Service After Death: Vet's Parents Find Comfort After Donating Son’s Organs

Senior Airman Andy Koehle poses on top of a graffitied MiG-23 fighter aircraft on Balad Air Base in Iraq. When he returned home, Koehle struggled with post traumatic-stress and a back injury. (COURTESY OF PAT AND BILL KOEHLE)
Senior Airman Andy Koehle poses on top of a graffitied MiG-23 fighter aircraft on Balad Air Base in Iraq. When he returned home, Koehle struggled with post traumatic-stress and a back injury. (COURTESY OF PAT AND BILL KOEHLE)

WASHINGTON -- Before Andrew Koehle died of an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2017, he had plans.

The Air Force veteran had just completed the training necessary to become eligible for a new job, and he was filling out applications. He was remodeling his home in Erie, Pa., and had just bought a stack of lumber to build new flower beds.

"Out of all the emotions I went through, that was the thing that hit me the hardest -- that he had plans," said his father, retired Lt. Col. Bill Koehle. "He had plans for his future."

At 36, Koehle died before creating the life he had intended, Bill Koehle said. So when presented with the option to donate their son's organs, his parents decided that would become part of their son's legacy.

"We tried to make sense of this tragedy and part of that was donating his organs to ensure he lived on somehow," Bill Koehle said. "You try to make some meaning out of a life, and this was an opportunity."

As is standard, Koehle's parents learned some details about the people who received their son's organs six weeks after his death, including their ages, hobbies and health. There were five, and three of them were veterans.

A 59-year-old Navy veteran who works as a cross-country truck driver received Koehle's liver.

A pair of 71-year-olds, one an Air Force veteran and the other an Army vet, received his kidneys. One had been on dialysis for three years before the donation. The other now spends his time volunteering and being with his four children and eight grandchildren.

Two other people benefitted from Koehle's donation: a 35-year-old man with cystic fibrosis who received his lungs, and a 38-year old father of three who has his heart.

"I was pleasantly surprised," Bill Koehle said. "You see and read about other veterans who are struggling, whether it's mentally or physically, and if we could bring some wholeness to their life through this gift, that gives me a great sense of fulfillment and meaning."

Bill and Pat Koehle, both 68, want their son's story to offer direction for others. They're encouraging people to register for organ donation. Koehle registered when he received his driver's license.

Nearly 115,000 people are waiting for a life-saving transplant at any given time, according to the Center for Organ Recovery and Education, the nonprofit in Pittsburgh that coordinated Koehle's donation. CORE is one of 58 federally designated nonprofit organ procurements organizations in the United States, and it works with the United Network for Organ Sharing to find donor matches.

Relatively few people who die each year are eligible for organ donation. Most deceased donors lost brain function but were kept alive by their hearts and lungs.

The Koehles also want veterans struggling with mental health problems to seek help and confide in their loved ones.

Survival and struggle

Pat Koehle could tell from their phone conversations that her son in Iraq was frightened.

Andrew Koehle, a senior airman, deployed in mid-2006 during Operation Enduring Freedom to Balad Air Base -- often the target of mortar attacks.

"I knew for him to call me, he was pretty petrified about what was going on," Pat Koehle said. "He was just scared and wanted to have someone to talk to while he was dealing with that."

Andrew Koehle survived Iraq. But when he came home in early 2007 he struggled with post-traumatic stress, she said. At the time of his death, he was being treated for the stress and for a back injury related to his military service.

While at home one day in January 2017, Koehle was offered fentanyl, an opioid painkiller that is the most commonly used drug involved in fatal overdoses. He took it and suffered a heart attack. When he arrived at UPMC Hamot hospital in Erie, Koehle was unconscious. Doctors eventually determined he was brain-dead, his mother said.

Bill Koehle didn't know what exactly his son experienced during the Iraq War until after he had died. Bill and Pat Koehle were divorced, and Andrew Koehle didn't really confide in his father.

Andrew Koehle was seeing a counselor at the Department of Veterans Affairs who suggested he write about his experiences there. After his son's death, Bill Koehle found those journals.

"I wish he would've talked to me more ... I don't know if I could've helped, but I could've given him a level of support that maybe he wasn't getting," he said. "There's this stigma about seeking help and talking that I wish vets would get over. It's not a weakness to ask for help and share your feelings. Talk."

Continued service

Andrew Koehle was sarcastic, his mother said, with a sharp-edged sense of humor that "just never stopped."

Bill Koehle described him as someone who was always willing to help others. Besides providing a home for his cousin and uncle, Andrew Koehle had recently loaned a friend $1,000. Bill found an informal note about the loan when going through his son's things after his death.

He had a big, fluffy dog, Dakota, who was always by his side. After Andrew Koehle died, Dakota went to live with Bill Koehle.

"They were inseparable," Pat Koehle said. "If he left and took off in his truck, she would lie beside me waiting for him to get back."

After he finished high school, Andrew Koehle didn't know what he wanted to do. His father and two grandfathers served in the military, and he chose to enlist in the Air Force to find some direction, Bill Koehle said.

Though he struggled with post-traumatic stress, Andrew Koehle was proud of his service, his father said. He continued to serve in the Pennsylvania National Guard after leaving active duty. He kept all of his uniforms, and he collected military memorabilia.

To his parents, his service continued after his death. Pat Koehle knew he felt strongly about organ donation, she said. When presented with the option, it was an easy choice.

"It was reassuring and somehow comforting that after he died to know part of him went on to stay," she said. "It was something I could then say out loud to myself. I hate the fact Andrew's dead, but it's so gratifying to know he could help other people."

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