Three generations of service


There’s an increasingly uncommon bond among members of the Keyser family in St. Louis. At a time when people in their nineties represent just .5 percent of the U.S. population, and military service remains a choice and not an obligation, 94-year-old Harold Keyser helms three generations of military men.

Harold, who enlisted during World War II, still remembers shivering through 40-degree-below-zero temperatures in Alaska and trudging through 12-inch-deep mud in the Aleutians, a chain of some 300 small volcanic islands spanning west from the Alaska Peninsula.


A native of East St. Louis, Ill., Harold served from 1941 to 1945 with the U.S. Army. He attained the rank of staff sergeant and worked, in part, on keeping Allied troops supplied with equipment to improve “living and shipping and business” on the Aleutian Islands, he says.

But it’s for his son Steve, now 58 and retired from the military after 26 years with the U.S. Air Force Reserves, plus four years of Vietnam-era active duty, that Harold bestows some of his most effusive praise.

“I think anybody who could become a colonel, as Steve did, had something on the ball,” says Harold, who lives in Creve Coeur and is a member of Shaare Zedek. For maximum impact, he pronounces the word “ball-l-l-l-l” as if it has at least four syllables.

“Steve is a well-qualified person, intelligent,” says his dad, a retired retailer. “I admire Steve and I’ve told him about that more than once.”

Due to the lottery selection system that replaced the military draft in 1969, Steve had a low enough number that he likely would have served anyway. But as a graduate of now-shuttered Western Military Academy in Alton, Ill., he entered the ROTC program at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. After graduating, he joined the U.S. Air Force, spending most of his active duty, from 1973 to 1977, at Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster, Mo. Whiteman was then one of nine nuclear missile bases in the United States.

While on 12- to 24-hour shifts in a facility nearly 60 feet underground, Steve and another officer shared responsibility for monitoring and the security of 10 intercontinental ballistic missiles. In a room maybe 10-by-14 feet, with various computer consoles and racks of equipment, the two officers had just enough space to move around.

Though secret classifications prevented most officers from officially knowing about it or, if they knew, from talking about it, officers realized that most of those missiles were focused on Russia and China.

Missouri at the time had 150 nuclear missiles and 15 launch control centers, Steve says. An estimated 1,200 other missiles were scattered throughout the country. “I’ve done a lot of interesting things, but nothing more important than being responsible for 10 nuclear missiles,” Steve says.

Yet when it comes to heaping praise, Steve — now deputy executive director/CFO of Cooperating School Districts and also a member of Shaare Zedek — reserves much of it for his son, 29-year-old Michael. Emboldened by terrorist attzacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, Michael enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2004. He completed Officer Candidate School last January and now, as a second lieutenant at Ft. Benning, Ga., is completing a basic infantry course for officers.

Coming up soon for Michael is U.S. Army Ranger School, a combat leadership course he describes as “eight weeks of a living hell. They stress you with little sleep and little food and have you constantly moving while they try to determine how you react.”

Earlier during his enlistment, Michael built on the associate’s degree he had earned in aviation maintenance at Southwestern Illinois College’s satellite campus in Granite City, by completing a bachelor’s in professional aeronautics through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

“I’m proud of Michael for wanting to serve,” Steve says. “I’m equally if not more proud of the way he has gone about achieving through his own personal effort. He has taken advantage of every opportunity he was presented.” Steve, as a ROTC student, had his last two years of college paid for by the U.S. Air Force. During his military commitment, he completed two master’s degrees, one in business administration and the other in accounting.

Unlike his father or grandfather, Michael is the first of the three generations to serve in a war zone. During three deployments to Iraq, for five-month, four-month and three-month stints, he repaired helicopters and “took the opportunity to go up in a helicopter and fight the war on terrorism.”

Michael is now stationed at Ft. Benning, Ga. and his present military commitment ends in two-and-a-half years. He hasn’t yet decided whether to extend it. Still, he takes a long view. His grandfather was part of what Tom Brokaw has called “The Greatest Generation,” those now gray-haired heroes who came of age during the Depression, fought in World War II and built a modern America. His father, in contrast, began his service at a time when the Vietnam War was so unpopular, servicemen traveling on civilian aircraft, even if for military purposes, were told to wear civilian clothing, so as to not draw attention to themselves.

Not long ago when Michael went in uniform to a bank in Savannah, Ga., an older woman thanked him and pressed a $20 bill into his hands. He refused. She persisted.

While the one doing the changing is often the last one to see it, Michael recently received a compliment from his dad. Steve told him that during his military service, Michael has matured a lot. Even Michael had to agree.

Jewish War Vets plan Memorial Day ceremony

Steve Keyser and his son, Michael, plan to take part Sunday, May 24 when area members of the Jewish War Veterans, Posts 644 and 346, once again provide a robust early morning breakfast at the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building for some 300 area Boy Scouts and their leaders. Steve Keyser is a member of Post 644.

In honor of Memorial Day on Monday, the scouts will receive nearly 4,500 small American flags, which they will place Sunday morning at the gravesites of Jewish military veterans buried in the area’s eight Jewish cemeteries.

The public is invited when the scouts return to the Federation for an hour-long service on Sunday, beginning at 11 a.m. and led by Rabbis Susan Talve and Mark Fasman. The names of the 164 area Jewish servicemen who died in action during World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War will be read. So will the names of Jewish military vets who died since last Memorial Day.

Afterward, the crowd will reassemble at the flagpole outside the building, where the flag will be lowered to half-staff, and Fasman will play “Taps” on his shofar. Joe Iken, 86, and Ralph Shower, 92, both World War II vets, are the event co-chairs.