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South Omaha leaders unveiled a monument Saturday to honor anew a young Marine who died 43 years ago in Vietnam and posthumously received the Medal of Honor.
The sun shone, the morning was cool and the wind straightened the many American flags in Miguel Hernandez Keith Park, the place at 30th and Y Streets named for the Marine from Omaha who was killed in battle at 18 years of age.
The 50-minute ceremony, attended by about 250 people, compelled speakers and audience members to consider the nature of heroism and glory. But Lance Cpl. Miguel Keith's mother, 80-year-old Delores Keith, just wanted to remember her boy.
“He didn't even get to see the world, to see anything,” she said after the ceremony. “That's why I used to cry and I used to yell. I'd say, 'Why him? Why him?' ''
Neighborhood leader Rebecca Barrientos-Patlan told the audience why she started the effort to have a 5-foot-tall monument erected in the park.
She said she was cleaning graffiti off the “Miguel Hernandez Keith Park” sign about three years ago when two men, who she believes were Marines, drove up and asked who Miguel Keith was.
“The question actually brought a lot of shame to my heart because I didn't know,” Barrientos-Patlan said. “It was because of them that my mission started.”
She received a $10,000 grant from the South Omaha Historical Grant Committee to have the monument made. Organizations, businesses and individuals also donated cement, construction workers, dirt, flowers, mulch and other items for the little plaza and walkway in the shape of a yellow ribbon around the monument.
She also was able to bring Delores Keith and Miguel Keith's brother, Bobby Keith, to the ceremony from Baird, Texas.
The Salvation Army Kroc Center opened its doors to a reception after the ceremony. People drank punch, ate cake and looked at photos of Keith and at the medals he received.
Fifteen active-duty Marines wore their dress blues. Numerous members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars attended in beige uniforms and held large American flags. Dozens of Patriot Guard Riders also held flags. Small flags on short sticks encircled the monument.
Lance Cpl. Sergio Robles, 21, who is in the Marine Corps Reserve in Omaha, read the military's official citation for Keith's Medal of Honor.
Keith suffered injuries in a ground attack from enemy fighters. He rushed and dispersed them with machine gun fire. Then an enemy grenade blew up near him, wounding him further. He charged again, causing enemy soldiers to flee, but he was killed in the act on May 8, 1970.
The official statement says Keith “upheld the finest traditions of the Marine Corps” and describes him as showing “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity ... above and beyond the call of duty.''
The Medal of Honor is the military's highest for valor.
“I felt honored to present the citation,” Robles said later. “That's our whole mission in the Marine Corps — honor, courage, commitment.”
So close were Keith and Omahan John Easley that Easley lived with the Keith family. The two boys went to North High School together. But Keith had become a Marine and shipped out to Vietnam. Easley remained in Omaha.
One day Easley was waiting for a girl when a neighbor told him he'd better get home. Easley saw the Marine Corps vehicle in front of the Keith house and knew his buddy was dead.
Keith's little brother, Bobby, said Saturday that their mother was so stricken by her son's death that they left Omaha and returned to Texas, the state where Miguel was born.
Kathy Lee, an assistant principal at North High, presented an honorary diploma to Delores Keith for Miguel. Representatives of politicians spoke, and a few — City Councilman Garry Gernandt, County Board member Mike Boyle and State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha — spoke for themselves. Barrientos-Patlan handed Keith's mother a letter from Gov. Dave Heineman.
Taps was played. A 21-gun salute was fired.
Neighborhood leader Anita Rojas told the crowd it's crucial that people stay inspired and that they be brave and persevering. Keith's story reminds us that we need heroes, she said, to give us fortitude in our own endeavors.
Rojas and Barrientos-Patlan have bigger plans for Miguel Hernandez Keith Park, plans that include benches, grills and picnic areas. In short, Rojas said, the park should grow into a place for families to strengthen their love and their bond of commitment, and their hope.
Miguel Keith was known by most of his Omaha friends as Mike, and his mother on Saturday referred to him as Michael. Miguel was his formal name, his brother said. Hernandez was the name of his biological father, but his stepfather, also named Bobby Keith, adopted Miguel.
Michael, his mother said at the reception, was funny and rambunctious, and if she was about to admonish him, he would disarm her with his grin. One time one of his buddies was sleeping and Michael glued his eyes shut. The kid had to go to the hospital.
Her son laughed constantly, she said. While her boy was in the Marine Corps Reserve in Omaha, she would polish his shoes, buckles and buttons.
“I wanted him to get no demerits,” she said in an interview.
She wore one pin representing her as a “Gold Star” mother, or the mother of a fallen service member; one representing the American Legion; and a third for the Marine Corps. She also wore a yellow ribbon.
Now in a wheelchair, Keith said she is proud. “That's the highest medal,” she said of the Medal of Honor.
She recalled telling her son she didn't want him to go to Vietnam. He told her he had a job to do, she said, and he assured her he would make her proud.