Spc. Preston Keough barely knew his plans for Thanksgiving just hours before the holiday began.

Spc. Preston Keough barely knew his plans for Thanksgiving just hours before the holiday began.

This year, he’s in Khost, Afghanistan. When he was deployed to Iraq in 2005, Keough, an Independence native, had some turkey and cake in his unit’s chow hall. On Wednesday, at 9 p.m. Afghanistan time, he assumed that’s what Thursday would bring.

“Sometimes, they’ll have a raffle, but other than that, there’s not much going on,” said 23-year-old Keough in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Holidays have not become as significant without your family there, and you kind of adapt to what’s more important at the time. My friends are still here, and we have all that we need – as long as my friends are still here and we’re together, that’s all I really worry about.”

A 2004 Truman High School graduate, Keough deployed to Afghanistan on Aug. 14 with the 1141st Engineer Company of Kansas City, which is affiliated with the Missouri National Guard. Keough is a driver in route clearance patrol, a search-and-destroy unit with one mission: find and safely dispose of all improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs commonly known as IEDs.

More than 75 percent of combat deaths in Afghanistan are attributed to IEDs. During his service in Iraq, an IED exploded within 20 feet of Keough. Another time, he said, he got out of his vehicle and saw an IED within 3 feet of it.

As the driver, Keough said, he might drive for several hours at a time at 5 mph. “It’s not like you can drive 60 miles an hour,” he said, adding that Afghanistan’s terrain is more difficult to maneuver than Iraq’s.

“It’s like trying to drive through the Grand Canyon,” Keough said. “It’s really nerve-racking to drive in such a top-heavy vehicle and knowing it could flip over at any second.”

There are few actual roads, he said. He has limited visibility with all of his gear on. He takes his work seriously, but Keough and his buddies often joke when appropriate, saying “What am I doing this for?” and “Why am I out here where all of these bombs are?”

He is often gone on missions for one, two or even three days at a time, sneaking in six-hour increments of sleep whenever he can. There are no days off work, but following three or four missions, Keough’s unit spends a day doing just maintenance work.

“Sometimes, the people out here, you can’t really tell if they are friendly or not,” said Keough, adding that the Afghani children sometimes ask him for candy. “There’s people everywhere, and we can’t just shoot people that we don’t have any proof of (setting up IEDs); it’s really hard to combat this kind of stuff. We’ve had some luck with capturing those who’ve set something up, and we’ve detained them.”

Keough actually enjoys his job, he said. He’s formed a bond with men from across Missouri who’ve joined him. He said it feels good to remove an obstacle that was intended to end someone’s life.

He’s scheduled to be demobilized back to the United States in about nine months. Keough, who is single, has a mother, a stepfather, five sisters and a brother who still reside in Independence. He uses Skype, an Internet-based telephone program, to make phone calls back home for less than a penny a minute.

“I’ve had numerous people ask me, ‘If you ever need anything, I’ll send it to you as soon as possible,’” Keough said. “A lot of people are proud of what I’m doing and what we’re doing over here, and it really helps out a lot.”

With a little more than a year remaining with the Missouri National Guard, Keough said he wants to earn a bachelor’s degree in environmental science at the University of Missouri. He’ll look at the job market after graduation, he said, and Keough might opt for a full-time military career.

The military has opened his mind to the world and has encouraged Keough to develop a strong work ethic, he said.

“I’ve learned about different cultures and to respect different ways of life. I’ve gotta do my job and be there – it just comes as a second nature for it to be done,” he said. “I’ve come quite a long way since before I’ve joined the military. If you skip over something or are too lazy to do something, it could risk someone’s life.”

RUNS IN THE FAMILY

Spc. Preston Keough is not the first member of his family with U.S. military experience. His grandfather served the U.S. Army in World War II and later joined 1141st Engineer Company of Kansas City, the same company that Keough now serves. (His stepfather belonged to the 1141st, too.)

Keough has a sister who is in the Missouri Reserve and was deployed to Iraq in 2004. Another sister is now in active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps. 

WHAT'S NEXT

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama plans to deliver a speech at 7 p.m. at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., that will announce the U.S. troop strategy for Afghanistan. The speech will outline why the United States remains in Afghanistan after the war began there eight years ago, as well as its interests in Afghanistan and his own decision-making process.