EXCERPT

The Slab

One soldier's quest to honor a fallen comrade he didn't even know.

The 50-pound marble slab sat in the soldier's garage for more than a year. It read:

In honor of
1LT Benjamin D. Keating
3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry
Regiment
Killed 26 November 2006 while
conducting mounted
reconnaissance near Kamdesh

The plaque once hung from a wall outside the operations center of the combat outpost where the soldier had been stationed. He hadn't known Ben Keating. He hadn't even known anyone who had ever even met him. But from May until October 2009, the soldier had lived at the combat outpost that bore his name: Combat Outpost Keating.

Ben's parents -- Ken and Beth Keating, who were Baptist ministers in Shapleigh, Maine -- had from the beginning been ambivalent about the outpost being named after their son. They understood and respected the desire of Ben's troops to honor his memory, but the location was too dangerous, and Army outposts in a foreign land were by their very nature ephemeral. This one -- at the bottom of three steep mountains, just 14 miles from Pakistan -- sounded particularly vulnerable to the Keatings.

Their instincts were right. On Oct. 3, 2009, Combat Outpost Keating was attacked. The soldier and 52 other troops, vastly outnumbered, faced hours of machine-gun spray, grenades, rockets, and mortars -- all from the high ground. Eight Americans were killed. After a 12-hour firefight, the Army beat back the enemy, only to abandon the outpost just a couple days later.

Not much had survived the attack or the accompanying fire that ravaged the camp, but the soldier and his fellow troops were told to only pack up essential equipment. To them, the plaque that bore Ben Keating's name fit that definition. They ripped the marble slab from the wall of the destroyed operations center and carefully put it into a helicopter's sling load to the nearby forward operating base, and from there it ended up in a Conex shipping storage container shipped back to Fort Carson in Colorado.

And that's where it sat until the soldier grabbed it last year. He didn't know what he wanted to do with it, but he didn't think it belonged sitting in a broom closet. It wasn't as if he wanted to remember his time at Combat Outpost Keating. Those were some rough days. He lost some good friends.

Ben Keating was not one of them. Keating had been killed three years before, when the light truck he was driving spilled off the narrow and fragile road, down a cliff, and into the Landay-Sin River. His death devastated the men and women of Able Troop, 3-71 CAV. But the soldier's company didn't know anything about Ben Keating when they arrived in 2009. That's just not the way of the Army. The weight of yesterday's tragedies can only hurt today's mission.

The soldier saw this with the troops from his own company, which suffered the worst U.S. loss of life in Afghanistan in 2009. His eight fallen friends were honored and remembered, and then they were yesterday's news. There was work to do.

After another tour in Afghanistan, two months ago the soldier returned to the United States, to his mother's grateful embrace. For some reason, he felt an urgent need to give the plaque to Ken and Beth Keating. It was too valuable to mail, he concluded; he was too afraid that the plaque would somehow survive the Taliban attack on Combat Outpost Keating only to fall victim to a clumsy postal carrier.

So on Dec. 14, the soldier boarded a flight to Boston, bearing the 50-pound marble slab, tightly wrapped in cardboard. After landing at Logan Airport, he rented a car and drove to Portland, Maine, where he and Ken Keating had coordinated by email to meet at a Pizzeria Uno's. Neither knew what the other looked like, but the soldier sent Keating a text and watched an older man check his cell phone and it flowed from there.

They spent the day together. The soldier learned all about Ben Keating. About Ben's life and the lives of those who miss him, about Ben's Christian faith and the apple orchard where he worked for two years before deciding to get his act together and go to college. The soldier had never known his own father; Ken Keating was now without a son.

The soldier did not want me to tell you his name. He did not buy a plane ticket and fly across the country, burdened by the weight of this marble slab and much more, for any attention, he told me. He's not looking for any thanks from anyone, he said. It was just the right thing to do, and meeting Ken was a pleasure.

Before the soldier left, he asked Ken to tell him what he planned to do with the marble slab.

Ken took a couple days with his response. Then he called the soldier and told him: He had spoken with the funeral director who handled his son's funeral. Right now, Ben is at the Keating family burial plot all alone, and his grave is marked by the standard granite slab issued by the Veterans Administration. But the Keatings now plan to erect a family monument that will incorporate the marble slab from Combat Outpost Keating as a tribute not only to their beloved Ben, but to all the soldiers who put their lives on the line at the outpost that bore his name.

It's as close to permanence as one can get.

Ken Keating

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