked to challenge big guys to games of one-on-one. A lot of times he lost but he was never discouraged. He played one season on the high school team but didn’t make the varsity. “He wasn’t a super-ballplayer,” says his recreation league coach, Charlie Tucker, “but he was a super-person.”
Ford attended Detroit’s Cooley High, a predominantly black school. His friends called him “Bip”—a nickname he earned for his quick, aggressive play on the basketball court. He was one of the most popular boys in school one of those kids who is sometimes late for class because he’s too busy socializing in the halls. An average student, Bip excelled at high school high jinks. “He was wild and crazy, very playful,” says Odessa Jones, 22. “He’d have water-balloon fights, put tacks on chairs, throw paper wads. He used to come up behind girls, pick them up and carry them down the hall.”
When Bip graduated in June 1982, Detroit had hit its nadir, the auto industry sunk into depression. With no money for college and no job prospects, he decided on the Army. “He just wanted to be something,” says his father. “The job market was so poor. He didn’t want to stay here and do nothing. He joined the Army to make something of himself. It could get him an education and pay for college. He was a young man determined to go as far as he could.”
Ford began his Army career in September 1982, training at Fort Benning, Ga. After a stint at Fort Ord, Calif., he was sent in September 1984 to West Berlin. A month later he won a post in the elite scout platoon that patrols the Berlin Wall. After his promotion to sergeant in August of last year, he commanded a squad of five other men who patrolled in two jeeps, each mounted with an M60 machine gun. “He just loved that patrol,” recalls Spec. 4 Rodney Williams, 21, of Columbus, Ohio. “He’d stand up behind the gun because he liked the attention. He called it ‘the Hollywood ride.’ ”
Ford’s military flamboyance even won him some ink in a December 1985 issue of the Berlin Observer, a weekly Army newspaper. “Some of the Motor City slickness shows up in his brash style,” wrote reporter David Porreca. “…While everyone else keeps their billy clubs in the front of the jeeps, he sticks his in his flak jacket, where the protruding handle gives him an outlaw look. Ford is loose, ready for action…Behind that machine gun, he looks just plain mean.”
Those looks were deceiving. “He was real easygoing,” says Sgt. Frederick Whitcomb of Kansas City, Kans. “He’d laugh and joke and more or less make your day.” He not only won raves from his peers and subordinates, he also impressed the brass. “Sergeant Ford was one of the best soldiers I ever saw,” says his company commander, Capt. Donald Miller of Belton, Mo. “He was the fittest man in the battalion. We have a physical training test and Ford scored the highest in the battalion. He was also the coach of the basketball team. He was only about 5’6″ but his shoulders were three feet wide, with a waist that looked about 20 inches.”
Along with his physical prowess, Ford impressed the other soldiers with his facility in German. “It took him only about two or three months to learn the language,” says Sgt. Wilson Nuñez. “He’d sit and hold a conversation with any German for two or three hours at a time. I guess he taught himself so he could talk to the women.” His talk must have been good because he was soon dating two or three girlfriends. “I couldn’t keep track of which one was which,” says Nuñez. “Every time he came over to my house, he’d have a different girl. I never dared call them by name in case I got it wrong.”
Ford loved girls and he loved soul music (Luther Vandross was a favorite) and he loved to dance. Nearly every night that he was off duty, he would get spiffed up—he was especially proud of his white disco suit—have a few drinks with the guys at the bar on the Army base, where the booze is cheap, and then go to La Belle, a popular West Berlin disco and nightclub, to strut his stuff on the dance floor.
On Friday, April 4, Ford had a free weekend and a fresh haircut, and he was primed to party. La Belle was running a dance contest, and Bip had to be there. Around 5:30 p.m. Ford and Sgt. James Goins visited the barracks room of Sgt. Anthony Poole, who says he was “as close as a brother” to Ford. The three soldiers started sipping cognac and shooting the breeze. They discussed the Army, basketball, women and the latest disco dance crazes. “We were talking about snaking and doing the tree and all,” Poole remembers, “and I asked him what he thought he would be doing in five or six years. He said he didn’t know.” There were no such doubts about the plans for that evening. “We were going out there,” Poole says, “to rock the town.”
At around 10 o’clock Ford and Goins returned to their quarters to change into party clothes. For these two, that was a process that sometimes took a couple of hours. Poole didn’t want to wait that long, so he departed alone, taking a taxi to a West Berlin bar. He never saw Kenneth Ford again. Someone had visited La Belle before Ford, leaving a few pounds of high explosives near the dance floor. Just before 2 a.m. on April 5, a blast ripped the disco apart. Goins was among those injured. Killed were a young Turkish woman and Sgt. Kenneth Terrance Ford.
“They had to do extensive work on his face, a lot of wax and makeup,” says his mother. “His face was badly burned from the explosion. I’m glad the Lord took him because he wouldn’t have wanted to live like that—to suffer and not be able to do anything.”
Mrs. Beecham is sitting on her floral sofa, looking at a mantel decorated with Kenny’s childhood sports trophies. Photos of her three children, each in cap and gown, hang on the wall. High school graduation is a proud achievement in an area where the dropout rate is about 50 percent. On the door is a sticker that reads “Warning: This house is protected by Jesus Christ.” Mrs. Beecham says, “Kenny’s death happened for a reason: to wake America up. We’re sleeping at dangerous times. Hopefully his death is not in vain….He deserves to be recognized.” She speaks of his last letter, which she received three days after his death. “He wrote, ‘Be patient with me, Mom. God is not through yet. I have always taken care of you and I always will.’ He was so close to coming back. He couldn’t make it for Easter but he said he’d be home by this weekend. And he was.”
On Saturday, April 12, he returned to the Flowery Mount Baptist Church, where he’d sung so often in the choir. The red-carpeted, white-walled church was filled, and 150 people stood outside listening to the funeral services over a loudspeaker. “There was always something special about Kenny,” said Deacon Daniel Moore, the pastor’s son, in his eulogy. “He loved everybody. I never saw him angry. We were in the church together, and we played ball together. He was like the brother I never had and the son I hope I have. When he was little, he’d pray for the kids who were getting in trouble, going in the wrong direction. There is something special about a child praying for another child.”
After the emotional 90-minute funeral service, 30 cars followed the gray hearse in a long, slow procession to Forest Hill Cemetery. Alice Beecham sprinkled a handful of crushed flowers on her son’s coffin, and others stepped forward to add single flowers. Jeffrey McPherson, a Spec. 4 stationed at Fort Sheridan, Ill., lifted his bugle and played a mournful Taps.
Three days later, early in the morning, after the air raid on Libya, a weary and grieving Alice Beecham opens her door in a peach nightgown. “I was sorry it happened,” she says of the raid. “But you do what you have to do. Gaddafi took lives. You can’t stand back and let him do it. I don’t think the President did it because of Kenny. That might have made it happen more quickly. It was time, that’s all.”
Alice feels that her son would have approved. “He loved the Army. He would have been for it. He was a real soldier, and he would want to stand up for what we believe in.”