Iraq War Veteran Speaks of Peace, Justice

STEPHEN HOTCHKISS
El Vaquero Staff Writer

Jeff Key was 34 and gay when he joined the Marines in early 2000. After overcoming alcoholism, Key wanted to regain control of his life and accomplish some of the things he felt the disease had robbed him of; he began to scratch items off his to-do list. One such item was to become a U.S. Marine.

Growing up in Alabama during the Vietnam War, Key remembers looking up to the Marine Corps as an exceptionally noble group of individuals. Key admits that he, “grew up in a wildly patriotic part of the country and considered [him]self a patriot.”

His sincere love for his country coupled with what he refers to as, “a continuing need to prove [his] manhood” prompted him to join the Marine Corps one year before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and before the build-up to the war.

Key joined the Marines for patriotic reasons, but he doesn’t think most recruits are motivated by ideology. Many enlist in the armed forces as a result of a “lack of direction-or financial need,” he said.

An unapologetic patriot, Key joined the armed forces primarily as an extension of his love for his country. “I love this country so much. I was, and still am, willing to give my life for this country and this constitution and to defend defenseless people and support peace on earth.” said Key.

The veteran remembers his experience in boot camp as extremely positive and healing. “For a kid who felt like an outcast on an individual basis, I was part of something that all these citizens clearly appreciated,” Key said. “It was an awesome experience of learning and loving and feeling like I was doing something noble.”

The “don’t ask, don’t tell,” policy of U.S. military allows homosexual men and women to serve in the armed forces without having their sexuality questioned by commanders. However, if they reveal their homosexuality while in the service, the military can discharge them.

Key claims to have, “played along” with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. He said his recruiting officer told him “we don’t want any fags in here.”

“A lot of people still believe you can spot one [a gay person], so they just assumed I was straight,” Key said.

For the most part, Key managed to keep his sexuality a secret. He chose to admit his homosexuality “when I got to be good friends with people. It is a betrayal of friendship to lie. It’s ridiculous to think two marines can live and work closely together and one is supposed to keep his sexuality a secret. It’s ludicrous, of course it’s ludicrous.”

The vet says that it was understood among his fellow marines “who I went to war with … that my sexuality would never preclude fighting and dying.”

Key believes the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to be part of a bigger picture. “It’s part of a system of institutionalized homophobia, along with gay marriage and gay adoption, that makes homosexuality frightening to a less educated and less enlightened portion of our population that happens to be able to vote,” he said.

Key claims that this sort of demagoguery, which has permeated into the United States political atmosphere, occurs on various levels and has dangerous implications.

Referring to voters in “the South and the Midwest,” Key said, “They are misled on so many accounts, all you have to do is say abortion or gay rights and they will bomb Canada.”

Key compares this conflict of values with the current situation in Iraq. “We have invaded and occupied a country that never attacked us,” said Key.

Furthering the idea that politicians, President Bush in this case, use demagoguery to manipulate the voting public, Key spoke of the president’s tendency to use religion as a validation of the Iraq occupation. “It’s horrific that Bush admits that God told him to invade Iraq. God is not a fan of America and hater of other nations-he loves all his children equally. It is disgusting that that could ever be used to take the life of a child.” said Key.

When Key was en route to Iraq, he was primarily focused on protecting the lives of his fellow Marine’s, with whom he had formed close bonds over boot camp training sessions. The reason as to why he was fighting was, at best secondary, if considered at all.

Two months after his arrival in the Middle East, his expectations were anything but realized. “My buddies and I thought they’d throw down their weapons like they did in Gulf 1, and we would give them back their country and go home.”

But he soon began to question our presence there. “It became clear to the Iraqis that it was about exploiting their oil fields.”
When Key returned home several months after being stationed on the Iran border of Iraq, he claims to have gone through what he calls, “a continual waking up.”

“When I found out America had switched their reasoning for going into war [from locating and commandeering weapons of mass destruction], to affording freedom and democracy to these put-upon people,” said Key, “I was furious because American troops were still dying for a lie.”

What became clear to Key is that the underlying motivation for the war is oil. “War is a phenomenon based on greed,” said Key. “Long ago we knew disposable energy systems were going to kill us. We didn’t do anything about it because the money and the interim were too much.”

Key believes the current empire-building tendencies of the United States are irresponsible and foresees an inevitable collapse of the country if immediate action is not taken. “Our world, for some reason, is set up to abhor an empire,” commented Key, while glancing at replica ancient Egyptian artifacts on his apartment wall and adjusting his Arlington West T-shirt.
With the estimated number of Iraqi civilian deaths “going anywhere from 30 to 300,000, what we have done is ensure future terrorist attacks where thousands of Americans are going to die.”

Like many soldiers returning home from the theater of war, Key struggled with depression. Possibly a result of the various hardships he has had to endure throughout his life, Key managed to overcome depression by “turning his feelings outwards by creating something that outlives [him] to help those who truly suffered in the war.”

Key strongly supports the importance of personal change in American society. “I would like to see a shift in morality and spiritual ideology in this country, and see us be more compassionate,” he said.

Arguably the hardest working man in the anti-war movement, Key is at the helm of a number of projects dedicated to his fellow members of the armed forces. He said: “The service members, for whatever reason they joined, I love them, I appreciate them. They are one of the main reasons for my activism.”

One such project is the Mehadi Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by Key with two main objectives. According to the organization’s Web site, www.mehadifoundation.org, the goals of the Mehadi Foundation are to provide assistance to United States Armed Forces veterans enlisted during Operation Iraqi Freedom who seek help dealing with issues of post traumatic stress disorder, drug and alcohol concerns and other psychological issues as well as to administer aid and assistance to Iraqi civilians as they attempt to rebuild in the wake of the conflict, with specific emphasis on the alleviation of hunger and rebuilding homes and schools destroyed in the war.

Also, Key has written and is starring in a critically acclaimed, one-man play entitled, “The Eyes of Babylon,” which depicts the veteran’s personal experiences as a gay Marine fighting a war he views as immoral and illegal.

David C. Nichols of the Los Angeles Times called “The Eyes of Babylon,” a “beautifully written, affecting testimony” with a “poetic depiction of blood lust worthy of Allen Ginsberg.”

Key will also be featured in a “Showtime” documentary that will be aired in early 2007.