BATAVIA, Ohio — They laid Matt Maupin to rest just over a year ago, but to those who knew him, closure is a relative word.
They have moved on with their lives, all of them — Mom and Dad, his siblings, friends and Army buddies. Mom is planning a nice vacation. Dad is fishing more. His younger brother re-enlisted with the Marines. His sister is a mom, again. Soldiers he knew are returning to civilian life, and boyhood friends in Ohio are getting married and having children.
But the quest for closure means different things to different people. It’s subjective, nuanced, and there isn’t always a finish line.
Take Carolyn Maupin, Matt’s mom. She still has her Christmas tree up — from 2004. That’s the year Iraqi insurgents ambushed an Army convoy and snatched her 20-year-old son, leading to four years of anguish while the military searched for him.
As part of her vigil, Mom kept the artificial tree lit for a few hours each night. Last year, they found Matt Maupin’s remains in the twilight of a March evening.
"It may be up for a lot longer; I do not know," Carolyn Maupin said as she stood near the heavily decorated Christmas tree that she still lights each evening. "To me, it was helping to light his way home."
A military counselor once suggested that taking down the tree would bring "some normality" to her life. But, she replied, "what is normality?"
By the time they laid Staff Sgt. Keith "Matt" Maupin to rest, he had become one of the iconic figures of Operation Iraqi Freedom, though not in the way he or anyone else envisioned. The passage of time, two disturbing insurgent videos of a captive Maupin and an effective campaign by his parents to keep the military and public focused on the case made him one of the most widely known American prisoners of war since Vietnam. (Technically, the Army listed him only as missing in action because he was not held by "the military arm of a recognized, standing government.")
While he was missing, the Army promoted him three times, from private first class to staff sergeant.
When 25th Infantry Division soldiers found Maupin’s remains, there wasn’t much left of him to recover. They found a jawbone, some vertebrae and a piece of his arm. DNA tests confirmed the remains were his.
The memorial service "was really no relief for me, because we never got to see him. You know what I’m saying?" said Keith Maupin, the soldier’s dad.
"We never got to see Matt. Most of these soldiers who come back, they have them in caskets. You get to see him. You know he’s there. I don’t look for Matt to walk through that door, but at the same time, we didn’t get to see him."
Rattling the cage
One of the legacies of the Matt Maupin saga is the impact it had on the U.S. Army Human Resources Command, particularly its casualty assistance office. Among other things, it led to some adjustments in procedures and policies. Maupin’s parents were a catalyst.
"They kept us on our toes, and you need that sometimes," said Shari Lawrence, an Army spokeswoman for the human resources command. "They helped us get better at what we do."
Keith Maupin, a straight-talking former Marine with a scraggly beard, said one of things that drove him bananas was the frequent turnover of casualty assistance officers, particularly at the beginning. He counts at least 15 during the four years Matt was missing. At times, he said, continuity suffered because issues and details weren’t fully passed along from one soldier to the next.
It got to the point where Keith Maupin would warn a new casualty assistance officer that if his son wasn’t their No. 1 priority when they walked through his door, "leave now and we’ll part as friends."
"And sometimes he’d go away and not come back," he said. "Then they would send somebody else. But most of them hung around for a while."
Lawrence explained the Maupin case was unique for the casualty assistance office because the soldier was missing, not killed or injured in action, for which the typical outreach period might last 45 days. And since there were two households, due to divorce, each parent initially had their own team.
The Maupin case "taught us to look long term," Lawrence said. "We hope for short term but plan for long term."
Multiple support teams for one soldier won’t be the norm in the future, but it could be in some cases, depending on the situation, Lawrence said. Some families also want regular updates while others prefer to wait until there’s a new development. The Maupins asked to be kept tightly in the loop.
The Maupins, Lawrence said, displayed "a great deal of grace, even when they would question us."
One of those questions concerned the way in which a soldier’s personal effects are returned to a loved one.
Carolyn Maupin remembered how taken aback she was when someone showed up at her house with a cardboard box containing Matt’s belongings from his hooch downrange, all neatly packed. It was placed on the floor, and the man seemed anxious to leave.
"Isn’t he worth anything more to the Army or to this government than a cardboard box?" she said, recounting the conversation. "You know he had never been asked that question before, and now they don’t do that anymore."
Nowadays, Lawrence said items are returned to the family in a hard-plastic trunk.
Carolyn and Keith Maupin divorced when Matt was in elementary school, but they set aside many of their differences in the interest of their son.
Together they formed the Yellow Ribbon Support Center on the outskirts of Cincinnati, near their hometown of Batavia. Buoyed by a battalion of volunteers, they assembled and mailed thousands of care packages to servicemembers in Iraq.
While supporting the troops was — and still is — important to them, they also used the care packages to keep Matt’s name, face and story alive. Each package contained multiple pictures of Matt bearing inscriptions of one sort or another. One read: "I’m captured in Iraq, and prayers can set me free."
Some soldiers returning from the war zone told the couple their efforts were not in vain. They said Matt’s picture was plastered all over the place, a reward was being offered and soldiers were chasing down every viable lead.
"The Maupin case set a lot of precedents," said Army Lt. Col. Willie Harris, a Pentagon spokesman who was directly assigned to the case.
Over the four-year period Matt Maupin was listed as MIA, three other soldiers went missing. Two of the three, Staff Sgt. Alex R. Jimenez and Spc. Bryon Fouty, were abducted in May 2007 when insurgents ambushed their convoy. The soldiers’ remains were found 14 months later.
