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A call to arms

A call to arms


Marine veteran Jeff Key survived deployment in Iraq. Now he's a man with a new mission: ending America's addiction to war.

Jeff Key is what we Southern boys call a "tall drink of water." He's 6 foot 5 and weighs more than 225 pounds. Hardly what one would call a sissy, Lance Corporal Key describes himself as a "skinny, effeminate, weak little boy who grew up into a manly man."

Key steps over his chair at the Coffee Bean in West Hollywood, Calif., as he would straddle his motorcycle parked out front. He's wearing a Marines T-shirt and black cowboy boots--the requisite black leather jacket and black helmet are tucked neatly on the chair next to us. His legs are too long for these petite bistro chairs, and he has to fold over himself to speak into the microphone.

"I was a sucker," says the Iraq War veteran, who more than a year before 9/11, enlisted in the Marines at the age of 34. In 2004 he crafted his story into the one-man show The Eyes of Babylon. On June 25, Showtime brings the show to the mainstream in a documentary called Semper Fi. Like his stage production, the film opens with Key sitting on the edge of his bed in white boxers on the morning of September 11, 2001, as his mother tells him over the telephone that he's going to war. What follows is the intercutting of Key's monologues from The Eyes of Babylon--long, detailed accounts of the desert heat, the smell of death, and the children of war-torn Iraq--with footage from his days at war, shot on a portable video camera.

Key was sent home from Iraq in 2003 after being injured moving a concrete bench in the city of Babylon. In March 2004 he came out publicly on CNN's Paula Zahn Now, but he wasn't discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" (the paperwork was never processed).

"I was the biggest sucker," continues Key, beginning to show some anger. "I believed anyone who hates America is going to kill me, is coming for my family." That may explain why, after living in Los Angeles for three years, Key chose to join the Marines. "I wanted to give to my nation, and as I have said many times, my homosexuality had something to do with it because I was so persecuted. I thought, Why should I leave it to anyone else to protect this nation? If not me, then who?"

That motto is as true today as it was then. Since returning from Iraq, Key has been active in the peace movement. He served as Cindy Sheehan's bodyguard during her vigil outside President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, and he spent the week after our interview with his good friend Joan Baez. He is also the founder of the nonprofit Mehadi Foundation (named for a young boy he befriended in a small town near the Iranian border), which focuses on supporting soldiers who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and struggling with alcoholism and other addictions. An equally important goal of the foundation is to help the Iraqi people, particularly the children, whose suffering without food and water Key witnessed firsthand.

Key views his mission as far loftier than ending "don't ask, don't tell," which is only a minor blip in our conversation. "I know not only that we can end this war but that we can break our addiction to war consciousness."

Born into the Church of Christ, Key was taken with religion and spirituality at a young age. He also knew at a young age that he was gay, and remarkably, he managed to find a group of gay and gay-friendly friends in his hometown of America Junction, Ala. Their principal entertainment at the time was "gathering together, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and singing religious hymns," he recounts with no hint of regret. These years are the subject of Key's next play, Let Us Sing, which he is hoping to start workshopping in Alabama soon.

Though he is an open book when it comes to his sexuality, it is clear very quickly that this is not what gets Key out of bed in the morning. He has war on the brain. "People think that our invasion-occupation of Iraq was about petroleum, but it's really not. It's like robbing a house only to drink the booze," he says. "Yeah, we're going to drink the booze, but we're here to take the house." When they understand this, Key says, soldiers in combat who once believed we're there to liberate the Iraqis figured out something else is going on. "We annihilated them," he says. "We destroyed the infrastructure. We dismantled their abilities to defend against outside invaders. We didn't even do that in Germany in World War II. You don't do that unless your plan is to stay--to occupy."

This realization was the defining moment for Key after spending over two months in Iraq. "Terrorism is not an enemy; it's a tactic," he continues. "Any kind of warfare is terrorism. Terrorism is defending your ideology in any way you can."

Though still patriotic, Key is sometimes a little embarrassed by the U.S.: "We act like teenagers in this country. 'I want it now. It doesn't matter what it costs.' " He pauses and his face softens. "We are still a relatively young nation. But the credit card bills ultimately come."

Many may have viewed the election of a Democratic majority in Congress as the calling-in of that bill, but Key refers to the Democrats' first months in control as a bunch of "pussyfooting." Still, I ask him if he thinks the country is finally waking up and embracing dissent. "What people say in coffeehouses [motioning around us] and amongst each other is not really dissent in my eyes," he says.

Key has gone way out on a limb in an effort to bring his fellow servicemen home. His phone rings in the middle of our interview, and he excuses himself to answer it. Afterward, Key is apologetic. He didn't recognize the number, and often that means a soldier is calling him from Iraq. "Some people still think that I am a traitor," he says. "But some people call me and say, 'Please don't stop. Keep doing what you're doing.' "

I remind him of a portion of the film in which his best friend is a dilapidated pillow. "I know how hard it is when you are on post," he says, "when you have to slap yourself to stay awake, and until I'm working that hard to end this war, then I am not working hard enough."

Key travels all over the country, speaking at schools, churches, anywhere people will listen--to the detriment of his finances. Nearing bankruptcy and the age of 42, Key has started to focus on getting some paid writing work. "Mother Teresa filled from a full bowl," he says, describing how he must learn to "feed himself" first.

He has been engaged for a year and half to Adam, a mechanical engineer turned med student, and talks hopefully of raising children. But that optimism is tempered with Key's brand of no-nonsense realism. "I am assuming there will be a future that will have a history that will talk about this time," he says. "When they look back at what was then the United States..." Key stops himself. I press him on what he had been hinting at throughout the conversation, that the nation may be at the end of its time. Key continues: "All imperialistic governments that colonize fall. There will never be an exception."

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