War Stories

Reporter Brendan Keefe '90 crosses Iraq to chronicle soldiers' sacrifices

The smell is hard to forget. Fumes from diesel fuel and the stench of human waste combine to create an odor that seeps into clothing and human memory. It's September 2004, five months after he returned from the battlefields of Iraq, and Brendan Keefe '90 still can recall the scent of war with unfortunate clarity.

A skilled television reporter with more than a decade of experience, Keefe pays closer attention than most to smells, sights, and sounds. On this assignment, his senses were on full alert. He'd spent nearly two weeks listening to United States Army leaders at Camp Udairi, Kuwait, as they readied him--and the fifty-two New York-area soldiers he was there to cover--for a 611-mile journey across embattled Iraq. He knew to expect the booming echoes of mortar fire, the heft of a thirty-pound flak jacket worn in one-hundred-degree weather, and the raw odors of military encampments. He even learned how to use a SAW gun, a weapon that fires the same bullets as the M-16, but faster.

Nothing, however, could have prepared him for the children. They ran alongside the tanks and Humvees begging for food. They ate garbage from trash cans outside opulent mansions once occupied by Saddam Hussein. They walked the streets without shoes. The youngest ones toddled along dirt roads wearing only diapers.

Keefe was there in April 2004 to chronicle the sacrifices of the 854th Engineer Battalion, Headquarters Support Company, a group of army reservists who hail from around New York State. They're an engineering outfit, charged with the task of constructing new roads and buildings in Iraq. Keefe, a seven-time Emmy winner, had been asked to produce a documentary for WCBS-TV2 in New York City, where he has been a correspondent since February 2003.

But it was the children who riveted his attention. As soon as the company crossed the Iraqi border, they spotted the first group of children, running alongside the convoy, arms outstretched in a silent plea for food. "We were expecting to see the enemy," Keefe says, "and instead, here were these children."

Their faces tormented the soldiers in his group, most of whom had left their own children behind in New York when they were called to active duty. The children tugged at Keefe's heart, but he wasn't the story. The soldiers were. So he did what he's done throughout his career, and looked again at the scene through the eyes of his documentary subjects. He turned on his camcorder, placed it against the four-inch-thick bullet-proof glass in the back seat of the Humvee, and went to work.

Learning to write

Oddly enough, Keefe credits Shakespeare's The Tempest with his ability to put himself in another's shoes. During one semester at Kenyon, Keefe studied the problematic work in four classes: political science, drama, English, and psychology. "At the time I was excited because I only had to buy the book once," Keefe jokes. "But what really mattered was seeing the same subject from so many different angles. As a reporter, that's an incredible advantage, because you can see the story from other viewpoints."

Keefe has used a camera to tell life stories since he was a student at North Haven High School near New Haven, Connecticut. He and a friend started a student-run television news station, offering local reports to viewers in seven neighboring towns. Keefe struggled with writing as a budding reporter; although he wrote the reports he filed from the field, his coanchor drafted all the copy they read from their studio.

"I could tell a good story verbally but didn't know the mechanics of writing," says Keefe. As a first-year student at Kenyon, he tackled papers by starting orally, speaking into a tape recorder and later transcribing the results on paper. "I was harshly criticized by my freshman professors, not in a negative way, but in a constructive way," Keefe recalls. "It was at that moment that I decided to major in English. If this was the toughest and most respected department at Kenyon and they're saying I can't write, I needed to have a baptism by fire."

Today, he writes all his own scripts. He has worked at stations in Illinois, Michigan, Florida, Texas, Connecticut, and New York. Among the stories he has reported: the bombings in Madrid, Spain; the Columbia space shuttle explosion; serial killings, floods, airline crashes, and the effects of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Until the Iraq documentary, however, Keefe's most dangerous assignment had been to cover a hurricane--he's reported on eight of them in his career. But high winds and fallen power lines couldn't compare to guns and roadside bombs.

In the red zone

This wasn't the first time Keefe had covered the Iraqi war. In March 2003, he volunteered to replace a WCBS-TV2 reporter in Kuwait who was reporting on the early developments of the American invasion. But his vantage point from atop a Sheraton Hotel afforded only a limited view of the battles under way just across the border.

Despite the risk, when his news director approached him with the documentary project, he accepted the assignment quickly. He was with the soldiers of the 854th for twenty-nine days--about ten days in Kuwait, four days in a convoy across Iraq, and another two weeks or so at an air base in Kirkuk, Iraq. On the trip across the country, a truck in the convoy was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, they came under enemy gunfire, and they were forced to stop in a "red zone" full of insurgents to fix a flat tire. And that was just one day.

"You're completely surrounded in steel, there's no air conditioning, and it's one-hundred degrees outside," Keefe says. "We'd just been shot at. We're thirsty. We're hungry. We're tired. We're in this tense situation, we're at a dead stop, surrounded by hostile territory, there's these flies, and we've got no ventilation. The seat you're sitting on is basically a metal tool box with thin padding on top. You've been sitting on this thing for four days and you have no circulation left in your legs."

At night, Keefe and the soldiers slept on top of the trucks, surrounded by sandbags to keep themselves from falling to the ground. When they reached the air base in Kirkuk, they played volleyball as mortars flew overhead and F-16s roared to the sky to provide air cover for coalition troops. While on base, he wore his press badge. Off-base, the badge would have marked him as an easy target for kidnaping.

He and Greg Sutfin, the CBS photographer traveling with him, filed reports every few days, but most of the footage they taped was saved for the documentary. They recorded soldiers talking to their families via satellite phone and video phones, emotional exchanges that were hard for Keefe to watch.

He knew well the pain they felt at being separated from their families. He spoke every day with his wife, Tiffany, a news producer for the same television station. The couple had met at a TV station in Houston, where Keefe was a reporter and Tiffany a producer. He proposed to her atop the Eiffel Tower in 2000, and two years later they were married in a ceremony in Ireland.

They moved to WCBS-TV2 in New York City in 2003. Each morning, Tiffany prepared for the morning newscast by reading breaking news that came across the wire services. When Keefe left, her scrutiny of the Iraq front-line reports grew more intense. Keefe was an embedded reporter, meaning that he couldn't reveal details about his location or troop movements. Every day carried a story about a new outbreak of violence. April 2004 was the deadliest month for American soldiers since the war began (surpassed only by the Fallujah offensive in November 2004). Tiffany wondered whether her husband was hunkered down in battle.

Going back

For Keefe, Iraq was full of troubling questions that defied easy resolution. Some he could report on; others he kept to himself. For example, he saw how his convoy would dominate the center of the road, forcing any Iraqi civilian vehicles to pull over. He understood why the soldiers used this tactic--they knew that some of those Iraqis might be wielding weapons or harboring bombs, waiting for the opportunity to attack.

"I agreed with that perspective for my own safety," Keefe says. But, putting himself in the shoes of the Iraqi who'd just been forced to the roadside, Keefe viewed the scene differently. "He may be the United States's last supporter in Iraq, and we just ran him off the road."

The situation was inherently tragic. "The more the insurgency grew, the more aggressive the military stance had to become to defend against it," says Keefe, "and the more aggressive the military stance, the more the insurgency grows. It's a vicious cycle."

Keefe's documentary, entitled "Those Who Serve," aired on July 4. It was well received by his colleagues, viewers, and family. The only part Keefe's mother didn't like was the ending, when her son, taking leave of the soldiers, said he'd be back. His plans called for a return to Iraq in January, to meet up again with the fifty-two New York-area soldiers in the 854th Engineering Battalion, Headquarters Support Company.

They remain stationed in Kirkuk.

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