WESLEY CHAPEL — Keith Maupin hangs hope for his son's safe return from Iraq on a deep feeling in his heart. It's all he has.
His son, Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Matt Maupin, was captured April 9, 2004, when his convoy was ambushed outside Baghdad. The U.S. military continues to list him as "missing-captured."
It's not much, but it's enough for Maupin's parents.
"Matt's my buddy. He's my friend. He's my hero, and I'm not going to give up on him," said Keith Maupin during a visit to Wesley Chapel on Wednesday. "I know he's there in my heart, and I feel he's still alive. And if he's not alive they can't hurt him anymore."
Maupin, 57, came from Ohio to share his son's story with a group of veterans and military families at the Support Our Troops warehouse where volunteers stuff care packages for deployed troops. A former Marine, he is shy and wears a black POW/MIA hat and a denim shirt with an embroidered yellow ribbon.
After the ambush, Maupin's son was shown in a videotape broadcast on the Arabic-language TV network al-Jazeera. Two months later, the insurgents released another grainy tape showing a blindfolded U.S. soldier identified as Maupin being executed with a gunshot to the head. U.S. military officials couldn't verify whether it was Maupin in the video. They said it was possibly staged.
Keith Maupin has vowed not to cut his bushy gray beard until his son's safe return. The wiry hairs stretch down his chest now as the fourth anniversary of the kidnapping nears.
He reluctantly accepts his role as an advocate. He tells a story unlike others from the Iraq war. The familiar stories celebrate the loved ones who return or memorialize those who died. But the Maupins live in the painful middle, where closure is elusive.
To cope, Maupin and his ex-wife, Carolyn, bury themselves in the foundation they started in Matt's memory.
"I figured that if I don't do (this work) Matt's going to go away, and I'm not going to let that happen," said Keith Maupin, who quit his job to run the foundation. "We need to make people aware that we do have guys missing over there, and we need to support the ones who are there."
The Yellow Ribbon Support Center grants scholarships and sends care packages to troops. It's sent more than 10,000 boxes and 90 computers to Iraq. In the boxes is a button with their son's picture and a message that reads, "My name is Matt Maupin. Please remember my face."
Keith Maupin visited Florida at the invitation of Jim King, a veterans advocate who is running against U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite in this year's Republican primary. The two men have mutual friends but never met before this trip.
King was moved by the Maupins' powerful story. "They don't have a sense of closure," he said. "They sit and wait for the phone to ring from the (Department of Defense) every single day."
Matt Maupin joined the Army Reserves in 2002 to earn money for school and "do his part." He talked about joining the year before, but his parents asked him to wait a year.
Keith Maupin remembers the moment his son shared the news. "I told him, 'Matt, it's really a good thing to do.' But I said, 'You better read the newspaper because there's a war going on, Matt.' … I told him, 'If you aren't willing to kill that guy, he is going to kill you dead.' "
"He said, 'Dad, I'm going to do what I need to do.' "
Matt Maupin deployed at age 20 to Iraq with the 724th Transportation Company from Bartonville, Ill., in February 2004.
In the next few weeks, Iraq exploded with violence, recording some of the deadliest days of the conflict. This was around the time when four American security contractors were found hanging from a bridge in Fallujah and the U.S. military issued an arrest warrant for Muqtada al-Sadr , the leader of the Mahdi Army.
Days later, on Good Friday, Maupin's unit was assigned to guard a mile-long convoy of fuel tankers as it headed through the Abu Ghraib combat zone en route to the Baghdad airport. Security experts closed the road that morning because it was so dangerous, but the convoy went ahead anyway.
The convoy came under attack from all sides. Maupin was riding shotgun in a truck that exploded and ran off the road into a ditch.
In all, the ambush claimed two U.S. soldiers and five American contractors who were driving trucks. Maupin and one other civilian driver remain missing.
Maupin's family members never saw the video filmed by the insurgents, but they did look at still photographs. Everyone agreed, Keith Maupin said, "that wasn't Matt."
John Frank can be reached at [email protected] or