By Cory Fatello
Hampton Union, Tuesday, September 23, 2003
HAMPTON - A large "Welcome Home Billy" sign hung alongside red, white and blue decorations in the American Legion Hall in Hampton on Saturday evening as family and friends celebrated the return home of Navy Seabee Billy Keohane after a six-month tour of duty that took him to Kuwait and Iraq.
Keohane, who is 24 and a '97 graduate of Winnacunnet High School, flew into Boston late Thursday night, where he was met by his jubilant parents, William and Lydia Keohane, of Hampton.
Keohane is on active duty with the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4 based in California. His NMCB 4 left California in March for two weeks in Kuwait before entering Iraq and taking part in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The NMCB 4 provided essential support for the First Marine Expeditionary Force as it made its way across Iraq toward Baghdad.
"During the actual war, we were building bridges," said Keohane, describing how Saddam Hussein rigged many bridges throughout Iraq and around the capital. "He blew all the bridges, so we had to build them so the Marines could cross them. ... So Special Forces could do their stuff," said Keohane.
Keohane counted at least five bridges his battalion constructed in a process that involved moving land and setting in place bridge sections that counteract their own weight.
Building bridges in battle zones meant that a rifle was a tool of the trade.
"I carried an M-16 with me for six months," said Keohane. "It's your life, your weapon and your gas mask."
The NMCB 4's mission also included civilian building projects. Humanitarian missions also carried with them a constant threat from people who threw rocks or fired on the Seabees.
"All it takes is one person with a weapon. Mostly, we were extremely welcome," said Keohane, who recalled crowds of civilians lining the sides of the roads "just to wave to the Americans."
Concern for Iraqi civilians weighs heavily in Keohane's thoughts on U.S. presence in Iraq.
"I hear a lot of, 'We never found any weapons of mass destruction,'" said Keohane, who said he believes that no amount of evidence of such weapons will be enough for some people. "The worst case is, we got a wicked man out of power. We dug up burial grounds that were mass graves," said Keohane. "I don't need 'Dateline' or someone to tell me that we needed to find chemical weapons. ... The amount of death was barbaric."
Keohane also recalled the huge disparity between the opulent palaces Saddam called home and the squalor he witnessed in towns throughout Iraq.
"Life was cheap for them," Keohane said of the Baath Party officials who controlled the country. The NMCB 4 worked on rebuilding 20 schools. Almost every day they saw theft and destruction of what they built. "They think they have to take it while they can," explained Keohane.
Giving food to hungry children turned complicated when fights broke out over the food. "We give food to the children, then we have to protect them from each other," said Keohane. "There's a chain of events that needs to take place," said Keohane, describing a process that will in time lead to self-government for Iraqis. "I just hope that America holds on a little longer."
As for the soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country, Keohane called them selfless and honorable.
"I'm sorry for every one of their deaths," he said.
Keohane said he hopes that support continues for the United States' efforts in Iraq so that there won't be a repeat of the atrocities in Iraq that followed in the aftermath of the first Gulf War.
"I think one of the most important things you can do is support your leader," said Keohane. "With great power comes great responsibility. We must remain there and help those children."
In Iraq and Kuwait, Keohane's new experiences included enduring 120-plus-degree temperatures, going 39 days without a shower and more MREs (meal ready to eat) than he cares to remember.
"I ate MREs for five months," he said, describing how he had to constantly shoo away swarms of flies that seemed to be everywhere in Iraq. "They were just wretched."
Then, he said, there were the camel spiders, as big as a hand, that could climb on anything. "They came looking for you at night," said Keohane. With all of these experiences fresh in his mind in his first week back, where he is surrounded by family and friends who are delighted to welcome him in person, Keohane said he finds himself "appreciative of everything" and really enjoying being home.