Face of Defense: War Bride, Military Mom, Soldier Serves in Iraq
By Army Sgt. David Turner
Special to American Forces Press Service
FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Iraq, Aug. 5, 2008 Two years after the Army raised the maximum age for enlistees, it is not uncommon to find soldiers over the age of 40 in the junior enlisted ranks.
Army Spc. Gina Keller shares a meal with her husband, Army Sgt. Kevin Keller, at the Forward Operating Base Kalsu dining facility in Iraq. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. David Turner, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Some served in their younger years; others just always wanted to serve. Still others followed in their children’s footsteps to the recruiting office.
Army Spc. Gina Keller, a war bride and a military mother in addition to being a soldier, said her service is the realization of a dream she had for more than 20 years.
“I always wanted to join the service,” she said. “I tried at 18, but because of family values and respect for my family, I chose not to.”
Keller said her parents didn’t think joining the military was the right move for her at that time. In the meantime, she started a family of her own and put her dream of military service on hold. Her children -- three sons and a daughter -- came first, she said. But she always hoped the chance to serve would come again.
“I still knew that if someday it came around, that I could do it,” she said.
At age 40, Keller learned the age limit for enlistment had been raised to 39. She sought a waiver to join the National Guard, but was turned down.
“My heart was broken,” she said. “I thought I would never get to do this.”
Months passed. Then she heard the Army had raised the age limit again, to 42. An Army recruiter called her the next day and asked her if she still wanted to join.
“I was always hoping and praying somehow I’d make this goal, this dream, happen,” she said.
Her eldest son, Isaac, had just joined the National Guard, and mother and son shipped off to basic training within days of each other. He went to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.; Keller left for Fort Jackson, S.C.
Despite the rigors of basic training, Keller proved herself in a group of younger recruits. Drill sergeants didn’t treat her any differently, she said, and the woman drill sergeants were the hardest on her.
“I was called ‘grandma’ and ‘old lady’ most of the time I was there,” she recalled, noting that her fellow soldiers helped her manage the stress of the training.
After basic training, Keller completed her advanced individual training, qualifying as a wheeled-vehicle mechanic. Then, in a strange twist, she received orders to report to her new unit, 92nd Engineer Brigade -- her son Andrew’s unit.
“He said, ‘You can’t be coming here.’ I said, ‘Yes, I am,” she recalled with a laugh. Keller said Andrew pleaded with his company’s first sergeant, “You can’t let that happen; I can’t have my mom here.”
Worries of standing next to Mom in formation subsided right away. Andrew deployed to Iraq, expecting to return home in October 2007. He had not seen his mother in 18 months, and the day of his scheduled return turned out to be the day of his mother’s departure; she received orders to deploy to Iraq, too.
Things were happening fast for the 42-year-old single parent. She relocated with her youngest child, now 13, to Fort Stewart, Ga., and began preparing for a 15-month tour of duty in Iraq, assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division’s 703rd Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team. Her commander allowed her an extra 10 days before deploying to spend time with Andrew. Mother and son bonded in a new way; he helped her pack her bags and advised her on her upcoming journey.
“He knew what I had to face,” she said. “He knew where I was going.”
Keller said the prospect of a long deployment didn’t discourage her.
“I wanted to try and accomplish the rest of my goal, which was to come to the service and to serve the soldiers. I knew what the soldiers had to go through; I saw my sons go through it, and I wanted to be here to be of service to them,” she said.
“All the way through basic training they kept emphasizing that we were going to be deployed. I was wholeheartedly engaged with the fact that I was going to serve my country, one way or the other,” Keller said. “Whatever my country expected of me, that’s what I was going to do.”
While at Fort Stewart, Keller had another surprise in store for her. On the rifle range one day, she met the man who would become her husband. “I wasn’t looking for anybody to be my significant other when I got to Fort Stewart,” she recalled.
Army Sgt. Kevin Keller was working safety duty on the range that day, and while he was helping her adjust the sights on her rifle, they struck up a friendship.
“He came over to me in the foxhole and said, ‘What are you shooting at?’ I said, ‘The targets, Sergeant.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re not hitting any of them.’”
After their first meeting, she began seeing him around the motor pool; she worked there as a mechanic, and he worked as a fuel specialist. He was a sergeant and she was a private first class, which made a relationship challenging.
Though they served in separate companies in the same battalion, rules against such a relationship drew criticism from their leaders. But, Keller said, the sergeant’s warmth and confidence won her over.
“He said from the first day he met me, ‘You’re going to marry me.’ He was telling everybody,” she recalled.
There was little time for courtship, though. Deployed together to Iraq, the two were stationed here with different jobs and schedules that prevented them from seeing much of each other.
Still, their relationship was the cause of talk, so in January they decided to do something about it. Taking leave together, they went home to the United States to get married. Within two days of their arrival, they were officially husband and wife. Then, they went back to Iraq.
Serving together as newlyweds has afforded the two a unique version of marital bliss. Though they do not share living quarters and they work different hours in different places, they enjoy the moments they do spend together. They often share meals in the dining facility, and Specialist Keller frequently takes iced tea to her husband on the job.
Though their marriage so far has been spent mostly apart while serving in a combat zone, Specialist Keller said, she has not been disappointed with her deployment.
“I’ve enjoyed everything that I’ve done,” she said. “I’ve always felt that when soldiers accept me as working hard and getting them where they need to be, helping them accomplish their mission -- that is my reward,” she said.
With her two-year enlistment soon to be over, Specialist Keller said she wanted to re-enlist, “but Sergeant Keller had other plans for me,” she said. “He said that since he was retiring, I would be ‘retiring,’ too.”
The couple plans to purchase five acres of land and build their own house. Not one to shy away from a challenge, Specialist Keller said she plans to do the work herself. Her previous civilian job was as a carpenter.
Others like her shouldn’t be afraid of the challenge to serve their country, she said.
“For anybody over 40 who really wants to come to the service, there is a very big reward here,” she explained. “You have to come here open-minded; you can’t come here as your own individual. You have to be willing to change, and you have to be willing to serve.”
(Army Sgt. David Turner serves with the 3rd Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs Office.)