In 2002, a man known simply as the “D.C. Sniper” held the nation’s capital in his grip.
Over a three-week period, he killed at least 10 people and injured three others throughout the Washington, D.C., area and along Interstate 95 in Virginia, in addition to at least seven more people killed in other parts of the country.
Like his fellow Americans, Keith Burpee wondered who was capable of committing such heinous acts. He wasn’t aware he already knew who the shooter was, until he received a phone call from a Washington Times reporter asking him about John Allen Muhammed.
Burpee had been Muhammed’s squad leader when he was known as John Allen Williams, an Army sergeant with the 84th Engineer Company. Now, according to the reporter, Burpee said, Muhammed had been identified as the primary perpetrator of the sniper attacks.
“It was like someone hit me in the head with a cast-iron skillet,” Burpee recalled. “My world fell down around me.”
In his autobiography “4,000 Degrees Fahrenheit: Hell’s Fire on Earth,” Burpee credits this incident as the wake-up call he needed to return to his Christian roots. Not long after learning the news, he visited an Army chaplain.
“That incident right there helped take me back to Jesus Christ,” Burpee said.
Since being raised in what he described as a “good Christian home” in Kalamazoo, Mich., Burpee had strayed far from his moral foundations, now finding solace with drugs and alcohol.
After dropping out of college — “I thought it was a big party,” he said — Burpee joined the Army, where he met Muhammed when the two were stationed in Germany during the first Gulf War.
Burpee got a fleeting glimpse of the malice lurking beneath Muhammed’s surface when an incendiary grenade nearly wiped out half his platoon as the squad prepared to deploy to Iraq. Military officials hauled Muhammed, the prime suspect, away from the blast in handcuffs.
That was the last time Burpee saw the sniper, but he took the title of his book from the temperature of the raging fires that nearly claimed his life that day.
“It shook me up a little bit,” Burpee said. “You’re talking about a guy in your squad that’s supposed to have your back, and then he tried to do away with half his platoon.”
Even after witnessing that incident, hearing Muhammed’s name spoken in conjunction with the murders shook Burpee to his core — mainly because he had assumed that his former squad’s team leader was still behind bars.
“He wasn’t a stellar soldier, but I guarantee you, nobody thought something like this was going to happen,” Burpee said. “It was a shock when I saw his face on the news.”
On post this weekend
Burpee, who retired as a sergeant first class in 2003 after more than 20 years in the Army and now lives in northeast Texas, will make a stop at the Clear Creek Main Exchange at 10 a.m. Friday and Saturday to sign copies of “4,000 Degrees Fahrenheit.”
He returns to Fort Hood after being stationed here twice, once from 1992 to 1995 with the 20th Engineer Battalion and again in 2001 to 2003.
Burpee is donating the proceeds from his book — published May 20 — to a food bank his church supports, which has committed to making life better for children in the turbulent West African county of Benin. Mostly, however, he wants to share his message with other soldiers.
“I think (my book) is something that soldiers, active duty or retired, can relate to,” Burpee said. “If I had not joined the Army, I don’t even want to wager what I’d look like or where I’d be. I know I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”