SIOUX CITY | If he hadn't grown up in Sioux City, Renaldo Keene said, he might not be the award-winning writer he is today.
“I owe everything to my family and to the teachers I had at Hobson (Elementary), East Junior and East High schools,” the retired Marine told me Tuesday from his home in Stafford, Va. “They made me into a standup guy and to do the things you were supposed to do.”
Keene received the 2012 Marine Corps Heritage Foundation’s Col. Robert Debs Heinl Award for history writing. The foundation presents the annual award to a Marine or civilian in recognition of exemplary work in advancing and preserving Marine Corps history, “giving prime consideration for high literary quality and originality.” Keene was the first staffer at the corps' Leatherneck magazine, where he's associate editor, to win the prestigious honor.
The foundation recognized him for his two-part series on World War II battles on the small Pacific islands of Saipan and Tinian in 1944. He accompanied two veterans back to the islands in 2011, where he related their firsthand accounts and delved into the islands' history and what they're like today.
“One of the guys had talked about how terrible a place it was. When he went back, he was amazed at how beautiful it was,” Keene said. "It's kind of like Hawaii with a hometown atmosphere."
As he has done in some other stories, he found a way to “put in a plug” for his hometown. Saipan, he wrote, is home to 62,392 people, while Tinian has about 3,000.
“By comparison, the population of Middle America’s Sioux City, Iowa, with 83,262 people, is only slightly more.”
After graduating from East High in 1965, Keene enlisted in the Marine Corps, where his service included a stint in Vietnam.
He can’t pinpoint why he wanted to become a Marine, only that he always did. His late father, Alan Richard Keene, stormed the beaches at Normandy on D-Day during World War II. Dad, he thinks, wasn’t thrilled at the decision of his only child to become a Marine. His mom, Lucy, just worried about his safety.
He spent 35 months in Vietnam with the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing as a combat correspondent. He rose to the rank of master gunnery sergeant by the time he retired in 1990 and became a writer for Leatherneck.
This past Sunday, he returned from a two-week visit to Vietnam to write a story about Marines who fought in the Battle of Hue during the Tet offensive. In 1968, he arrived just after the battle so has firsthand memories of what occurred.
Two of his three sons joined the Marines but have since entered civilian life in Virginia. His other son and daughter also live in the area, along with three grandkids. His wife, their children and other family members attended the awards ceremony at the National Museum of the Marine Corps outside the Quantico Marine Corps Base. Keene received a medal and had his name engraved on a brick set in a walkway around the museum.
Although he could retire altogether, he has no plans to do so since he gets paid to do what he loves – write for a living.
“Besides,” he joked, “nobody’s shooting at me.”