Gabe Keith was in Baghdad when the Saddam statue fell

By Tim Engstrom
Gabe Keith of St. Paul Post 8 stands in front of the airfield at Camp Ripley on Oct. 12. He was there to attend the October session of Minnesota Legion College. He joined the Marines after seeing a TV commercial where a young man slays a lava monster.

Slay the lava monster

WEST ST. PAUL — Gabe Keith of West St. Paul works in a fantasy, horror and science fiction bookstore. The Marine veteran is leading an effort to bring veterans who like to write together for a monthly writing workshop he calls Write Club.

The title is a play on words from the Brad Pitt thriller “Fight Club.” The workshop encourages writing as therapy, and the idea is to have the group critique and improve their work.

Keith, 40, is a member of St. Paul Post 8.

Two Marines in Iraq.
Gabe Keith, left, at a guardpoint near Fallujah.

In his youth, Keith read science fiction and fantasy books, which often have military aspects, and he figured the Marines would provide him with the adventure he sought.

“It was a way to get out and be on my own,” he said.

He graduated from Stillwater High School in June 2002, though he grew up in St. Paul. He said he was sheltered as a kid. He had an uncle who served in the Army during Vietnam as a door gunner on a Huey. His grandfather was in the Navy in World War II.

The Marines didn’t recruit Keith. He approached the Marines as a result of a famous TV commercial out in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Little Warrior Brother is a book by Gabe Keith. It is simultaneously about his experience in the Iraq War and his uncle’s experience in the Vietnam War.

A young man scales a big machine in the rain, pulls a Claymore sword out of a forge, slays a giant lava monster and turns into a Marine. The Marine Corps title the commercial “Rite of Passage.” The Marine Corps infantry, he figured, would be his biggest challenge.

Boot camp was at MCRD-San Diego. School of Infantry was at Camp Pendleton. His duty station would be at 29 Palms, also called Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. He served in the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, 7th Marines Regiment — the Bastard Battalion.

Keith was a machine gunner. He barely had time at his new unit to zero his weapon before they deployed to Kuwait in February 2003. In March, the Bastards crossed into Iraq. Fantasy was about to get real.

He was part of a weapons platoon. In Iraq, his squad (a section of a platoon) was assigned to a rifle platoon. His platoon had M16A4 rifles, M203 grenade launchers, M249 squad automatic weapons (better known as SAWs, and, from afar, they sound like a saw, too) and the M240G, a belt-fed medium machine gun which fires 7.62 mm rounds. The 240 was Keith’s weapon.

The 3rd Battalion had to engage Saddam Hussein’s mobile infantry. They rolled behind tank battalions in AAVs, or Amphibious Assault Vehicle. Once an enemy’s line was broken, they ensure the enemy stragglers could not refuel or flank the American tanks. Instead, they would get stranded and captured.

This resulted in skirmishes with enemies and shooting up enemy fuel trucks.

Three Marines in Iraq.
Gabe Keith, center, stands for a photo with two of his Marine buddies in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The Marines typically operated at night because they had a tactical advantage with the night-vision technology. They would take positions behind a berm, then attack enemy vehicles as they approached. Often, they were ragtag vehicles, like small pickups. The AAVs had a .50-cal mounted on top. Between the .50-cal and grenade launchers, they would take out the enemies well before they could get close.

The Marines secured bridges and towns on the way to keep supply lanes open for convoys. Then they took Baghdad.

“I was a block away when the statue of Saddam fell,” Keith said.

The famous toppling seen around the world on television took place April 9, 2003. Keith and others were providing security at an intersection.

The 3rd Battalion was in the Iraq War for only four months. He got back May 24, 2003.

“Some people back home didn’t realize we had left or saw combat,” Keith said.

His parents were supportive and, like a lot of military parents, didn’t know what their kids were being sent into. Keith met up with a few friends and just relaxed.

“I spent a lot of time just doing nothing. I didn’t really share at the time what I had gone through,” he said.

A man stands in front of a classroom of people.
Gabe Keith of St. Paul Post 8 was a student at Minnesota Legion College at Camp Ripley in mid-October. The instructors shared how The American Legion works and prepared them for leadership within the organization. The next Minnesota Legion College is April 25-28. Register at

Keith went back to California. His battalion had left all their weapons in Iraq for their replacements. Those replacements came from Okinawa, Japan. So, in February 2004, the Marine Corps, in its infinite wisdom, was flying his unit to Okinawa to get weapons from that Marine base.

After two months in Japan, the 3rd Battalion then went back to Iraq, arriving in April 2004 while the First Battle of Fallujah was nearing an end.

The 3rd Battalion created a perimeter around the city. However, his platoon was pulled out to be a reactionary element. Keith was a team leader by now.

They flew in Hueys, CH-46s and CH-53s to hot spots. For example, they would pop in and perform traffic stops on hostile vehicles. Some of the other units doing the same thing were special operations units.

