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Our view: Who’ll step up now for veterans?

He didn’t talk about it, not for years, not until he and his wife went to see “Platoon.” Kids in the seats ahead of them at the movie theater wouldn’t stop goofing around and giggling. Suddenly, like a volcano long dormant before finally erupting, Duluth’s Durbin Keeney grabbed the kids’ attention: “Sit still and shut … up! We did this so you don’t have to!”

Keeney’s wife turned to him, stunned, he said in an interview with the News Tribune in 2005. By the end of the movie he was in tears. And at a restaurant later he told everything he could remember of Vietnam. For hours he and Diane talked, cried, lamented and shared.

“That was the beginning, for me, of starting to deal with this stuff. I realized I had to deal with it,” he said. “My volcano had finally erupted.”

Keeney also made a decision: He vowed to help other veterans, all veterans, any way he could and with whatever they needed, whether it be a place to live, a ride to the doctor, counseling or other assistance. And that’s just what he did, tenaciously, tirelessly, effectively, and, in the summation of Duluth Mayor Don Ness, relentlessly — right up until the day he died of cardiac-related health complications.

That was Sunday, the day Duluth lost its strongest advocate and its most-respected and most-listened-to voice for veterans and military issues. He was the one who reminded us, repeatedly, to always remember and to never forget the service, the sacrifice, so the mistakes of the past aren’t repeated in the future.

Keeney was 65.

“What a great loss to our community and to the veterans’ community,” Cathy Bennett, who worked with Keeney through the Northland Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation, said in an interview yesterday with the News Tribune Opinion page. “He was such a veterans’ advocate. He would do whatever it took to get a project accomplished and to get what is best for the veterans, whether it was food, clothing or housing — all those things.

“He just bulled through the bureaucracy,” said Bennett, of Duluth, the wife of another Vietnam War veteran well known in Duluth, Brad Bennett. “Hopefully, there’ll be someone who’ll try to pick up the pieces, but it’ll be hard to find a guy with that much dedication and that much passion. … Who’s going to do the parades now? Who’s going to do some of the different ceremonies and all those things that Durbin always did. That’ll be the hard part, to replace all of that.”

In Vietnam, Keeney served in Bien Hoa with the 3rd Security Police.

“My coming home was awful,” he told the News Tribune in 2012. “Within the first hour, I had eggs thrown at me in a van coming out of Newark (N.J.). I had a guy in the van accuse me of being a baby killer.”

In Duluth, he was director of Union Gospel Mission, and he founded the northern chapter of the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, or MAC-V, serving as its regional director of development. In 1995, he spearheaded the region’s first “StandDown,” a one-day event to provide counseling, medical assistance, clothing and other forms of help to veterans. He was active in numerous community and military-related organizations, including the Northland Vietnam Veterans Association, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans and the Duluth Honor Guard. He helped organize the annual 24-hour POW/MIA vigil, helped get built along Duluth’s Lakewalk the Vietnam veterans’ memorial, and was a founding member of Veterans Memorial Hall, a program of the St. Louis County Historical Society. He was involved in fundraising for the Joe Gomer statue at Duluth International Airport and was instrumental in successfully moving the Albert Woolson statue from Canal Park to the Depot.

Keeney’s crowning achievement was the opening in 2012 of Duluth Veterans’ Place, which provides transitional and permanent housing for formerly homeless veterans.

Or perhaps his biggest achievement was his role as husband, father and grandfather.

“Durb helped a lot of veterans through the power of Durb. He made a difference,” said Dave Boe, a 20-year military veteran, including service in the Gulf War and Bosnia, who later worked with veterans as a staff member in Duluth for U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar. “When I attend the next Veterans’ Day March I will miss Durb being there.”

All of Duluth and the Northland, whether we served or not, can feel that same ache, that same loss, for a man who did so much and who so sorely will be missed. An army of advocates may be needed to step up to take his place.

Last respects

A visitation for Durbin Keeney is at 10 a.m. Saturday until 11 a.m. services in Hermantown Community Church. Military honors will be by the Duluth Honor Guard. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans in Duluth, according to Sunrise Funeral Home.