There is a darkness a wounded soldier knows; a darkness unlike any other. Matt Keil knows this. He’s seen it creep into the hearts and minds of his fellow wounded heroes. He’s felt its icy touch himself.
There is a light that can break darkness’s grip. It comes in many forms — a word, a touch, a kind gesture. Keil knows this, too. He’s seen it heal others; he’s felt it heal himself.
For Staff Sgt. Keil of Parker, CO, one beam of light came in the form of Ed Melroe, a Kulm, ND, rancher who first read about Keil in the July 2012 issue of BEEF. Touched by the spirit, Melroe made a small, simple gesture that pulled Keil from the grip of darkness’s hand.
What follows is an incredible story of love, healing, reaching out and reaching within. It is a story of a man who believes in miracles, and was willing to let God use him to create one.
And it began with an article in BEEF.
A brief chronology
Several years ago, I was privileged to be part of a turkey hunt on a northern Texas Panhandle ranch for Keil and Dan Shepherd, two wounded Iraq veterans. The fact that the hunt happened at all is a bit of a miracle in itself. Spending three days in the friendly confines of a hunting camp with two genuine, yet humble heroes affected me profoundly. There was an important story to tell,and I felt moved to tell it.
We ran it online, and again in the July 2012 magazine. It was the print article, and a little nudge from above, that moved Melroe to splice himself into the story.
A special shotgun
The original article began by noting that Keil used a borrowed shotgun on the hunt. After harvesting his first turkey, he asked the assemblage for advice on how to convince his wife that he needed to buy his own shotgun. I looked at the faces of the older, veteran hunters in the room, and the mix of emotions was as plain on theirs as it must have been on mine. At that moment, I felt it possible that any one of us might rise up, fetch our shotgun, and proudly give it to Keil. But we didn’t.
Melroe says he read that sentence over and over. “Why,” he asked out loud, “didn’t they?” And he got an answer. “Because,” he told me, “the Lord told me: ‘That’s your job.’ ”
Melroe’s father passed away seven years ago, after helping build the Melroe Co., a farm equipment manufacturer and inventor of the skid-steer loader. “My dad had a soft spot in his heart for many things,” Melroe says. “Hunting was one of them. His military service was another. When my dad passed away, he left me two Browning shotguns.”
After reading the article and getting that nudge, Melroe tracked Keil down, and as a complete stranger, made him an offer: a gift of one of the two Browning “humpback” shotguns his dad left him. Kiel’s response to Melroe was, “Before I answer that question, I want to ask you a question — do you have a son?”
Melroe responded he did, and Kiel followed with: “Wouldn’t you rather give that gun to your son and keep it in the family?” That, Melroe says, spoke volumes about the character of a man he had only met on the pages of BEEF magazine.
“I said to him, ‘What you say is true, but my dad left me two guns and I have one son. And I would be honored if you would take one. It was my father’s; it means a lot to me, it means a lot to my family. But it’s going to a new owner.’ ”
Matt Keil’s story
The darkness comes quietly, sometimes slowly, insidiously. But it comes, even to wounded warriors like Keil who have been called “relentlessly upbeat.” That’s because, even if wounded veterans are like Keil and talk openly about their military service and their wounds, there’s still a part of their experience they keep tamped down deep inside.
“I know for a fact that guys who don’t talk about it and start to seclude themselves into their homes, they just get into a place where they become extremely depressed and kind of come into a darkness,” Keil says.
In his case, it was the darkness of guilt, something not uncommon with wounded warriors — guilt that the mission was unfinished, that he let his guys down.
“In the last year, I found myself withdrawing from a lot of the advocacy and public speaking I used to do; I changed a little bit,” Keil says. “I noticed my attitude was changing, I’m a different person around the house. I wasn’t treating people the way they should be treated.”
He was also shutting himself off from contact with his military friends, something he’s struggled with all along. “I’ve secluded myself from the people I served with,” he says, to the point that he turned off his Facebook page to avoid engaging in conversation with them.
That’s changed, thanks to Melroe’s old Browning. “It really started with Ed calling me after reading the magazine article. It made me realize I need to be doing what I was doing before: public speaking and advocacy for wounded veterans.”
It also changed with another “coincidence” in Keil’s story: Melroe’s nephew, Capt. David McMahon. A first lieutenant at the time, McMahon was in the same battle in which Keil was wounded — something Melroe didn’t know when he first approached Keil about the old Browning.
Keil admits, when this unlikely story began to come together, that he had reservations about meeting McMahon. “When Ed said David was coming, too, my reservation was … (long pause) … this is the first time I’ve come face to face with somebody who was on the battlefield with me.”
And another beam of light shattered Keil’s darkness. “Just talking with David, I’ve had more closure with my injury than I’ve had the last five, six years,” Keil says. “The things he told me, the things he said, really ring a bell. It’s not necessarily that I want to hear it, but I need to hear it.”
It was in McMahon’s recounting of the battle that healing came at last for Keil. “The mission was over,” he told Keil. Keil learned that immediately after he had been medevaced out of the combat zone, the area had been secured. That lifted Kiel’s guilt that he had left the mission unfinished.
Is it a coincidence, the connection among a magazine article; an old shotgun made new; and long, heartfelt talks with a fellow soldier who had boots on the same ground where an Iraqi sniper’s bullet found Keil’s neck? “This whole process has really brought me out of my shell,” Keil says. “I started to seclude myself and withdraw from the world. This whole thing changed me.”
What can ranchers do?
“I think the biggest thing [landowners can do] is invite some wounded veterans to come onto your property,” Keil says. The veterans don’t have to stay on the ranch, if housing isn’t handicapped-accessible. “They can stay at a local hotel,” he says.
“For a lot of guys, the opportunity to hunt means more to them than anything. The military has taught us to adapt and overcome. They’ll adapt and overcome to whatever they need to do,” he says. “The invitation alone means more than anything to me, and the opportunity to spend that time with other disabled veterans and other people who enjoy hunting.”
Nor does it have to be hunting. If you have a fish pond, or can take some wounded vets and their families on a horseback or ATV trail ride, for example, the effect is the same.
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That effect is simply getting them out of the house or hospital, and getting them talking, Keil says. “Telling our story helps us heal. The more you talk about something, the more comfortable you feel about it.” He says some wounded veterans prefer not to talk about their experiences. “But I know that in talking about it, you heal from it. That’s probably the most important reason.”
Melroe snaps the locks on the gun case and flips it open, revealing a very special Browning, slicked up and ready to work. “I am honored beyond belief to be part of this story,” Melroe says. “But I’m also honored to bring my nephew into it, and the memory of my father as well.”
Keil looks at the shotgun as it rests in its case. He casts his eyes to his twins, as busy and active as any two-year-olds can be. “I want you to know,” he says to Melroe and McMahon, “that I will cherish this shotgun for the rest of my life, and will make sure that Matt Jr. understands the story behind it. Someday, I’ll pass it along to him. It will stay in the family.”
How you can help
According to the USO, after more than a decade of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, 40,000 servicemen and women have been seriously wounded and an estimated 400,000 suffer from invisible wounds, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury. There are many organizations and companies with programs to help these wounded warriors. Here are a few national programs:
If you’re interested in hosting wounded warriors on your property, contact one of these organizations for direction and guidance:
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