Friends, family coping with a hero's suicide — (New Hampshire Sunday News)

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New Hampshire Sunday News

By SHAWNE K. WICKHAM

Published Aug 14, 2011

James Keenan was a “true-blue American hero,” and that’s how his family wants people to remember him.

Keenan, a decorated New Hampshire Army National Guardsman, volunteered for two tours of duty in Iraq, earning the Bronze Star with Valor for saving his entire squad in an ambush nearly seven years ago.

The evening of June 29, Keenan died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head in his Newmarket apartment.

Keenan, 33, left behind his parents and sister, a 7-year-old son, Robbie ­ and far more questions than answers.

And comrades say his death is a warning that returning troops and their families need more help to cope with post-combat stress.

According to a Newmarket police report, Keenan’s girlfriend told police he had been “despondent” and was having “war-related nightmares”; he had gone to the Manchester VA two days earlier and had been given medication.

Police found drugs prescribed for depression and panic attacks in the apartment, including three that carry Food and Drug Administration warnings about possible increased risk of suicidal thoughts or actions.

Keenan’s sister, Desiree Smith, says her brother was more than a war hero. In an email exchange with the New Hampshire Sunday News, she wrote, “He was my absolute best friend in the entire world … my protector. To my children, he was a jungle gym, secret keeper, uncle and friend.”

Keenan’s death has also hit hard among his fellow guardsmen with the 2/197th Field Artillery, many of whom have been serving in Kuwait since last fall. A memorial gathering was held there on July 13.

Keenan grew up in East Ryegate, Vt., just across the river from Woodsville, where folks remember him as a young man with a big heart and big smile.

He didn’t have to go to Iraq; he was away at advanced infantry training when his Woodsville Guard unit was sent there in early 2004, according to his father, Robert Keenan. The fighting was heavy and many members of the unit had been wounded, so Keenan volunteered as a replacement.

Keenan’s roommate, his father said, was Spc. Alan Burgess, 24, of Landaff, who died after a car bomb exploded near his vehicle on Oct. 15, 2004.

Three weeks after Burgess’ death, Keenan’s squad was ambushed while on patrol in Mosul. Keenan was the gunner in the last of four vehicles.

According to the citation recommending him for the Bronze Star with Valor, Keenan “was facing the opposite direction and without hesitation traversed his turret 90 degrees and began engaging the ambush so that the last two vehicles in the patrol could move out of the kill zone.”

In the firefight that followed, Keenan killed two enemy combatants just five feet away while shoulder firing his automatic weapon.

SFC Walter Dellinger of North Haverhill was Keenan’s squad leader in Mosul. In an email from Kuwait, Dellinger said Keenan and others are “casualties of war.”

“Sherman was right when he said ‘war is hell,’ and it affects each of us differently,” he wrote. “Some cope with it on their own, others need help, we all need our friends and families to help understand.”

He advised relatives and friends to watch for changes in returning service members: “withdrawal, uncaring, wanting to be left alone.” But he warned some will “slip through with a mask of concealment.”

Robert Keenan said that what happened in Mosul changed his son. “He never left that. That was his big moment. And I think he lived that every day.”

Keenan volunteered to return to Iraq with the 3643rd Security Force in 2006, serving as a prison guard at Camp Cropper, where Saddam Hussein was taken after he was captured.

Keenan left the National Guard last year and started working at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in January.

Robert Keenan said he doesn’t blame anyone for his son’s death. James had gone for counseling at the White River Junction (Vt.) V.A. Medical Center. “I think they did all they could for him,” he said.

James Keenan was buried with full military honors in Pine Grove Cemetery in Woodsville. Brig. Gen. Craig E. Bennett, commander of the New Hampshire Army National Guard, delivered his eulogy, calling him “an extraordinary soldier” and “a patriot.”

And that’s what Robert Keenan said he’ll tell his grandson someday: “His father was a true-blue American hero”.