With his mind made up and attitude fit for battle, Keith Zeier signed his infantry contract and enrolled in the United States Marines in March 2004.
It was off to Paris Island, S.C. for 13 weeks of boot camp. Of the 62 soldiers who entered camp with Zeier, two passed – he was one of them – the recon indoctrination tests and qualified for RIP, or Recon Indoctrination Platoon, which meant three more months of grueling physical training on a higher level than the normal grunt unit training the rest of the class attended.
Then it was on to Amphibious Reconnaissance School, where the average age of soldiers is 22-26, but the physically superior Zeier fit right in at the crisp age of 18. He graduated second in his class of 32.
Through a handful of other training regiments from jump school to SERE school – Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape – he gathered the necessary military skills to be placed in a recon platoon and eventually built up for a tour in Iraq – a long way from his home on Singingwood Drive in Holbrook.
For eight months his platoon conducted the build up, training for live action over seas.
"We went through a direct action course of dynamic entry for raids," said Zeier, who many times was a primary breacher and blew doors with charges. "We went through shooting packages, went through Bridgeport for mountain warfare training, went over to the Majove Desert and 29 Palms California to check out those scenarios."
It was a little over two years from the time he signed his contract to the time of being sent to war. Had he stuck with the regular infantry unit he would have fought much earlier, but since he was recon, which is part of Marines Special Operations Command (MARSOC), training is much more involved with counter insurgency operations, foreign internal defense, learning how to trail local nationals and so on.
Through it all, while learning a lifetime worth of survival skills, Zeier grew up fast.
"I'm 18 in the military and there are guys with families, kids, wives," he said. "I wasn't out getting drunk every weekend. You get close to these guys. I was very quiet when I first came in. I wanted to be the grey man and do what I had to do and listen to what I was told. I don't want to stand out in any way, just do my job."
Zeier entered Iraq with the Second Marines Special Operations Battalion under MARSOC in March 2006.
In April, close to Easter Sunday, he was coming back from a raid in a village market when heavy fire broke out. A bullet came an inch from his skull and left a hole in the seat headrest as a reminder of how narrowly he escaped death.
That May his platoon lost four soldiers, and of the 90 he went over with, 24 died. One of the four was his friend Cory Palmer from Delaware. Palmer was in the third vehicle and by the time Zeier got to the Humvee, it was already engulfed in flames. The improvised explosive device (IED) torched the crew.
"They were all on fire, running around like scarecrows," Zeier said. "I got to Cory first and took him out to a ditch and put the fire out."
In the midst of the calamity, 50 caliber rounds were popping off because the fire was destroying everything in the Humvee, including ammunition. Palmer and the others had 80 percent or more of third degree burns on their body.
"He was out of it," Zeier said, "but he said, 'Take a picture, Keith.'"
Coughing up pieces of his own lungs and literally melting in his arms, Zeier took off his shirt and covered Palmer so dirt couldn't further infect the wounds. His scalp was peeling off, the skin on his hands started to peel away when they tried to remove his gloves.
Those were the first causalities in the Second Battalion.
As with any military death, especially with the mass causalities piling up in the Middle East since the "War on Terror" started after September 11, there is little or no time to mourn for your fellow soldiers.
His platoon had a memorial that night and it's customary to jump to the next mission as soon as humanly possible after that.
"Because if you wait a few days, in your mind you start to say, 'what the ****,'" he said. "They want you to get on your horse and ride it and get out there. You don't even have time to think about them, making sure you're in a clear mindset. Of course you have the feeling you want to waste everyone in there, but you have to do a job. You have to have your head on straight and be proficient at your job."
Quickly Zeier's world was put in a vertiginous state on July 17, 2006, while traveling in an 18-man platoon of three six-man teams, Zeier was in the middle of the point vehicle, again returning from a raid.
Ten minutes from Camp Fallujah, towing detainees, he and a teammate both screamed, 'watch out,' and then everything went black.
"We could barely say that," he recalled. "It looked sketchy, almost like a pot hole."
It was another IED and it changed Zeier's life forever.
Riding at night it was almost impossible to see, until it finally lifted the Humvee off the ground and injured the group.
"We got blown out of the vehicle," he said. "I didn't remember much until I got to the hospital, but from what I was told I was walking around."
