Thursday, July 10, 2003

Batesville soldier was eager to serve


Casualty in Iraq inspired by 9-11

By Janice Morse
and Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Kirt Collier, 22 of Batesville, Ind., talks about his high school classmate and close friend Chad L. Keith while at work at the Southeastern Indiana YMCA.
(Tony Jones photo)
BATESVILLE, Ind. - Chad Keith liked to joke around a lot. But he was serious about two things: serving in the Army (as many men in his family had), and his ambition to become president of the United States one day.

"He wasn't joking about that," said his brother-in-law, Ron Creech, 26.

Creech lives near Batesville, where Keith lived before joining the military in 2000. "He wanted to make a change in the world, to do something good."

The Pentagon on Tuesday announced that Keith, 21, was the 143rd American slain by hostile fire in Iraq. On Monday, a roadside bomb exploded as Keith's unit was patrolling Baghdad.

His best friend, James Christian, a sergeant from California who met Keith three years ago at Fort Bragg, N.C., witnessed the explosion from a vehicle following Keith's, Creech said.

"James is bringing Chad home to be buried, then he's going back. ... He's taking it personal now," Creech said.

The burial likely will be in Arlington National Cemetery, Creech said.

[IMAGE]
Keith in 2000 high school yearbook
Keith's death came just 26 days before he was to be promoted from specialist to sergeant - and a few days after he spoke to his mother, Kim Hitzges, by telephone, said Maureen Orsini, a family friend in Batesville. "He told her he was hot and tired," Orsini said. "He was worn down, but still confident in the mission and in his abilities."

Orsini said Keith's mother and her husband, Mark, are staying with a family member who is a retired soldier near Clarksville, Tenn. They will return to Batesville after meeting with Army bereavement officers to make funeral arrangements.

On Wednesday, news of Keith's death was beginning to spread through Batesville, a city of about 6,000 people about 40 miles northwest of Cincinnati. Still hanging on the front door of Keith's family home on West Pearl Street was a blue star banner, a symbol that a household member was serving in the military; it had not yet been replaced with the traditional gold star to signify his death.

Inside the YMCA, a close friend, Kirt Collier, 22, was trying to concentrate on supervising a group of kids despite grieving over Keith.

"I'm proud that he did serve, but it's so sad for someone to be gone at 21," said Collier, who threw a party at his apartment to welcome Keith home for a visit earlier this year. "I understand why he went over there. It was something he was passionate about. ... I just wish he was still here."

He said the Y had sent a number of care packages to Keith and his unit in Iraq - including one around July 4 with a note: "From Kirt and the kids at the YMCA, thanks for all you've done." Collier doesn't know whether Keith got the package before he died.

Kristen Lanning, 20, who works as a Y lifeguard, said the news of her friend's death was especially shocking because the conflict in Iraq has been winding down. President Bush declared major combat operations ended May 1, when the number of Americans killed in action stood at 114. Since then, guerrilla-style attacks have claimed 29 more U.S. casualties. The first Tristate soldier killed in Iraq, Pfc. Marlin Rockhold of Hamilton, was shot by a sniper while he directed traffic in Baghdad in May.

"Everybody makes you think that everything's pretty much calmed down over there - but it seems like more people are dying now than when it first started," Lanning said.

Jim Roberts, the assistant superintendent of Batesville schools who was high school principal when Keith graduated in 2000, said: "The war has hit very close to home" because of Keith's death. Keith had moved with his family to Batesville from Newark, Ohio, when he was a sophomore.

Roberts remembers seeing Keith talking with Army recruiters in the school cafeteria. Collier said friends could hardly tear Keith away from the recruiters.

"Most people join the Army because they want money for college or something, but he was really happy to be in the Army; he wanted it to be his career," Collier said.

Keith was a gunner with Company D, 2nd Battalion of the 325th Infantry, based at Fort Bragg, N.C.

Keith was following in the footsteps of other male family members when he joined the Army right after his high school graduation, Creech said. Keith was especially "gung-ho" about serving his country after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Laura Creech of Ohio County, whose son is married to Keith's sister, said the young soldier's 3-year-old niece idolized him. A picture of Keith on the family's refrigerator shows him in his uniform with a big American flag in the background. The little girl would show people the picture and say: "That's my Uncle Chad; he is America."

The Associated Press contributed. E-mail jmorse@enquirer.com or hwilkinson@enquirer.com




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