Long after Vietnam, veteran is still haunted by the war


RIDGELY -- Ray Keefer, too, has been glued to his TV since war broke out, except that after the evening news Keefer sticks videos of his war into the VCR and watches them over and over and over and over.

His war is Vietnam. Keefer, who grew up in Baltimore and now lives on the Eastern Shore, was awarded five Purple Hearts during two tours even though he was wounded 12 or 13 times. He still has nightmares of the fighting and the faces. He says he expects never to forget.

So why does he sit alone in front of the TV, staring at his documentary films and war movies, all of which contain horrible, unforgettable images?

"Because it's war," he says. "Even though I'm not there, I'm getting ready to go through it again."

Keefer, 41, is an intense man who peers into the distance as he talks, until he turns his head, looks you in the eye and pierces you through. He tells precise stories, haunting accounts of death and terror in the same incessant rhythm that he experienced them.

"All we did was go from one battle to another battle to another battle to another battle," he says.

And now the ground soldiers in the Persian Gulf face their own war. This war, Keefer knows, will be nothing like the antiseptic war on TV with its cold numbers and staged briefings. It will be violent, bloody and deadly. Those who survive, many of them, will one day speak of the horrors of war, just as Keefer does today.

"They're going to have their own kind of Vietnam," he says. "They're not going to have the jungles and all, but no matter where you fight your war, the end result is the same: Somebody dies, somebody comes back without a leg."

Still, Keefer would like to be there with them. On his second tour he commanded a tank, and he got good at it. But before he could prove how good, in a tank-to-tank battle, he was sent home. He says he feels he's got something to prove.

"Nobody wants to die. Nobody wants to see his buddy's head blown off," he says. "But, after a couple of battles if you're good, you know you're good. It's like playing a Nintendo game in a way, only it's for real."

The game continued in Keefer's mind after he returned to Baltimore. He fought the same battles, puzzled over the same questions and relived the same nightmares.

"The nightmares went on even in the daytime when I was awake," he says.

He has suffered for 20 years, emotionally and physically. In Veterans Administration terms, he is 100 percent disabled because of a heart disorder, 70 percent disabled because of post traumatic stress disorder, and 40 percent disabled because of shrapnel wounds.

In all, during his tours in 1968-69 and 1970-71 with the 1st Cavalry, 23rd Infantry Division, he was wounded by shrapnel a dozen or so times. He accepted Purple Hearts only when he had to spend at least a few days in the hospital.

"There were three or four of us who were continually in the wrong place at the wrong time," he says. "But I guess the fact that we weren't killed means we were really in the right place."

A shell landed directly on the bunker he was in, killing the machine-gunner on top and sending a pencil-size piece of shrapnel deep into Keefer's left arm. A booby trap he was trying to disarm in a monsoon exploded and burned his hands; in dry weather it probably would have killed him.

One armored personnel carrier and two tanks in which he was riding ran over mines and were blown apart. A rocket-propelled grenade exploded at his feet.

"That was like getting hit right in the bridge of your nose with a baseball bat," he says. "It was like a thousand needles going through your face."

Even his heart disorder was caused by shrapnel. A piece the size of a marble tore into his right thighbone. Doctors told him it would remain there forever. But years later it worked its way free, slid down his leg and lodged between an artery and a vein, disrupting his circulation and permanently injuring his heart.

Small pieces of shrapnel still work their way through his skin.

"I've taken one or two out myself with a razor blade," he says.

But the worst scars are mental, he says. They didn't begin healing until he went for the first time to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington in 1984.

He credits his wife, Mindy, and her three children, and his two children from a previous marriage, for preserving his sanity and saving his life. Before he met Mindy, he says, he came close to killing himself.

"I've had a gun in my mouth more than once," he says.

But he hasn't been able to hold a steady job since the war, he says. And he takes lots of medicine but still can't sleep some nights.

The horrors persist. He dreams about his best friend who, after surviving the war, drowned in a river taking a bath nine days before he was supposed to come home. Keefer was nowhere near the river, but he lies awake with guilt for letting his friend drown.

He remembers the terror on a dead buddy's face. A bullet had zipped open his buddy's stomach, and his intestines had popped out. It wasn't the wound that killed him, Keefer says, it was the terror.

He can't forget the soldier under his command killed by the machine-gunner on his tank. The gunner fired crazily into the tall grass. The soldier, trying to ferret Viet Cong out of hiding places, was shot 30 times, Keefer says.

And he still sees the faces of dead children. His unit had been ordered to annihilate villages where only Viet Cong were supposed to be.

"We were just killing everything that moved," he says.

But when they entered the village in search of weapons, they found children, dead, unarmed, 7, 8, 9 years old.

He has photographs in an album, and they do not look at all like the pictures on TV of this war. In one, Keefer, his hair gray and matted to his forehead, looks like a ghost. He is 20.

So now he watches the news and worries about the soldiers in the Persian Gulf waiting for the ground war to start.

"These guys can just sit and wonder," he says. "But I know what's coming."

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