Gunmen reportedly grabbed a third soldier, an Iraqi-American, in October 2006 while he was visiting Iraqi relatives. Spc. Ahmed Altaie remains missing, as does Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael "Scott" Speicher, a fighter pilot shot down over Iraq in 1991 on the first night of Operation Desert Storm.
"We don’t forget them," Lawrence said, "and we don’t let them be forgotten."
In her office, Lawrence keeps replicas of Fouty’s and Jimenez’s dog tags and a picture of Matt Maupin as a reminder of the mission at hand. Her motto is every soldier has a mother, and every mother finds her telephone number.
"The [Maupin] family pushed and pulled," Lawrence said.
"If it were my kid, I would be doing the same."
Lawrence wasn’t the only person in Washington with a picture of Matt Maupin.
George W. Bush often carried Maupin’s picture with him, according to Keith Maupin. He said the former president routinely met with him and his ex-wife whenever they traveled to Washington for an update.
"You don’t send your kids off to war and expect them all to come home," Keith Maupin said. "This time it was mine."
On the homefront
Matt Maupin joined the Army Reserve in 2002 to help pay for college. It was a snap decision, said Rob Lindley, a boyhood friend who enlisted with Maupin under the "buddy program," which allows friends to enter and serve together. They talked about it one weekend, he said, and joined the following week.
Lindley never made it to Iraq because of a heart condition that ultimately led to him being medically discharged. It was Lindley who steered Maupin toward becoming an Army truck driver. He said had they both known just how hairy the job could be in a combat zone, they may have opted for another gig.
"That’s what bothers me," said Lindley, who got married last fall. "My actions affected his actions."
Lindley noticed a change in Maupin as time went on and his deployment to Iraq neared. Earning money for college remained a core objective for Maupin, who was interested in sports medicine and nutrition, but Lindley said his friend seemed more patriotic and purposeful. He was anxious, too.
"Matt was excited — and scared," Lindley said.
In characterizing his friend, Lindley alternately called him a geek, sporty and a teddy bear. He remembers how scrawny Maupin was in elementary school and how he was teased for wearing glasses with super-thick lenses. In middle school, Maupin got into rowing and the sport transformed him, adding muscle and bulk to an already growing body. He played football in high school but wasn’t a regular. Still, he faithfully attended every practice.
Maupin’s first car was a rusty, sun-faded, red 1983 Chevy Nova. His father called it "a piece of junk." Maupin, according to Lindley, came to view the car as "a stigma he’d never get away from," even after he acquired a nifty, five-speed Ford Mustang that his younger brother, Micah, coveted.
The teen who became a man and then a soldier never really got over his inherent shyness. Soldiers in Maupin’s unit, the 724th Transportation Company, also spoke of his quiet nature. Lindley said that shyness was amplified when his friend was in the presence of girls. He dated, but it was never a central element in his life.
Then, two weeks before he deployed to Iraq, Maupin met a girl named Amy, and Lindley could tell his friend was smitten like never before.
On the day the Army announced that Maupin was captured, Lindley and a few close friends gathered at Carolyn Maupin’s house. They sat in Matt’s room for several hours, all six of them, including Keith Maupin, and tried to make sense of the unthinkable. There were, recalled Lindley, extended periods when no one said a thing.
"For the rest of our lives, when we look at his picture, he’s never going to get any older, and we are," Lindley said. "The reality of that is heavy, very heavy."
‘Dancing back into society’
Ever since they laid Matt Maupin to rest, friends and family have struggled with the business of getting on with their lives.
The Yellow Ribbon Support Center remains open and committed to helping troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Carolyn Maupin, however, has divested herself from the operation. She and Matt’s dad haven’t spoken to each other in several months, but the two have collaborated on a scholarship fund in Matt’s honor.
Two of the friends who sat in Matt’s room that gloomy April day five years ago, a young married couple, named their first child after Matt.
"Life does go on," Lindley said, "but then again, you don’t have any closure. You don’t know what to think, what to process."
One of Matt Maupin’s battle buddies, Sgt. Jeremy Church, is trying to move forward as well. Church was driving the lead vehicle in the April 9, 2004, convoy Maupin was a part of.
Originally, Maupin wasn’t on the list of soldiers to go on the morning mission, which involved driving fuel from Camp Anaconda in Balad to Baghdad International Airport. But Church said the force needed about six extra people, and so Maupin was tabbed to go. His job was to ride shotgun in one of the fuel tankers. In all, there were 26 vehicles.
"I didn’t sleep the night before," Church said. "Something just felt out of place."
Others in the unit felt the same thing, possibly because the mission had been adjusted and tweaked a few times. Church cited by name several soldiers, including officers, who shared the same apprehension. Maupin was one of them.
Shortly before the convoy rolled out the gate, Maupin conveyed his misgivings to Church, who then offered to switch places with the Ohioan. Maupin thought about it for a beat or two and then declined. Church was riding with the convoy commander and the two worked well together, Maupin told him. For the good of the team, Maupin corralled his fears and headed for his fuel truck.
"If we had switched positions," Church said, "I wouldn’t be talking to you now."
He recalls the last thing he said to Maupin that day. As Maupin began to step away, Church said: "I’ll see you in Baghdad. If not, I’ll come back for you."
"He’s home now," Church said. "I kept my promise to him."
For him, the process of finding closure has begun, but it won’t be easy. Church lost several colleagues that day. Later, after his second tour in Iraq, he spent time at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for back and knee injuries as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Church has moved back to Missouri and is easing back into everyday life. He referred to this phase of his life as "dancing back into society."
"I don’t think you ever get over the things you’ve seen or did overseas," Church said without elaborating. "The nightmares never go away, but they get easier to take."