He went to his medic and said, "Yo Marty, I don't think I pissed myself."
"He cut my flight suit open and there's my femur sticking out," said Zeier, looking straight ahead, recalling every second that he could remember like it happened the minute before he walked into the Holbrook Diner.
An artery in his leg was cut, but a medic put an IV in and transported him in another Humvee to safety, ultimately saving his life. A blood transfusion and three surgeries later in Iraq, Zeier was alive. On the other side of the world his mother Denise had just gotten home from work at United Healthcare around 6 p.m. when she received a call from Keith.
"As soon as I heard his voice I knew that something was wrong," she said. "It was scary not knowing what was going on, then he said he had went in for surgery and lost a lot of blood."
Zeier figured if she heard his voice she'd cope a little better, but "it was still horrible," she said.
Other local Marine moms came over immediately after the news broke as the network of military families across the country have been a strong bunch in the last decade.
Once Zeier was stabilized in Fallujah, he was shipped to Balad and eventually Germany, where he remained for four days before finally being flown to Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs, M.D.
The journey wasn't over. Next he landed in Bethesda Naval Hospital for three months and the prospects of continuing in the job he hoped to be a part of for the next 20 years seemed as distance as ever.
"I love it," he said. "I loved being deployed, loved doing the job and operating. You're not micromanaged. You're out there alone on a two or three man sniper hide, or a raid. You figure it out and do it."
Even with Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, Miss America and President George W. Bush dropping by for visits during his tenure at the hospital, nothing could have been sweeter for Zeier to recover quickly and get back with his brothers. Though he did enjoy Bush's company.
"We spoke about New York, the Yankees," Zeier said.
As nice as pinstripes and conversations with presidents sound, Zeier took a dive for the worst not too long after being admitted at Bethesda. His leg was badly infected; the 105-degree fevers were making his mind numb. It turned out to be MRSA, a virulent staph infection. Surgeons cleaned out his leg and even with proper care it took almost eight months just for something that resembles a scar to grow and cover the wound. Through the course of the hospital stays he also developed numerous other infections and Bells Palsy at one point.
"I was scared out of my mind," said his friend Mike Crisci, who exchanged letters with him as often as they could during his deployment. "It was really scary for a long time. It just broke my heart seeing him in the hospital like that."
He headed home to Long Island and was a frequent visitor to the VA hospital in Northport. His older brother Craig, a physical therapist, helped him as best he could with mobility and wound care.
"He's a tough kid, but seeing him go through that was unbelievable," said Craig. "I'm in the medical field and the wound that he had was unbelievable."
You'd expect Zeier to stay off his feet, recover, collect an honorable discharge and relax for the rest of his life. After reading about his athletic achievements you know he's not one for relaxing, but seven months later he did the inconceivable. He was cleared to be back on the battlefield.
"I wanted active duty and finally got back into MARSOC," he said.
Cane in hand when he returned to his base – not a big deal considering one of his first weekends back he went skydiving with his banged up leg.
Everyone tried to reason with Zeier to hang up his boots and gun and take a back seat to the wild ride.
"You know how lucky you got it," Crisci told him. "I understand that's your dream job, but life gave you a second chance and not many people come back from something like that. You don't want to ruin your entire life over something like this. Is it really worth it? I know you're ready to sacrifice it all, but this is way too close of a call."
Pete Montalbano, who called him almost once a week when he was in the hospital, spent hours with him on not returning to action.
"I know why you want to do it, but you have to think of everyone else around you," he'd tell Zeier. "Do you want to put your mom, brother, me through that again? I looked at my wife one day at dinner and said it's not happening. Very politely he told me he had his mind made up."
Five months into a build up for Afghanistan his team leader gave him some wise advice.
"He said, 'Listen, I know you're a stubborn 21-year old, but I've been in this job for 15 years. What could happen? You'll keep going on deployments, probably get more messed up and when you get out what do you have? I thought to myself, 'If I go to the doctor I'm going to get retired.' He recommended I go to the doctor."
That doctor ruled him unfit for active duty and his military career was over, possibly the biggest dagger he's ever endured. Only 1 percent of the Marines ever qualifies and successfully makes the recon unit. It might have been a short career, but Zeier will never lose that.
Check out the final installment of this series on Thursday, Veteran's Day.