After seeing New York City's devastation from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Bill McKenna was determined "to go and fight for the country," his wife said Friday.
The former West Babylon man, who was born on the Fourth of July and had proudly worn his Boy Scouts uniform as a child, went to the Army recruiting office on Sunrise Boulevard and joined the military in 2002, leaving for Iraq a year later. He served two tours of duty there.
"That was our city that was attacked and he had to go. He felt like he had to do it," said his wife, Dina McKenna, 40, a Lindenhurst native now living in Spring Hill, Fla. "We were very proud and patriotic and excited about it and I'm still very proud of what he did."
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McKenna, who died Tuesday at the age of 41, did not perish in combat.
He died at a Florida hospice from a rare form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that his family, doctor and the Department of Veterans Affairs said was linked to his exposure to toxic fumes from one of the military's burn pits - where anything from regular garbage to plastic refuse and feces were routinely burned at bases in Iraq.
Born in Flushing, Queens, McKenna grew up in West Babylon, where he graduated from West Babylon High School in 1987. He went into construction work after high school, installing windows and siding.
He also nurtured a love of auto mechanics and race cars and played bass so well that he joined heavy metal bands with names like Chemical Warfare, Idiot Magnet and Skull Rot. He met his future wife at a friend's party where he performed.
McKenna's later decision to join the military earned him the admiration of relatives and friends.
"He's a hero," childhood friend Charlie Roccaforte said. "He's my hero. He's the best guy I've ever known."
His wife said that from the beginning, McKenna wanted to be "with the big guns," so he ended up as a tank operator. He suffered a traumatic brain injury from a mortar blast in 2006 and was ultimately honorably discharged in 2008.
A year ago, McKenna's wife took him to the veterans hospital in Tampa when he experienced trouble breathing during a family walk with their two daughters, she said.
Doctors discovered a cancerous mass wrapped around his heart and lungs.
Because he didn't get sick until after being discharged, his family and the military have said, his family did not receive the same benefits afforded to those who die in combat.
So family and friends said they have scraped money together for the burial, transportation and other costs so that McKenna can be laid to rest Monday at Calverton National Cemetery, where his grandparents are buried.
Said Denise D'Avanzo, another childhood friend, of Selden: "We don't want anybody to forget who he was, what happened to him and what he did for his country."
Visiting hours are from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Sunday at Johnstons' Wellwood Funeral Home, 305 N. Wellwood Ave. in Lindenhurst.