The order had been given, and some soldier was going to have to drive an Army truck over a treacherous Afghan mountain path along 200-foot cliffs, ringed by enemy fighters. Vehicles traveling the path had been repeatedly ambushed, so the journey had to be taken at night.

As an officer and second-in-command of his troop, Benjamin Keating could have ordered someone else to drive the truck. But Keating, who grew up in Shapleigh, did not. He took on the dangerous task himself in November 2006 and was killed when the truck plummeted down the side of the mountain. He was 27.

“Ben believed deeply that he should not ask anyone to do something he wouldn’t do. That was a very dangerous mission, and he wouldn’t let anyone else do it,” said Jake Tapper, a CNN anchor and author of the book “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor,” about the camp where Keating was stationed and which was later named for him. “He really became a symbol of that camp and why it was so important.”

Ben Keating of Shapleigh, while stationed in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Ken Keating

Tapper’s 2012 best-seller has been made into a film called “The Outpost,” which was released July 3 to select theaters and streaming services, including Amazon Prime and iTunes. The film features British actor Orlando Bloom – known for “The Lord of the Rings” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” films – as Keating. Another Maine-born soldier who was killed in battle at the camp, Sgt. Joshua Kirk, is played by Jack Kesy, whose credits include the FX horror show “The Strain.” The film also stars Caleb Landry Jones of the NBC show “Friday Night Lights” and Scott Eastwood, son of Clint Eastwood and a star of the 2018 action film “Pacific Rim: Uprising.”

The book and two-hour film both chronicle the three-year history of the camp, a perilous valley outpost near the town of Kamdesh, in Nuristan province. A small force of soldiers tried to hold the position as fighters perched high in the mountains above regularly fired on them. A mountain path barely wide enough for trucks was the only way in and out. It was nicknamed Camp Custer by some in the Army, because, as the reasoning went, nobody would make it out alive.

After Keating’s death, the camp was renamed Combat Outpost Keating in his honor. Then tragedy struck again. On Oct. 3, 2009, the camp and its 53 soldiers were attacked by some 400 Taliban fighters. Eight Americans, including Kirk, were killed, and 27 were wounded. The troop – Bravo Troop 3-61 – became one of the most decorated units in the nation’s nearly 20-year military involvement in Afghanistan.

Though the film focuses much of its screen time on that battle, after Keating’s death, Tapper as executive producer and director Rod Lurie both felt it was important to have Keating represented prominently in the film.

“In this film, we wanted to show what it meant to be at this outpost, the danger and sacrifice involved, and the story of Ben Keating is a symbol of that,” said Lurie, a former Army officer whose directing credits include “The Contender” (2000) with Gary Oldman and “Straw Dogs” ( 2011) with James Marsden. “He was a born leader.”

Scott Eastwood in a scene from “The Outpost.” Photo courtesy of Screen Media

SMALL TOWN, BIG PLANS

Keating grew up in Shapleigh and was involved at an early age with the Springvale First Baptist Church, where both his parents served as ministers. He seemed comfortable talking to older church members and was a youth leader. He taught Sunday school to teens when he was only a little older than them himself, said his father, Ken Keating.

After graduating from Massabesic High School in Waterboro, he worked for three years at a local apple orchard. He entered the University of New Hampshire as a 21-year-old and soon joined the Army ROTC officer’s training program. His father, who had been a chaplain in the Air National Guard, asked Ben why he picked the Army.

” ‘I want to serve my country, and I don’t want to pick the easiest way,’ ” his father recalled him saying.

While serving in the Army, first as a lieutenant and later promoted to captain, Keating was considering going to law school at some point. He chaired a Republican student group at UNH, had worked on campaigns and had been a member of the Shapleigh planning board. He talked about getting involved in politics some day.

“He talked about maybe one day becoming a senator from Maine,” his father said.

Mainers Ben Keating, left and Matt Gooding, center, while with the Army in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Matt Gooding.

After college he trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky, then was sent to Fort Drum, New York, where he became a platoon leader and later executive officer of A Troop in the 3-71 Cavalry. He was sent to Kamdesh as part of a mission to help stabilize an area held by warlords and outlaws, and provide reconnaissance for the Army, said Col. Matt Gooding, a Saco native who was Keating’s commanding officer at the camp.

The path leading through the mountains to the camp could barely accommodate a car or truck, and vehicles often scraped the rocks to get through, Gooding said. At first the camp was supplied by helicopter, but gunmen in the mountains made that too dangerous,  and the mountain path became the troop’s only lifeline.

In the months before Keating’s death, caravans of vehicles trying to reach the camp were ambushed and destroyed. Some local contractors driving for the Americans had their ears cut off, Gooding said.

