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Keeping Vigil for One of Their Own

Times Staff Writers

There was nothing to do but wait. And pray.

Take down a tattered yellow ribbon; tie a fresh one in its place.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Jul. 02, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 02, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Soldier’s rank -- An article in Wednesday’s Section A about an American soldier held hostage in Iraq described Keith Matthew Maupin as an Army private first class. Maupin, whom his kidnappers claim to have killed, was promoted to the rank of specialist after his capture in April.

And wait.

This village on the southern hem of Ohio has been on edge for nearly three months, ever since a local kid -- a football player, an honors student with a smile to remember -- was taken hostage in Iraq.

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News finally came this week, but it only led to more uncertainty.

Iraqi insurgents said they had killed Army Pfc. Keith Matthew Maupin, 20. They produced a video, a dark, grainy clip showing a man being shot in the head and pitching forward into a grave. The man was shown only from the back. Military officials analyzed the tape for hours Tuesday but could not confirm the victim’s identity.

And so Maupin’s friends and neighbors wait. Weary of outsiders pressing in on their vigil, residents turn away from reporters. Some glare. Others wipe away tears. They take comfort in the rituals they can control -- tying yellow ribbons, wearing pins with Maupin’s photo, praying together.

At the Hungry Bear Diner, which Maupin’s father used to own, the noontime crowd on Tuesday seems exhausted. One man, sipping iced tea, keeps asking, “Why?” as if trying to make sense of Maupin’s uncertain fate. A friend leans forward to pat him on the shoulder.

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The man asks again, quietly: “Why?”

At the high school, students have crammed the chain-link fence with carnations and roses, wilting now in the muggy heat. They’ve put up posters of Maupin -- his Army photo, jaw jutting -- and arranged red, white and blue cups to spell out messages of support.

They’ve written notes to the young soldier. “Matt, we’re fighting the same fight. Me and my friend just enlisted,” one reads. “I’m 19 and my friend is 18 and we are going into the Navy next month.... We’re scared.”

Inside the high school, next to an old poster announcing the senior prom, a map of Iraq is tacked to the wall. There’s a photo of Maupin. And a list of other recent graduates now serving in the armed forces:

Eric Holmes, Navy

Justin Meyer, Military Police

Sherri Brownstead, Air Force

Dave Cooper, Army Special Forces

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Sgt. Charles Kiser is not on the list, but many here are thinking of him. Kiser, 37, grew up in the area and gained local fame as a championship sprinter. The father of two was killed in Iraq last week when a car bomb exploded near his convoy.

A memorial for Kiser is scheduled for Monday evening in nearby Batavia. Volunteers have pinned together thousands of red, white and blue ribbons to hand to mourners.

Sheriff A.J. “Tim” Rodenberg thinks of Kiser, of Maupin, of the other young men and women who have left Clermont County, on the eastern fringe of Cincinnati, for the deserts of Iraq. He thinks of his own son, Nick, a Marine corporal on his second tour of duty in Baghdad.

“With our son there, with all the other kids there, I don’t want to say too much about this war ... but I wonder if it’s ever going to end, and when it does, will the mission be accomplished?” says Rodenberg, a Marine Corps veteran.

His son is due to come home in July. Rodenberg feels he has aged 10 years since Nick first flew into combat.

He starts to describe the anguish, then stops. Next to the pain Maupin’s family must endure, his own seems inconsequential. In some way, though, he feels part of Maupin’s family. Most everyone here seems to. Yellow ribbon flies from every possible spot: mailboxes, power lines, benches, even license plates and windshield wipers. The community has used more than 8,000 yards of it in the last three months.

“Matt is one of our own,” the sheriff says. “He’s become everyone’s son. He’s become everyone’s brother.”

In adopting the young Army Reservist as their own, the people of Clermont County have guarded his privacy.

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A few days after his convoy was ambushed in early April, a video surfaced: Maupin, in a floppy camouflage hat, was shown surrounded by masked gunmen. His face was pale and his eyes darted nervously about. Ever since, the military has asked Maupin’s friends and neighbors to not talk about him publicly, for fear his captors might use the information against him.

Friends have said he loved to play chess, to work out, to fish with his dad, to go rock climbing, to laugh. His father served in the military. His younger brother is a Marine. Maupin joined the reserves to earn money for college; he hoped to study aerospace engineering.

“A fun kid,” said Mitch Cohen, his boss at Sam’s Club. But that was as much as anyone would say.

Maupin’s family remained secluded Tuesday in their home here in Union Township, on a winding rural road lined with brick ranch houses and old oak trees. Neighbors turned back outsiders who ventured close; one woman opened her door only to spit at a reporter.

“Give them some peace!” another woman shrieked as she drove past television crews parked outside the Maupin home. “We don’t want you here!”

“We have so many of our young people in the military right now. We feel it if someone’s gone,” said Richard Crawford, a staff writer with the weekly Clermont Sun.

Some residents were able to channel that anxiety into action. Mia Supe, a local resident who runs a group called 4 the Troops, met with doctors at a Cincinnati hospital to urge them to share advice with medics at a U.S. combat hospital in Baghdad. She worked on plans for an upcoming concert, where she hoped to collect donations -- bug spray, kiddie pools, lemonade mix, squirt bottles -- to mail to troops slogging through the Iraqi summer.

In downtown Batavia, volunteers at the Clermont County Convention and Visitors Bureau packed up 30,000 postcards they had printed for the troops. The cards show a montage of yellow ribbons around town. On the back of each, children had written messages.

“Dear soldiers,” wrote Nicholas, age 6. “I’m sorry about Matt. I bet he was very nice. I hope you win the war.”

June Creager, executive director of the visitors bureau, won’t accept that use of the past tense.

“We have dug our feet into the ground,” Creager said, “and we’re trying to still believe.”


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