Sunday, April 25, 2004

Maupin: iron will, soft heart


Hometown friends describe a shy, smiling 'sharp guy'

By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo]
Matt Maupin, in a photo from his 2001 yearbook at Glen Este High School. Head football coach Zak Taylor said Maupin was the team's hardest worker.
UNION TOWNSHIP - The world knows two images of Pfc. Matt Maupin, the 20-year-old Glen Este High School graduate held hostage since his convoy was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire in Iraq 16 days ago.

One is his military photograph, his chin jutting out, his demeanor seeming to say he's as tough as any soldier.

The other is the video of an unshaven young soldier in a floppy military hat, his expressions a cross of bewilderment, fright and anger. As five gunmen with kaffiyehs covering their faces roam nearby, Maupin identifies himself to the camera and the world: "Keith Matthew Maupin," a "soldier from the First Division."

That's how the world was introduced to the young man who has become a symbol for deployed troops with worried families back home.

But friends, family and classmates from his Clermont County hometown see different, and more lasting, images of Matt Maupin.

They see Maupin's pearly teeth and winning, all-American smile. They see the baseball cap he always wears. They see the rock-solid physique that covers a soft heart.

They see the preschooler who stood up for them when they were picked on. They see the shy boy who always studied hard and stayed close with his parents. They see the teen playing chess at lunchtime, working harder than anyone else in the football team's weight room, never complaining to coaches about playing time.

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They see the blossoming young man who joined the Army reserves for college money to study aerospace engineering. They see the burly soldier who so loved exercise that he asked officers for extra physical training during Army boot camp. They see the private first class who left for Iraq and told people not to worry about him.

And they pray it will be a short time until Maupin returns to the life he has set out for himself, the one interrupted on April 9 when he became the first American soldier captured since major combat operations ended in May 2003.

His parents, Keith and Carolyn, have requested privacy. Other members of his immediate family have steadfastly remained mum about Matt, as have many close friends, citing concerns for his safety.

But for those who did speak for this story, Maupin is a man whose inner and outer strength will help him outlast his captors, and whose greatest traits are honesty, determination and standing up for what is right.

A pause in life

Growing up in suburbia, Maupin always was close to his younger brother, Micah, a Marine recently sent home from Pensacola, Fla., to be with family.

Sports captured the boys' interest, and their father attended every football game and rowing match to support his sons.

Father and sons would fish together, too. They would drink cans of Pepsi and try to catch small-mouth bass, as they did on a trip to Lake St. Clair, Mich.

Maupin's father, who used to be in the Marines, owned the Hungry Bear Diner in Union Township until he sold it 11 years ago. Now a sign in the diner's front window offers prayers for Matt's safe return, right next to a sign offering a $5.95 pork chop dinner.

Even with the constant media scrutiny and anxiety-ridden days, Keith Maupin still stops into his favorite restaurant for morning coffee and evening dinner.

But in recent weeks, when media types have come through the diner's front door, Keith Maupin has quietly slipped out the back.

That shyness is also one of Matt's trademarks, friends say.

Another trademark of Matt is his smile, they agree.

"He always had on a smile and just the prettiest teeth you've ever seen in your life," says Theresa Moore, who drove Maupin's high school bus and has known him since he was in elementary school. In high school, Maupin was known as a stand-up guy, but still shy.

"He would never act like he was better than you," says Mary Green, a Glen Este High School graduate who was in an accounting class with Maupin. "He just always acted really down to earth."

At lunch, he and fellow football player Josh Dill sometimes played chess.

"He would beat me every time," Dill says. "He is a really sharp guy, just really smart. ... But when it came around to girls, he was always very shy."

Meghann Currie worked at Sam's Club with Maupin, and shortly before Maupin left for basic training, co-workers set them up on a date. Currie worked on register 5, Maupin stocking goods in the center section.

After both finished a day shift at Sam's Club, Maupin drove her to Outback Steakhouse.

"Hold on," Maupin said to Currie after he opened the car door for her. "I gotta get something."

He reached into the trunk of his beat-up, four-door red Chevy Nova, pulling out three red roses, tied together at the stems. He had stored them in a cooler during their work shift.

"These are for you," Maupin, eyes looking down, said in his soft voice.

"He's just a sweet guy, the perfect gentleman," Currie says.

He played three years on the Glen Este High School football team, mostly on special teams but sometimes getting playing time at tight end.

Maupin quietly was the hardest worker on the team, says head coach Zak Taylor.

"He never once griped about playing time," Taylor says. "He never missed practice and did anything he could to help the team."

Maupin's physique and impressive upper-body strength comes mainly from rowing on lakes at East Fork State Park for the school's eight-man scull team. He told friends he was going to try out for the University of Cincinnati rowing team.

Maupin joined the Reserves to help pay for his education.

At his first military drills in fall 2002 with the Army's 705th transportation unit in Dayton, Army reservist Doug Wolfe remembers, Maupin was nervous about going to Fort Jackson.

Wolfe, who recently returned from a year in Iraq, says people in the 705th feel guilty about being back home while one of their own is held hostage.

"We're here, with nice food and beer and girls, and those guys are all over there," says Wolfe, 28, of Miamisburg. "It's definitely not a place anyone really wants to be, but you gotta feel for all the guys out there."

In letters to friends he sent during his nine weeks of basic training in Fort Jackson, S.C., Maupin wrote typical critiques of first encounters with military life: bad food, no sleep, lots of running.

But, attuned to frequent exercise with his two-hour morning trips to an Eastgate gym before going to work at Sam's Club, Maupin asked his training officers for more PT - more push-ups and sit-ups and running.

Before leaving for Iraq, Maupin took classes in aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati. Friends and professors say he's studious but lighthearted, an all-around good guy.

"This is just the stereotypical case of bad things happening to good people," says friend Michael Stahl, a mechanical engineering student.

Teachers and professors know Maupin as an honor-roll-caliber student who studies hard, cares about his grades and never missed class.

Debra Way, an associate professor of business who taught Maupin in a management class in fall 2003, said that when Maupin received his orders to head to Iraq, he came to her office, worried he wouldn't be able to take his final exams before his unit was called up.

"He was matter-of-fact about it: 'This is my job, and I have to go do it,' " Way recalls. "It was just like any normal day to him. Here's a young man that chose to enter the Reserves, never thinking he'd have to go to war. But when his unit got called up, he was ready, and showing that mature response really says a lot about him."

Shortly before Maupin left for Iraq, he went to talk with Jack Cleland, an assistant manager at Sam's Club who fought in the Gulf War.

Maupin showed Cleland his orders, which had him deployed until January 2006.

"I told him, 'Be careful when you're over there,' " Cleland says.

"Don't worry about me," was Matt's reply. "I'll be back."

E-mail rforgrave@enquirer.com




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