A 1997 Centreville High grad, Army 1st Lt. Daniel Keener's packed a lot of living in his 25 years. He graduated from West Point in June 2001 and recently returned to the U.S. after serving 10 months in Iraq.
"A lot happens that people don't see on the news," he said. "Being over there, you get a different perspective."
One of six children of Centreville residents Thelma and Dale Keener, Daniel spoke to Centre View in March while home on leave visiting his family. Then he returned to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he's stationed with the 82nd Airborne Division.
Following graduation from West Point, he completed the Infantry Officer Basic Course, Airborne School and Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga., qualifying as a paratrooper. He went to Fort Bragg in June 2002 for regular training — practicing fighting in different types of circumstances.
"We had heard rumors that stuff was going on and our battalion was going to be used [overseas]," said Keener. "There was speculation from Thanksgiving to Christmas."
His battalion left March 13, 2003. He was a platoon leader with A Company from April 2002 to June 2003. He then became the executive officer of B Company and still is. In Iraq, he was with the 82nd Airborne's 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment.
"Our mission changed after the Jessica Lynch [incident]," said Keener. "They realized Highway 8 between Kuwait and Baghdad wasn't secure, so they sent us in to secure it. Our brigade went into six major cities along that route and cleared them [of enemy forces]. There was heavy fighting in the south, so the bad guys fled north."
In each city, they had to deal with the Fedayeen — "a nasty group of suicide attackers," he said. "[Saddam Hussein's son] Uday had organized his own army, kinda like Hitler Youth. [The other son] Kusay was in charge of the secret police."
Keener said that, after 1991, Hussein had slaughtered many people in the south. "The Shiites I talked to in the south would say to me, 'Saddam killed my brother, father, cousin' — all these communities were living in fear," said Keener. "They'd take the oldest son and say, if he didn't fight, they'd kill him. So we felt good about our mission to go through and stop the violence — and stop them from terrorizing their own countrymen."
His unit encountered the Fedayeen, as well as the special Republican Guard, in the southern Iraq town of As Samaweh. "We did street-to-street fighting," he said. "Our first day [there], there was a two-hour gunfight; it was a four-day battle." Keener said it felt "just like a Ranger School patrol" and he was too busy fighting to be scared.
"We had injuries, but no one in the battalion got killed," he said. "In all direct-fire engagements, we always did better because our soldiers were more accurate in using their weapons."
The roadside bombs, or IEDs — "improvised explosive devices" — were another matter. "They'd take a garage-door opener, or anything that used a remote control, and set it alongside the road where there was lots of trash," explained Keener. "Later, we paid people to clean up the roads as a preventive measure to make sure no bombs were there."
Nearly anything could pose a danger. The enemies would even stuff a dead animal with explosives. Said Keener: "Some of the guys even had security patrol of a dead dog to try to catch [whoever planned to set it off]."
His battalion pushed north through Karbala, Najaf and Diwaniah, en route to the Sunni Triangle — Falujia, Ramadi and Hillah — and then Baghdad. He said the U.S. troops weren't received well in the Sunni Triangle because Hussein had taken care of their residents, so people there were loyal to him. But other places welcomed them.
"The kids were awesome," said Keener. "For example, we'd do a foot patrol in Diwaniah and have 300 kids behind us. They'd laugh, smile and tag along. Where the kids weren't friendly, they'd reflect their parents' views, so you knew to be on guard."
WHEN HIS battalion first arrived in Iraq — just before the fall of Baghdad — "There was no civilized society," said Keener. "The people had so much anger toward Saddam that, in many places, they were tearing down buildings, looting and hoarding food." The weather was also relentless, getting ever-hotter until July and August when temperatures reached 130 degrees-plus.
His unit entered Baghdad May 3, after it fell, and moved into the Daura power plant in south-central Baghdad to keep it from being blown up. Another squad lived at the water-treatment facility. Then, from June 16-Jan. 23, Keener's home was an oil-refinery compound.
Still, although Baghdad's fall was important symbolically and for morale, Iraq would continue being perilous for U.S. troops. "I think the stabilization part was much more dangerous than the war part," said Keener. "Before, the enemy was wearing a uniform, for the most part, and carried a weapon. During the rebuilding, we needed to equip some Iraqis with weapons because it wasn't feasible for us to guard the whole country."
"So we hired Iraqis to guard themselves," he continued. "And that's very important to the success of their country because the sooner they take ownership of [it], the sooner they'll get on their own, two feet. We weren't there as conquerors — we were there as liberators, and they looked at us this way in the south."
And through it all, said Keener, there were lots of "little miracles," every day. "Some guys had three roadside bombs go off by them, and they were fine; others, the grenade hit their vehicle just right and they were gone," he said. "My friend Ryan Larson had a mortar round hit the [tin shack] he was living in. It killed his company commander and turned the shack into Swiss cheese. And he was fine, except for a little scratch under his left eye."
ANOTHER TIME, Keener said a soldier was driving near the Tigres River, followed by another soldier in a truck when the first soldier saw a car and another vehicle coming toward them. The soldier in the first vehicle relayed the information to the soldier driving behind him.
Said Keener: "But the guy in the truck couldn't hear what he said, so he bent down and said, 'Say again.' Just then, a big chunk of metal came flying at him and would have killed him, if he hadn't ducked. Things like that happen [there] every day. Or guys would get hit, point-blank, with [bullets from] an AK-47 and their bullet-proof vest would stop them."
He said he felt protected because he knew people were praying for him. But sometimes, he added, it's just "dumb luck. We found bombs on the road that were a minute from being [activated], or a bullet would whiz right between me and my translator."
But there were tragedies, too. He and Centreville High grad Jeff Kaylor — an Army officer killed April 7, 2003 in Iraq — used to play football together. And Keener also lost some friends from West Point.
"But every soldier I talked to believed very much in what we were doing," he explained. "While they wanted to get home, they believed we needed to be over there. And a lot of people had given up high-paying jobs and different lifestyles to be there. You learn quickly who's gonna step up, and you really rely on those guys. I was fortunate to work with some good people."
"The hardest thing for a soldier to do is to do the right thing when no one's watching — and these guys were constantly doing it," he continued. "I was very proud of our battalion." Keener's brigade received a Presidential Unit Citation for its combat actions in Iraq. "They're usually stingy with that award, so it's really quite an honor," he said.
He left Iraq, Jan. 23, had a one-month leave — skiing with friends in British Columbia and visiting family in Centreville — before returning to Fort Bragg, March 14. Calling it "the nation's Guard of Honor," Keener said the 82nd Airborne's mission is to be anywhere in the world within 18 hours. "So, if there's a rebel uprising anywhere, we could be sent there. [Or] we could get sent back to Iraq because we're easy to deploy."
HE FEELS good about what happened there, but said Iraq still needs America's help and support: "I just hope the right decisions are made [regarding Iraq], because I'd hate to see all that work go for nothing. I respect the Iraqis now who are trying to keep the peace. For the most part, the people attacking them are terrorists from other countries."
Now that Keener's home, he appreciates his country even more. "People here may not think they have a lot but, compared to the rest of the world, we're very wealthy," he said. "We can't ignore the suffering of the world and pretend it's not our problem. God blessed us, and I think He did that for a reason. He can't solve all the world's problems, and you've got to make a choice [to help others]."
Keener said U.S. involvement in Iraq was about more than "just stopping a terrible dictator. It was about creating a model society for the rest of the Middle East to want to be like. Things are getting better there, but it's not done, yet. In every society, it takes people to stand up and do the right thing."