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The City Journals

Fifty years after hearing that awful ‘knock,’ a brother remembers fallen brother

May 07, 2018 03:49PM ● By Shaun Delliskave

Keown reflects on the military funeral honors for his brother 50 years ago. (Shaun Delliskave/City Journals)

By Shaun Delliskave  |  [email protected]

It’s been 50 years, and he was only 5, but Brent “BK” Keown still clearly remembers the knock on his parents’ Three Fountains condo door. Two Army officials told his parents, Berthold and Elsie, that BK’s hero and older brother, Pfc. Blair Keown, was killed in Vietnam.

Blair Keown belonged to a brotherhood that included Douglas Atwood, Richard Bennett, Sheldon Bowler, Dale Christensen, Allen Gailey, Dean Hardman, and Marvin Killian, all of whom died in the Vietnam War and have ties to Murray.

BK recalls after that tragic June 28, 1968 day, there were “More and more knocks on the door by Army officials to present my parents various awards and medals of honor.” Eventually, the gallant actions that cost Blair his life would be recognized with a posthumous Silver Star.

Blair and his family had moved several times during his short life. He was born on August 19, 1943, in Oakland, California. They moved to American Fork, where he graduated from high school, and then his parents moved to Murray. It was while in Murray that Blair was drafted in October 1967.

At the age of 24, Blair was older than the average draftee. An Eagle Scout, he was on his way to living the American Dream, when his country called on him during the bloodiest period of the Vietnam War. In his late teens he was Master Counselor of Al Sirat Chapter, Masonic Order of the DeMolay. Blair had served an LDS mission to Oakland, California, and was enrolled at Brigham Young University studying pre-law. He was also engaged to marry former Strawberry Days Rodeo Queen Cassie Stubs of Pleasant Grove, Utah.

“I remember watching him pack his army bag in his basement room.  Later that day he demonstrated how to vault an enemy when on your back. Both Mom and Dad immediately put the brakes to that activity,” said BK. 

By Easter 1968, Blair was headed to Vietnam, saying goodbye to Murray, his parents, fiancé, brother, and sisters Bonne and Becky. The violent Tet Offensive had just ended when he was assigned as a member of the flank security team in Company C, in the Army’s 22nd Infantry Division, First Battalion. According to BK, “It’s no wonder he was a sharpshooter, having grown up with a BB gun in his youth.”

Two months after arriving, Keown’s unit was stationed southwest of Pleiku in the Vietnamese highlands. A larger North Vietnamese force attacked while Keown was point person on patrol with his company.

Fred Childs, a fellow platoon mate, recalls the Battle of VC Valley. “The company started out on patrol with the idea to meet at the new patrol base in the evening. The company was caught in another ambush. This was in very dense jungle where visibility was limited. We were pinned down most of the afternoon until another company came to help us out.”

BK still has the Army’s official report of that fateful day: “Keown… directed volumes of grenade fire to stave off the advancing enemy and protect the wounded members of his team who had been wounded in the early moments of the engagement. Dauntlessly firing one grenade after another, he maintained a rapid rate of retaliating fire as he moved from one position to another to more effectively engage the advancing enemy. Repeatedly exposing himself to hostile fire, Keown drew the enemy’s fire to protect his wounded comrades. As he moved to another position through the hostile fire, he was mortally wounded by hostile fire. His courageous actions clearly prevented more serious casualties and greatly aided and inspired his comrades in thwarting the enemy assault.”

BK remembers going to the mortuary. “Standing on my tippy toes, I peeked over the top of the casket with my hands resting on an arched glass over the top only to see Blair dressed in uniform. I didn’t understand death, I thought he was sleeping and asked why people were crying.”

Blair and BK’s parents separated not long after the soldier’s death, but both remained in Murray. His father died in 1981. Elsie became actively involved in the Gold Star Mothers (an organization that represents mothers who lost a child serving in the US Armed Forces) and was honored for her service to it in 2001. She passed away 40 years after Blair did.

His grave can be found in the family plot in American Fork Cemetery. His name is listed on a memorial in Murray Park with the rest of his fellow fallen Murrayites, and also on panel 54, line 12 of the Vietnam War Memorial.

BK still lives in Murray and celebrates Memorial Day more than just one day in May.

“I remember both in my youth and as an adult, mom and I visited his gravesite various times throughout the year. She instilled in me a desire to pay my respects regularly.”