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Not the homecoming they dreamed about

Times Staff Writer

In this small town, where support for the Iraq war remains strong, residents held to the belief that Staff Sgt. Keith “Matt” Maupin was alive and would return home. It was something they spoke of, nearly four years after he was captured, with matter-of-fact assurance.

They planned homecoming parties -- backyard barbecues and baseball games and weekend fishing trips -- for the handsome young man who loved the outdoors.

They routinely tied fresh yellow ribbons around mailboxes and telephone poles, staking them across the rolling hills of Clermont County, where they fluttered like daffodils. After all, when Matt came home, it wouldn’t do for him to see tattered ribbons.

Then on Sunday, after 1,451 days, word came that Maupin’s remains had been identified.

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The loss of this soldier, and of a powerful faith, has cut deep into this southern Ohio town of nearly 1,600 people.

As residents plan for a funeral no one had expected to attend, they have started to ask questions they find difficult to voice.

“Did Matt suffer? When did he die?” wondered June Izzi-Bailey, 69, who volunteers at the Yellow Ribbon Support Center, a nonprofit group founded by the Maupin family that packages boxes of donated snacks and toiletries for shipment to troops in Iraq. “How did he die? And why?”

There was a time when Maupin was the only U.S. soldier serving in Iraq or Afghanistan whose fate remained unknown. Now three men are unaccounted for.

One, Sgt. Ahmed K. Altaie, was abducted in October 2006. Pfc. Byron W. Fouty and Sgt. Alex R. Jimenez have been missing since May.

(A fourth service member, Navy Capt. Michael “Scott” Speicher, disappeared when his plane was shot down over Iraq in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War.)

The war’s human toll is fueling a nationwide debate over whether to pull troops out of Iraq. But such talk has little place here.

“I see these protesters in California and elsewhere on TV, talking about pulling out of Iraq, and it makes me furious,” said Barb Bruner, co-owner of the Batavia Heights Christian Child Care center. “I hear these politicians come here to Ohio, wanting our votes and talking about how Iraq was such a mistake. We’ve sacrificed too much to protect our country for you to tell me this was a mistake.”

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On April 9, 2004, while on a security detail protecting a civilian convoy west of Baghdad, Maupin’s Army unit was attacked and the young soldier abducted.

Within days, his kidnappers released grainy video of the weary-looking 20-year-old, wearing camouflage and surrounded by five masked men.

About three months later, Iraqi insurgents released another video showing a man being shot in the back of the head and falling into a shallow grave. The narrator said it was Keith Matthew Maupin. But the video never showed the soldier’s face.

Until Maupin’s remains were identified though DNA testing, the U.S. military had considered him to be alive. So had his family -- and this town.

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“I told the Army all this time that they would bring my son home,” said Maupin’s father, Keith Maupin. “I forgot to tell them they had to bring him home alive.”

As word spread Sunday evening, neighbors gathered around their TVs to watch footage of the Maupins thanking the community for their support. So many people called Keith and Carolyn, Maupin’s mother, with prayers and wishes that their voice-mail boxes were full within minutes.

They added to the messages of hope that have been here for years.

In the front window of Batavia Floral Designs, a sign tells shoppers: “Our Hero Matt & the Maupin Family -- forever in our hearts and prayers.” At Glen Este High School, where Maupin played football before graduating in 2001, bunches of fresh flowers line the chain-link fence, where hundreds of red, white and blue cups long have spelled out messages, including one which read, “Lighting the way home.”

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At the Yellow Ribbon Support Center late Monday night, surrounded by walls plastered with photographs and paintings of his son, Keith Maupin sat curled in a chair, returning phone calls.

Behind him, friends and volunteers watched C-SPAN footage of their congresswoman, Republican Jean Schmidt, giving a speech in the nation’s capital to honor Maupin.

When Schmidt went over her allotted time, Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) banged a gavel. Schmidt ignored the speaker pro-tempore and kept on talking. Following protocol, Welch banged the gavel again and again.

Keith Maupin, his face flushed, stood up and walked outside.

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“I can’t believe that man tried to stop someone from talking about Matt, especially now,” he said. “Doesn’t he realize what we’ve been through?”

Matt Maupin’s younger brother, Micah, is a Marine Corps sergeant based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego. The 23-year-old is due to fly to the East Coast this week to pick up his brother’s remains.

After Micah Maupin reenlists, his family says, he’ll likely be heading to Iraq.

“He’s his own man, and I respect that,” said Keith Maupin, who served in the Marines during the war in Vietnam. “But I can’t bear the thought of losing another son.”

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com


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