Before Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Kinnel became a national award-winning JROTC instructor at Mansfield High School, he was an army recruiter. In the five years he spent in that job, Kinnel sought out and signed up around 350 soldiers. Earlier this year, Kinnel was in for the surprise of his life when two of the young men he recruited more than 20 years ago turned up in Mansfield ISD as coworkers.
Chris McMahan is now an athletic trainer at Summit High School and 1st Sgt. Brandon Butler is the JROTC instructor at Lake Ridge High School. Kinnel said he saw something in them as teenagers and was confident they would succeed, but McMahan, who resisted joining the Army at first, said he was lost until Kinnel came into his life. He was getting into trouble and his mom had kicked him out of the house multiple times. Kinnel pursued him for two years.
“He would show up everywhere I was. I don’t know how he found out I was in these places,” McMahan said. “He would just pop up. His persistence and the fact that he showed he cared about me, it just made me change my mind, and he made me believe in myself even when I didn’t.”
“He was the one person in my life those two years who was always there for me,” McMahan continued. If I didn’t have any money, he would buy me something to eat. If I didn’t’ have anyone to talk, I could call him and he just always showed up for me.”
McMahan finally relented and entered the Army in February of 2000. He spent three years in the military.
“It turned me into a man and taught me discipline, responsibility and integrity,” McMahan said. “It grew me up really fast.”
Once out of the Army, McMahan pursued an undergraduate degree in kinesiology at the University of Houston and received a master’s in athletic training at the University of Texas at Arlington.
During the past two decades, McMahan searched for his Army recruiter online, on social media and even called the old recruiting station to see if they could help him find Kinnel. The reason he had so much trouble is because he was looking for a man named Sgt. Jones.
At the time Kinnel was recruiting, he went by his stepfather’s last name, but he found his biological father when he was 38 and changed his name to Kinnel. It took bumping into his former mentor on the football field earlier this year to finally reunite. McMahan was there as an athletic trainer and Kinnel was there supervising his JROTC color guard.
“We were passing by each other. I just looked at him, and he looked at me,” McMahan said. “He stopped. I stopped. He squinted his eyes, and I squinted my eyes. He’s like, I know you. And I was like, Sgt. Jones and he was like, ‘It’s Kinnel. But yes, it’s me.’ We embraced.”
1st Sgt. Brandon Butler had a similar moment in August when he arrived at Mansfield ISD freshly retired from 20 years in the Army. He was at a meeting for the district’s JROTC organizations when he spotted Kinnel.
“I’m sitting at the table and he walks in and I look at him and he looks at me and I’m like, man, that dude looks familiar,” Butler said. “And he’s talking. And he has the same energy. And I’m thinking to myself and I’m writing into my notes, I gotta meet this dude. We need to connect. I want to work with this guy.”
Butler, too, had spent years wondering what happened to the sergeant who recruited him into the army.
“My dad and I would often talk about it – like, I wonder where Sgt. Jones is at,” Butler said.
Butler had not been as difficult to recruit as McMahan. His father was a preacher and made it clear what he expected from his son when he graduated from high school.
“My dad gave me three options, either you go to college, go to the military either way you gotta get up out of here,” Butler said.
Being in the military wasn’t easy at first, but Butler said once he got his mind in the right place it became easy, even fun. Butler earned a college degree while in the Army and is now looking forward to impacting students’ lives like Kinnel did for him.
“I’m learning, and what better way to learn but from the guy who put me in,” Butler said.
Mahan credits Kinnel has with his very survival. Of the group of five friends he was hanging out with when he enlisted in the army, only he and one other are still living.
“At the time of my life, even at 18, I was headed for a dead end,” McMahan said. “He literally saved my life.”
Kinnel said he saw himself in those teenagers, and like him, they just needed someone to believe in them. “Someone did it for me and I’m just paying back. What God has given me, I’m giving to others,” Kinnel said.
The three men are now making up for lost time, talking, texting and making plans to get together outside of work. “The story doesn’t stop, because we’re still making memories now,” Sgt Kinnel said. “This is family.”