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Guardsman Given State of the Union Ticket

Capt. Sean Keller of the Maryland National Guard went to work at the Pentagon after Sept. 11, 2001, and served a tour in Afghanistan, but Tuesday was his first time in the U.S. Capitol.

"Wow," he said, as he took in the ornate Rotunda and stepped into the dark of the old Supreme Court.

Keller, 34, of Delmar, Del., was chosen to watch the State of the Union address at the request of Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md. Each congressman has one ticket for a special guest to watch the speech from the House Gallery. Keller received high recommendations after Gilchrest let the Maryland National Guard send one member to Washington for the event.

"It just appeared to us that it would be an exceptional opportunity for someone who has either served in Afghanistan or Iraq to see, at least for a day, how this place works," Gilchrest said.

A member of Gilchrest's staff showed Keller around the Capitol Tuesday afternoon, noting the building's changes through history and preparations for the big speech.

"I'm just in awe of it all," Keller said. "You get to be a part of history."

Keller has been at the forefront of history since joining the guard in 1995. He started work at the Pentagon on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, as part of a security team at the terrorism scene. He also spent 10 months in Afghanistan during 2003 and 2004 as security for a compound in Kabul.

It was interesting to see people adjust to a democratized society, Keller said, for example, the loosening of Taliban-imposed restrictions on clothing and appearance.

"About 90 to 95 percent of the (Afghan) people appreciated the fact we were there," he said. "It was just that small percent that was lobbing the mortar rounds."

Last week, Salisbury-based Keller met Gilchrest at the funeral of Sgt. Michael McCullen, a Maryland National Guardsman who died Jan. 10 from wounds suffered in Iraq. The pair spoke very briefly, and it was "just by chance" they were reunited Tuesday, Keller said.

Before Guard duty, Keller served in the Marines from 1990 to 1994. He is married and has two sons, aged 2 and 11.

Gilchrest said he would listen Tuesday night for President Bush's thoughts on obligations in the Middle East, but Keller is able to give firsthand accounts.

"It gives him the chance to talk to me and other members about policy and how it affects young people," Gilchrest said. "Plus, we're able to see Afghanistan through his eyes."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.