Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Guardsman returns to ‘best neighborhood’

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Bill Ryan⁄The Gazette
1st Lt. Christopher Keene (left) talks with neighbor Bill Quinn at a party in honor of his return home to Urbana from a tour in Afghanistan with the Army National Guard. Chuck and Susan Hancock hosted the party at their home Saturday. Keene and his unit spent a year training and advising Afghan Border Police to stabilize and protect their country from militants.
Despite the rising threat of violence in Afghanistan, 1st Lt. Chris Keene of Urbana said the efforts of American soldiers are building a foundation to help the country reject extremism.

But most of all, he was just happy to be home Saturday.

Keene, a member of Charlie Company of the 175th Infantry in the Maryland Army National Guard, returned last week from a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.

There, he and other members of his unit helped train and advise the Afghan Border Police in stabilizing and protecting their country from the threat of Islamic militants, Keene said.

He returned home late Jan. 31, and spent Friday evening with family members. On Saturday, his neighbors who live on Kinnerton Place in the Villages of Urbana, gathered to welcome him home. ‘‘This is the best street in the best neighborhood in Maryland,” Keene said.

Kinnerton Place residents Chuck and Susan Hancock held the party at their home, and several businesses contributed food and gift certificates for Keene.

Chuck Hancock said that when he heard Keene was serving in Afghanistan, he knew there must be a welcome-home party for him. He and his neighbors got together to plan the gathering, and he said that though he and his wife hosted, the party was a neighborhood-wide effort.

Hancock said he wanted to thank J&P Pizza for donating food, Hoilerstown Hill Bed and Breakfast, Worthington Manor Golf Club and Nate’s Barber Shop for providing coupons for Keene.

The outpouring of relief and thanks from neighbors did not overshadow the joy and pride felt by Keene’s own family.

His wife, Shanna, said having her husband gone was ‘‘nerve-wracking,” but she said she was honored by his service to the country.

‘‘Knowing how he is, I knew he was going to be OK,” she said.

Keene said he and other members of the armed forces are making great strides to help the Afghan people build schools, roads and other infrastructure that Americans take for granted. He said this would one day help them to build a strong, free society.

‘‘Give them that, and you can do amazing things,” he said.

Keene, 38, joined the Navy at age 18, and has served in the military in varying degrees for 14 years. He served for four years on active duty as a naval aircrewman, and after his time in the Navy he attended the University of Virginia.

While at college he joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps and earned a degree in government studies. He then became a contractor for the Navy’s shipbuilding and carrier programs.

He said he decided to return to military service after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and joined the Maryland National Guard in January 2002.

‘‘I felt that I still had something to give, so I went back in,” he said. He said his return from Afghanistan also gave him perspective on his military career. His flight home made several stops — two of which were in Kurdistan and Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Union.

‘‘When I was 18 and enlisted in the Navy, the bad guys were the Soviet Union,” he said.

At an airbase in Azerbaijan, Keene stopped at a souvenir shop and saw a 3-by-5-foot Soviet flag with the slogan, ‘‘Workers of the World Unite.” He decided he had to buy it, but realized he had no money, and only an American Express card.

However, the cashier happily accepted his credit card. The irony of buying the USSR’s flag with an American Express in a formerly communist country was a perfect symbol of the U.S. victory in the Cold War, Keene said.

‘‘It validated what I did when I was young,” he said.

He said the War on Terror will eventually produce similar results, and that some of the greatest people in his generation are fighting and dying for that victory. One such person is Staff Sgt. Collin Bowen, a Baltimore resident in Keene’s platoon.

Keene said that while in Afghanistan, Bowen was injured in an improvised explosive device attack two weeks before he was to go home.

Bowen has been flown to an Army medical center in San Antonio, Texas, where Keene hopes to visit him soon. He also encourages others to visit the family’s Web site, www.collinbowen.com.

Keene also plans to enjoy some downtime with his family now that he has returned to the United States, and play a few rounds of golf. He said being back home with his family and friends felt amazing.

‘‘Anytime you spend away from the U.S., you feel an appreciation for what it is to be an American,” he said. ‘‘Amplify that by about 200 times and that’s what it’s like to be in a place like Afghanistan for a year.”