“They didn’t use us for the sexiest missions,” Keith said. “They aren’t going to send a Marine platoon for the most dangerous situations, but we always showed up for duty. My squad was reliable. We had to be available for every rotation.”

They also were assigned to provide security for non-infantry convoys. For example, one was an Army supply convoy that ran across Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River.

“We supplied the front and rear security,” he said.

On that one, his team and another team handled the front. They ran ahead to a trouble spot where the road went between two hills. They somehow missed driving over a pothole that turned out to be a bomb and, instead, a supply truck hit it.

Five months in country, and by July 2004, the 3rd Battalion returned home.

“I went back to Minnesota. I just tried to spend as much time with friends and family as possible,” Keith said.

Then he went UA. UA is unexcused absence. It’s the equivalent to the Army’s AWOL. He missed formation for 25 days. And he wasn’t the only one.

“There were talks we were going to go back because of elections,” Keith said. “It became apparent they were going to remove our leave to ensure we would prioritize training for going back to Iraq.”

If he had been gone for 30 days, the Marine Corps would have considered him a deserter. He was busted down from E-3 to E-1. The 3rd Battalion returned to Iraq for a third time in January 2005.

During Vietnam, soldiers volunteered for second and third tours. Those days were long gone by the time of the Iraq War. Tours are mandatory. In a volunteer military, once you say the oath, you belong to Uncle Sam.

These Marines provided roadside security and ran patrols. The U.S. military had problems with improvised explosive devices not being detected and insurgents ambushing convoys. The insurgents thought they were winning.

The 3rd Battalion’s job was to find them and convince them otherwise.

“We go in and break their spirit,” Keith said.

A man smiles for a photo.
Gabe Keith is the adjutant of the 4th District.

They conducted foot patrols, and, if shot at, they would lay down a base of fire, then an element would break off and take out or scare off the enemy.

On July 25, 2006, Keith got out of the Marines with an honorable discharge. He moved in with an aunt named Mary Keith who lived in a park reserve in Illinois. Unfortunately, she soon was diagnosed with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, so he took care of her for a year until she needed better care.

“She had been the one who got me into reading and writing years before,” Keith said.

Specifically, the novel was “The Sword of Shannara,” a 1977 epic fantasy by Terry Brooks. It’s the first in a trilogy. He read it when he was 9 or 10.

Then Keith moved around a lot. He lived in Arkansas, Las Vegas, Tampa Bay area of Florida.

“I always kept coming back to Minnesota.”

He got his degree in public safety specializing in criminology from Capella University in 2012. He wrote his military memoir while in Vegas. The 2017 self-published book is called “Little Warrior Brother.”

He returned to Minnesota near the beginning of 2021 during the pandemic. His real estate agent was an Army veteran and Legionnaire. The agent helped Keith purchase his home in West St. Paul. A year later, he asked Keith to join and have a drink. Keith had quit drinking in the meantime but, in fall 2022, happily joined St. Paul 3M Post 599 and hung out.

“I thought the Legion was a series of bars and that it revolved around events, and I didn’t know it had a greater purpose until I started talking to Teresa Ash,” Keith said.

Ash is heavily involved in the 4th District and has been a department vice commander and historian. She presently is the 4th District commander.

“The first thing she asked is ‘What is it you know about The American Legion?’” he said.

She explained the various programs, how the Legion secures veterans benefits, helps them with claims and raises funds for good causes.

He had been in his home too much and thought it was good to get out and meet other veterans. He said he had become “a creature of my routines.”

He’s now the 4th District adjutant. Past Department Commander Mike Ash — husband of Teresa — is showing him the ropes.


Earlier this year, Keith attended Post 8’s meeting at Joseph’s Grill on Wabasha Street south of the river. He transferred posts because their meeting site is closer to his home and work. He works at Other Skies Weird Fiction, at 803 Dodd Road. (Its website is

Keith also signed his stepfather up to join Post 8.

He found himself without a car after his, a 2014 Chevy Traverse, was stolen from outside a gym. As a new homeowner, he didn’t have credit available for another. Minnesota American Legion Department Service Officer Ray Kane signed over his own car, a 2009 Hyundai Sonata in need of repairs, to him for free. The American Legion Minnesota Veterans Assistance Fund (Fund 85) paid for the mechanical repairs, not the hail-damaged body.

“I can’t thank Ray and the Legion enough,” he said.

Keith attended the October session of Minnesota Legion College at Camp Ripley and encourages other to attend.

“We need young veterans so the Legion can get our veterans benefits to the next generation,” he said.

Write Club started in May 2022 and meets the second and fourth Mondays at St. Paul Post 39. He started it “because I know how much it helped me to write down my experiences. My goal is to grow the Legion. This is how I would bring something to the table.”

Contact Keith about Write Club or about purchasing his book at