Marine’s family puts politics aside

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(Host) As the war in Iraq intensifies, one Vermont soldier is seeing action on the front lines. VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Tom Keefe) “Here is one of the drawings that he did at the school of visual arts….”

(Zind) Asa Keefe’s drawings hang on the walls of his father’s house in Cornwall. Two and a half years ago, Keefe was a student at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Today, the 22-year old Vermonter is fighting in Iraq.

Keefe is a Marine infantryman. His battalion is in combat on the outskirts of Nasiriya in Southern Iraq. The city has seen some of the heaviest fighting of the war. Tom Keefe says his thoughts are constantly with his son:

(Keefe) “About 110% of the time. It’s extremely difficult. I set aside a certain amount of each day for writing to Asa, for thinking about him, for reading about or listening to or watching news about the war.”

(Zind) Keefe says his son always talked about joining the military. The destruction of the World Trade Center had a profound effect on Asa. Soon after September 11, he enlisted in the Marines. On March 1, he shipped out to the Middle East. Last week he went to war.

Tom Keefe writes his son every day. He doesn’t know how many of his letters are getting through. So far, he’s received four letters from Asa. The last one arrived three weeks ago. The letters are written on pieces of cardboard torn from boxes of food rations:

(Keefe reading from letter) “Hey Pop, I don’t know if you’ve got any of these yet, but I’ve been trying to fire one off every day or so. Although I’ve been achieving more like one every four days. So it goes in the life of the front line grunt. We’ve been told we can now receive packages and if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, I would love some more books. Trashy, sci-fi paperbacks, preferably.”

(Zind) There’s a small pin on his shirt collar: an American flag, crossed with the Marine Corps flag. The 54-year old Keefe wears his hair in a long ponytail. When he was his son’s age, Keefe protested the war in Vietnam.

He believes there are good reasons to go to war against Iraq, though he’s critical of the way the war has been planned. He feels the U.S. should have waited longer before it sent soldiers into harm’s way. If not for his son, Keefe says he might be out protesting again.

(Keefe) “When you have somebody who is directly involved it effects you in a way that is different. In some ways, I would have liked to have participated in some of the demonstrations against the war because I felt that the path to war was not being done well. I didn’t do it because I wanted to be extremely careful about being loyal to my son and about not sending him a mixed message.”

(Zind) Keefe says the parents of other members of his son’s regiment have become a kind of instant family to him. They’ve struck up close, deeply personal relationships by exchanging e-mails. Perhaps Keefe’s most difficult moment came last weekend when the names of the first Marine fatalities of the war were announced.

(Keefe) “I’ve shed a lot of tears in the last month. As they read those names, I half expected that one of those might be his and I braced myself for that. And when they finished reading the names and his name was not there, I broke down and cried.”

(Zind) Asa Keefe wrote his father that he’s keeping a journal and taking pictures. Tom Keefe says he’s looking forward to the day his son returns to show him these things.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Cornwall.

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