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Ever since he was 18 years old, Kenneth Meisel was driven to protect and serve.

First he was a U.S. Army paratrooper, then a police officer in Oklahoma and finally a senior federal air marshal stationed in Minneapolis.

With his wife, Julie, he cared for rescue horses on a 20-acre ranch in Princeton, Minn., and looked forward to retiring in two years and being a full-time grandpa, his children said.

But on Sept. 9, Meisel called son Ryan of Baraboo, Wis., to tell him he was having trouble breathing and was going to the hospital. It was the last time they spoke. Meisel died Sept. 24 of COVID-19. He was 55.

At a memorial service this month, daughter Amanda Moldenhauer of Ramsey spoke of a man with the heart of a cowboy and the soul of an Amish rancher — all within "the shell of a true American hero badass," she said.

Meisel grew up in Sauk City, Wis., and entered the Army in 1984.

He served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Ryan, born while his dad was in the military, suspected there were other hot spots, too, given the elder Meisel also served in a NATO rapid deployment force based in Italy. As a kid, Ryan would point at a map and ask his dad if he'd been here or there.

"He'd say, 'I can't tell you that,' " Ryan said.

Meisel later was a police officer in Shawnee, Okla., and began work as a federal air marshal in Dallas in 2002. As of 2019, he had flown more than 5 million miles, the Transportation Security Administration said.

In 2009, Meisel transferred to the Minneapolis field office and, along with Julie, fulfilled the dream of owning a ranch. The couple cared not only for horses, but also for goats, pigs, cats and chickens — you name it, said son Eric Lewis of Elk River. But Kenneth Meisel drew the line at a capybara.

At work, Meisel did all he could to "stop the bad guys," but even then was kind and soft-spoken, Ryan said. At the ranch, he was a cowboy down to the Stetson hat. Just as memorable were his bear hugs, his children said.

During that last phone call, Ryan said he couldn't tell if his dad was worried. But his dad did tell him he was proud of him, and gave a directive: "Take care of my grandson and my daughter-in-law."

Other survivors include daughters Abigail Carnahan of Elk River and Jacquelyn Glaros of Plymouth; brothers Mike Fleck of Spooner, Wis., Kevin Meisel of Virginia Beach, Va., Kurt Meisel of Reedsburg, Wis., and Karl Meisel of Colorado Springs; sister Ashley Meisel of Baraboo; and five grandchildren.

Anthony Lonetree 612-673-4109