‘The few, the proud’

By Doug Snover

Keith Gould wasn’t especially motivated after graduating from Corona del Sol High School in 2001. He  tried community college, but that didn’t pan out. Without a college education, he wasn’t having any luck finding a challenging job that also paid well.

That, he told his mother, is when he came to the realization he wanted to do something both difficult and honorable.

In November 2002, drawn by the idea of flying in helicopters, he joined the Marine Corps.

On June 5, after spending most of the past year making relief flights to areas devastated by the December tsunami and later flying combat missions in Iraq, Cpl. Keith Gould, now 22, returned to U.S. soil a battle-tested crew chief of a Marine Corps CH-46 helicopter.

“Omigosh, it was so exciting,” his mother, Wendy, reported of her son’s ceremonial homecoming with the HMM-165 “White Knights” Squadron to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar north of San Diego.

“I was just holding it all in and trying to keep composure. It was wonderful.”

“They did a fly-by past the flight line, and then they turned around and came on the flight deck, and they taxied in single file. It was terrific. The best thing I’ve ever seen.”

There is a photograph of their son that Wendy and Jim Gould hold very dear. In it, Keith stands in front of a row of military helicopters parked on an airfield in Iraq. Suspended from each helicopter’s rotor is an American flag. It is a breezy day and the flags are rippling. Standing alongside the American flag in a brown flight suit, hands on his hips, Keith looks motivated indeed. The sun in his eyes may be causing him to squint, but his face is set in fierce determination.

“I’ll be honest, I didn’t have much direction coming out of high school,” Keith said in a phone interview the day after his triumphant return.

“I went to college and I decided it really wasn’t for me. I tried to work and find a good job that paid anything, but that didn’t pan out. So as it turned out, I tried something different, like the Marine Corps.”

“It’s just this thing about being a Marine. ‘The few, the proud,’ you know?”

Did he find his honorable challenge? “And a little bit more, I’d have to say,” he said.

“Do I feel like a White Knight? Yeah. We spent about a month in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. That was one of the main reasons I joined the Marine Corps, and especially to do what I wanted to do--help people. To give food to people who needed it most.

“We were real lucky to be in the middle of the ocean when that tsunami struck. We were in pretty close proximity and got to go over there and help out with the relief effort. I wanted to fly in the helicopter and give the starving children the rice and the water, and I got to do that.

“That was a highlight in my short career as a Marine.”

Keith got a birds-eye view of the tsunami damage from his helicopter. Based on the pictures he saw on ship as they hurried to the rescue, it was a was more horrific scene in person than he’d been prepared for. “Some places in Sumatra on the coastline, everything within a mile inland was gone…not something you can prepare yourself for.”

He flew construction materials and medical supplies to villages all but wiped out by the tsunami. The Marines even visited local hardware stores to pick up supplies and fly them to tsunami relief areas.

He flew “veggie runs” in Sri Lanka, helicoptering inland to local markets and loading “piles and piles” of fresh-grown vegetables to deliver to tsunami victims.

Eventually, however, the squadron left the tsunami relief effort and steamed to part of the world far less friendly to American Marines--Kuwait and Iraq.

Back at home, his mother and father charted Keith’s travels on a world map. “He’s seen both extremes,” his father, Jim, said of Keith’s missions in Indonesia and Iraq.

Learning experience

Keith’s hitch in the Marines has been a wide-eyed learning experience for the whole family, his mother, Wendy, acknowledges.

“We’re not a military family,” she said. In fact, Keith’s parents and even his older brother, Graham, all are native Canadians. “Keith is the only one born here,” Wendy said.

With their youngest son in the Marines, his parents have learned a new vocabulary filled with military terms like “deployment” and “combat wings.”

Wendy casually discusses different types of aircraft carried aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, from her son’s helicopter to gunships and jets that take off and land vertically.

“We’ve learned a lot,” she acknowledges. “I have learned from him, and certainly a whole new appreciation for what families go through when they have a loved one not at home.”

Both mother and son admit that she did not learn everything from her soldier son, however. Keith protected his mother from the details of his combat missions in Iraq.

“Keith has never told me that he’s been under fire,” Wendy said just before her son returned safely home. Instead, she learned from her older son, Graham, a graduate student at Northern Arizona University, “that he’s been fired at by everything,” she said.

“I tried to fill her in mainly on where I am and what I’m doing without giving too much information. But she always wants to know what’s going on over there,” Keith explained after his safe homecoming. “Sometimes it’s just better not to divulge all the things that are really going on. It just makes people more worried about you.”

Truth be told, the crew of his helicopter quickly learned not to fly too low in Iraq, he said. The crew flew casualty evacuation flights, troop transports and raids on insurgent hideouts, flying mostly at night. As one of two on-board crew chiefs, one of Keith’s jobs was door gunner.

“That was a new experience (but) you do so much training to prepare yourself for it. The training that we did was pretty realistic, so when we got over there it was no big shock to do the type of missions we were flying. But you’ve got to stand back and realize, ‘Holy crap, we’re flying around in a war zone.’”

When they first arrived, the crew often flew as low as 200 feet above potentially hostile territory, he said. Soon, however, they learned to climb out of range – to perhaps 2,000 feet – when they were not pressed for time.

A few days before her son arrived at Miramar, Wendy wondered how much his experienced had changed him. Emails from aboard ship could only reveal so much about her son’s frame of mind after months in a war zone.

Keith had been reluctant to talk about his experiences in Iraq, and “I was curious about the effect it had upon him,” she said. “Keith is a very easygoing, very happy person. Each time I talked to him on the phone, that’s what I heard.”

But their Sunday reunion couldn’t come quickly enough, she admitted.

By Monday, the relief was obvious in her voice as she spoke of the soldier who came home. Her son has not changed, she reported.

“So far, no. He has kept things very much in perspective...He’s still my big, huggy kid. We talked a lot about his experiences over there. It seems like the whole world over things are not much different than they are at home in how people are treated.

“But Keith’s still Keith. Which is very good.”

Keith also is a hero to some schoolchildren in Chandler. He has been a pen pal to Miss Everson's third-grade class at Jacobson Elementary School since August. Like Keith’s parents, Miss Everson’s class has tracked Keith’s travels on a world map and had kept in touch through letters.

“It was great getting those letters. They had interesting questions and a lot of cool stuff to say in their letters,” Keith said.

“What’s it like living on a ship? How big is your helicopter? What kind of stuff do you do everyday? What kind of food do you eat? It’s cool to think that somebody thinks about the simple stuff in life.”

“All the guys liked reading their letters because it brought the morale up a little bit and got them looking forward to getting back and getting back safe.”

Miss Everson’s third-graders are scheduled to have a homecoming celebration of their own with Keith from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday, June 11, at the Peter Piper Pizza on Chandler Boulevard at Dobson Road.