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Death of an FSO, As Remembered by His Widow

Dennis Keogh had been Political Counselor in South Africa from 1980-83 and made 25 trips to Namibia. In the spring of 1984, he agreed to serve for a month as head of the new U.S. Liaison Office (USLO) in Windhoek. In that troubled region, which South Africa had administered since World War I without a UN mandate, fighting had claimed the lives of 10,000 people, mostly civilians, over a 17-year period.  U.S. negotiators, led by Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Chet Crocker, had mediated the Lusaka Accord aimed at a settlement in which all parties would achieve their objectives. This included the withdrawal of thousands of Cuban troops from Angola as well as thousands of South African Defense Forces (SADF) from Angola and South West Africa (SWA)/Namibia; this would pave the way to eventual elections in Namibia and a peaceful transition of power in South Africa.

In March, Dennis Keogh took his 26th trip to Namibia to set up the Office and meet with the Joint Monitoring Commission that was overseeing SADF troop withdrawals from Southern Angola. However, while doing the groundwork for a transition from armed conflict to a “peace without losers,” he was killed in a bomb explosion on April 15, 1984. The incident occurred during a trip with USLO military representative Lt. Col. Ken Crabtree to Oshakati in the northern border area of Namibia, where an improvised explosive device blew up the gas station where they had stopped to refuel. Col. Crabtree died immediately. Keogh lived for an hour and a half.  He succumbed en route to the Ondangwa Air Base where he was being taken for medical evacuation.

Dennis Keogh’s name was later inscribed on the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) Memorial Plaque in the entrance to the State Department. Secretary of State George Shultz, Department colleagues, and his family were there to remember him.

Dennis’ widow, Susan, subsequently joined the Foreign Service and continued Dennis’ work on Southern Africa.  She was able to witness the independence of Namibia in 1990 and the transition to democracy in South Africa in 1994 – both goals for which Dennis Keogh had dedicated his life.  She writes the following account of the terrible events of that Palm Sunday.


“It was the wrong place at the wrong time”

KEOGH:  I was at home in Falls Church, Virginia that morning.  The children were still upstairs and I was scrubbing a poolside carpet when Ambassador Jim Bishop walked in.  I was surprised and pleased to see him; then he quickly told me the reason for his visit — Dennis had been killed.  Initially I was deeply shocked, but realized right away that this was real, so I had no disbelief.  The prospect of telling the three children, Kate, Molly and Miles, was overwhelming.  I remember thinking I would tell them their father would be away for a few more months so that I could let them know gradually. That clearly would not work; I called them downstairs and told them what had happened. They were amazingly brave but distraught at the loss of their beloved Dad. Then began the ghastly business of informing Dennis’ family and the practical next steps — facing a future without him.

I later read field reports that reconstructed the events of that day.  Dennis and Ken Crabtree had set off from Windhoek to meet with the Joint Commission regarding the status of troop withdrawal and political developments.  They arrived in the desert town of Oshakati near the Angola border.  Before checking into their guesthouse, they stopped to fill up the tank of their Land Cruiser.  The attendant pointed out a plastic container behind the pump, filled with a brownish-yellow liquid, and asked them if they knew what it was.  (Note: The device was later described as an IED with about a kilo of TNT and a mechanical timer).  Neither Dennis nor Ken knew.  A Mercedes truck was filling up with diesel fuel at the other side of the pump. The attendant went to fetch a cash receipt.  Ken was squatting down to look at the unknown object; Dennis was walking a few feet away when the IED exploded, causing the fuel in the truck to ignite.

The force of the blast blew Ken Crabtree under their car. The Namibian driver of the truck also died in the explosion. Dennis suffered severe internal injuries and burns.  Two off-duty police officers ran to the scene, rolling Dennis in a puddle to extinguish the flames. He received paramedic attention and intermittently regained consciousness, repeatedly expressing concern for Ken Crabtree and requesting that USLO Windhoek and Embassy Pretoria be informed of the incident.

Because of his “cognizant and coherent statements,” the two police officers felt that Dennis would live despite the seriousness of his injuries; however, he died during the 35-km trip to the evacuation air base.

There was speculation in the press that the two had been targeted by the South West Africa People’s Organization – SWAPO — later to become the elected government of Namibia. SWAPO denied this, asserting:  “We do not attack people who are not our enemies.”  In the subsequent investigation, the Regional Security Officer and local authorities concluded that the two diplomats had not been targeted. The filling station had been damaged twice before, and they concluded the purpose of the bomb was to cause property damage at night.  The mechanical detonator was probably triggered by the extreme afternoon heat.  The unforeseeable circumstance of two vehicles being next to the pump meant it was the wrong place, wrong time.

This conclusion was important for us as a family in our own process of grieving.  The following year, seven SWAPO members were convicted of terrorism in connection with a spate of bombings in the north. The South African authorities dropped the charges that they blew up the filling station in Oshakati for lack of evidence in that case: as a consequence they received reduced sentences. This verdict in some way contributed to the reconciliation process that had been central to Dennis’ work.  He had gone to a zone of conflict in which many innocent people had suffered.

In November 1989, more than 700,000 Namibians voted in a UN-supervised election under the U.S.-brokered independence plan to end South African rule. I read one comment from a voter standing in a mile-long line at a polling station that was threatened with closure:  “I’m not giving up my vote.  Many people have died to give it to me.”

In 1993, I traveled to Oshakati for the first time.  The gas station had been rebuilt; there was no sign of what had happened there.  I wandered over to a busy traditional market across the street and sat with a group of women selling home-made quilts.   They recounted their war-time experiences as refugees in the Congo.  I did not tell them why I was visiting.  The experience made me realize that we had all gone through a lot.

Among other awards, Dennis was posthumously recognized by the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Reagan, and the Secretary’s Award by Secretary of State Shultz.  He is buried in Arlington Cemetery among brother Marines killed in Beirut in 1983 – a fitting place for him, a Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps (never a former Marine).  The children and I will be there on the 30th anniversary of his death to commemorate the life of this wonderful man, husband and father.