'Mama Sue' lost her son, but she gained a whole 'Ranger Family'

Julia LeDoux
September 29, 2019 - 10:28 am
Sue and Jon Peney

Photo courtesy Sue Peney

Sue Peney is known simply as “Mama Sue” in the tight-knit community that is the Army Rangers.

She considers all the Rangers her “boys.” The door of her home in Georgia is open to any of them, at any hour of the day or night.

But one of those boys won’t walk through Sue’s door again.

Her son and only child, Sgt. Jonathan Kellylee Peney, was killed June 1, 2010, by enemy fire while attempting to provide medical aid to a fellow Ranger in Afghanistan.

Sue raised Jon as a single mother, with the help of her father, a World War II veteran. He was homeschooled and was mentored by Marc Heiliman, a veteran who the family met through church.

“Jon was,” Sue said with a sigh and slight pause before continuing, “he was super intelligent. He was selfless.”

Like so many others who watched the Sept. 11 terror attacks unfold before their eyes, Sue said Jon felt compelled to serve the nation.

“He wanted to join the Army when he was 14,” she said. “Jon would run for 22 miles with 75 pounds in his rucksack like it was nothing.”

He called himself a “sponge,” Sue said.

“He listened to tapes and taught himself how to speak Russian,” she said. “He also learned Japanese, French, and Spanish.”

Jon enlisted in November of 2005 at the age of 18. At the time of his death, he was a combat medic assigned to 1st Battalion 75th Ranger Regiment at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia.

Sgt. Jonathan Peney

Sue’s voice quavered but remained strong as she talked about Jon’s last day alive. On Memorial Day 2010, the 22-year-old made phone calls to both his mom and his wife, Kristen.

Less than 24 hours later, an Army casualty officer was at Sue’s door, delivering the grim news that Jon had been killed.

“I pounded him. I beat on him,” Sue said. “He didn’t react. He just took it.”

At the time, Sue said she couldn’t even have told you what a Ranger did. That would all change one morning shortly after Jon’s death when she was visiting the Ranger Memorial on Fort Benning. Also there, was retired Col. Ralph Puckett, the honorary colonel of the Ranger Regiment and a well-known soldier himself. The two struck up a conversation.

“He asked me what I was doing there,” Sue said. “I said I could feel the Ranger spirit there. Next thing, you could hear their boots coming."

Sue then heard the words of the Ranger Creed for the first time and understood what drove her son.

“I said `Oh my God,’” she said.

That encounter changed Peney’s whole life. Instead of running from the Army, today she runs toward it and embraces all Rangers as her sons.

“I look for that Ranger tab wherever I go,” she said. “My only wish is that Jon would be here.”

Sue Peney
Photo courtesy Sue Peney

Jon’s awards include the Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal with combat star, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and the Army Service Ribbon. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, and the Meritorious Service Medal.

He was also posthumously awarded the 2010 U.S. Army Special Operations Command Medic of the Year and the Special Operations Medical Association Medic of the Year.

On Sunday, Peney will mark Gold Star Mother’s Day by remembering Jon, recalling his smile, his laughter, love of life and love of country.

“It should really be called 'Gold Star Family Day,'” she said. “They all had fathers, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands.”

Peney said she’ll deliver that message when she speaks at a Sept. 29 brunch at Fort Benning.

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Reach Julia LeDoux: Julia@connectingvets.com

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