At one point, the Army decided to send one fairly large and armed truck to the camp to supply it. The truck had its tires shot out and suffered heavy damage, but made it. In November 2006, the troop was getting ready to leave the camp in a month or two, and the big truck had to be taken back to the area headquarters. Leaving it in the camp attracted the fire of gunmen in the hills.

To avoid the constant ambushes vehicles faced on that road, the Army ordered it be driven back at night, with lights out and the driver wearing night-vision goggles. The mountain path was perilous enough in the daytime, Gooding said. Gooding said Keating volunteered, with others, to take the truck back. When the truck toppled down the mountain, Keating was in the driver’s seat.

Caleb Landry Jones in a scene from “The Outpost.” Photo courtesy of Screen Media

“My soldiers had confidence in fighting the enemy, they were probably more worried about the truck slipping off the embankment. These weren’t 10-foot embankments, they were 200 feet,” said Gooding, who is not depicted in the film but is featured in Tapper’s book. “But that was Ben. He would do what had to be done. He had this can-do attitude about everything.”

Gooding’s 12-year-old son, Benjamin, is named for Keating.

Ken Keating and his wife, Beth, saw “The Outpost” at a special screening for families of soldiers in the troop in Washington, D.C. Lurie had consulted with the Keatings about Ben, as did Bloom, Ken Keating said. He said the “emotional impact” of seeing their son’s death was softened somewhat by the fact that they’ve had 14 years to come to terms with it. On screen, Keating’s death in the truck accident is fairly quick. In the film Keating is identified as the commander of his troop, when in real life he was the troop’s executive officer, or second-in-command.

WITHOUT FEAR

Other soldiers in the film suffer horrific injuries and in some cases, slowly die. The battle scenes take up about half the film, which was shot mostly in the rugged mountains of Bulgaria.

One of the first two soldiers killed in the battle was Kirk, shown in the film as one of the few soldiers killed while returning fire.  Kirk, who was 30 when he died, was born in Thomaston but moved to Idaho when he was 5. In his early 20s he came back to Maine and attended Southern Maine Community College in South Portland – where he met his wife, Megan –  before joining the Army in 2005, according to his obituary. He and his wife and daughter were living Colorado at the time of his death.

At the time of the battle, Kirk was was the only one in the troop who had already served in that very dangerous, isolated part of Afghanistan, Tapper said. After finishing his first tour of duty in the area, he transferred to another unit that he knew was going back there.

“His death was an emotional blow to everyone because he was seen as such a tough fighter,” Tapper said of Kirk. “He was seen by the others as the bravest of the brave.”

Kirk’s mother, Bernadette Bonner, said her son had always been drawn to the ideas of courage and heroism. Living near the deep woods of northern Idaho, he came up with a game called “test of courage” for him and his friends, that included jumping off a river dam, among other things.

Before the battle, Kirk had already been recognized and decorated for saving another soldier’s life. Bonner said she once asked her son, while in the Army, if he was really as fearless as he seemed to his fellow soldiers.

“He told me, ‘Of course I’m afraid, but I’m more afraid of losing my friends,’ ” Bonner said.

A scene from the film “The Outpost” which tells the story of an Army camp named for Mainer Benjamin Keating. Photo courtesy of Screen Media

Before the battle scenes, the mostly young soldiers are seen engaging in everyday camp life, swearing a lot, bickering and doing their best to survive. In the early scenes, Keating is shown as well-liked and respected by his troops, an officer who treats soldiers and locals fairly. Bloom pulls off a fairly respectable Maine accent, not over-doing it as some actors in the past have. Though Keating as a character appears only in the early parts of the film, he’s seen and heard on the film’s official trailer several times. At one point, he welcomes new soldiers to “the dahk side of the moon,” and in another scene, he talks about separating enemy fighters from the ordinary citizens, and about trying to gain their respect.

Once the battle scenes begin, the film becomes a story of survival, with soldiers risking their lives under fire to save others. Soldiers are seen pinned down behind rocks or in trucks, or running while bullets pierce their helmets. The battle scenes focus on the soldiers played by Eastwood and Jones: Clint Romesha and Ty Carter, both of whom were awarded the Medal of Honor for their efforts. Eastwood on camera looks and sounds a lot like his father.

The heroics in the film did not have to be embellished. After the 12-hour battle was over, the soldiers involved had earned 27 Purple Hearts, 37 Army Commendation Medals for valor, three Bronze Stars, 18 Bronze Stars for valor, nine Silver Stars (two later upgraded to Distinguished Service Crosses) and two Medals of Honor.

Gooding, who was not involved in the battle, has not yet seen the film. He did read Tapper’s book and found it an accurate and compelling history of the outpost named for Keating. He said he’s glad the film was made, to help remind people of all the sacrifices made by Americans soldiers.

“The worst thing is when somebody like Ben just disappears into the hearts and minds of a couple hundred soldiers who knew him and who are growing older by the day,” said Gooding. “I’m really pleased this film got made, and we’re talking about Ben.”


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