The mission sounded simple enough. Army Capt. Bill Keller’s team was to transport an 8-year-old Afghan girl to her home in Asadabad and bring back a small number of American patients to Bagram Air Field north of Kabul.
However, the mission turned out to be anything but easy.
“At the same time we’re there unloading the patient and loading the other ones, another medevac just comes screaming in,” said Keller, a medevac pilot and 2002 graduate of Soldotna High School. “They set down on the pad, while a number of people were there waiting to unload patients.
“It was just chaos in the back of that aircraft.”
Keller could see exactly what was happening in that moment.
“It was obvious to me that the infantry guys were just throwing their buddies on as many as they could,” he said.
“Some still with us, some not.”
That mission, which started out as a routine drop-off and pickup, turned out to be the mission that revealed the essence of the job to Keller.
“It was just amazing to see the extraordinary measures taken by the ground guys and the medevac to save lives,” he said. “We’re there, not for anyone else, but those guys on the ground.”
In September, Keller returned from his second tour overseas. After high school, he wanted to do something that would eventually bring him back to Alaska. That notion, along with his dad’s 18 years of military service, led him to the U.S. Army.
“Being able to come back here and fly some day — that’s what pushed me into the Army and the aviation side of it,” he said.
Before officially enlisting, he enrolled in the Virginia Military Institute, where he would get a taste of the military lifestyle, and go to the East Coast.
“It was absolutely a change,” Keller said. “Both just going from Alaska to the East Coast and then going from high school to the military environment was definitely a shock.”
He graduated from VMI in 2006, and was sent to flight school in south Alabama.
“That in itself was another shock, going to south Alabama,” he said. “You talk about being out of your element — south Alabama is about as far away as you can get from Alaska.”
After flight school, it was a fast transition to combat.
“I graduated flight school Sept. 18, 2008,” Keller said. “A month later, in the third week of October, I was on a plane to Iraq — it was a pretty quick turnaround.”
On the plane to Iraq, Keller had many things going through his mind, but fear was not one of those things.
“I was naturally a little bit nervous. I can’t say I was scared, because I wasn’t,” he said. “I was going over there with a lot of good people that have deployed multiple times before — so they gave me a heads up on what to expect.
“But until you actually go through it — you don’t know how you’re going to handle it.”
The first month in Iraq was spent with an instructor pilot going over the basic maneuvers out of flight school, and the medical evacuation missions. Since there was a shortage of medevac pilots at Forward Operating Base Warrior, Keller’s base, he was expected to learn quickly.
“All of the more senior pilots were saying, ‘Hey, get this kid up so we can get a day off,’” Keller said. “We’re on duty 24/7 — the more people you have to share the burden, the more it helps everyone else.”
The first three months for Keller were filled with the adrenaline rush of being in a war zone. That adrenaline would taper off and transform into monotony.
“The next six months are where it starts to drag on,” he said. “Where it’s the same thing every day — you know exactly what to expect.
“It’s hard not to become complacent just because you know the area so well.”
While Keller was in Iraq, he learned he would be going to Afghanistan 10 months after his first tour was over. Keller was in Iraq during the drawing down of the occupation, which was not the case going into Afghanistan.
“It was in the middle of one of the crucial periods in the operation,” Keller said of the timing in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan presented a whole new set of challenges, one of which was the terrain. Keller said Iraq consisted mostly of sand. For his next deployment, he would have to learn the lay of the land.
“Bagram air base is at 5,000 feet, so we were flying 10-12,000 feet en route to all the locations we were going,” he said. “It was quite challenging between the mountains and the winter.”
Keller compared the Afghan winter to an average Alaska summer. The weather was overcast and rainy on a regular basis.
“It makes it very difficult to navigate those mountain passes,” he said.
Toward the end of his one-year Afghanistan deployment, Keller was told his company flew 3,500 missions and transported 5,000 patients.
“Just sitting back and hearing it quantified really brings it home to what we’re doing for that whole year,” he said.
Keller was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for his service in Afghanistan. He was responsible for approximately 300 combat hours and approximately 300 medevac missions. Some of those missions were easier than others.
“It ranges from the easiest patient transfer to the most difficult point-of-injury mission,” he said. “We get a call in the middle of the night saying a convoy hit a roadside bomb, they’re on the side of a mountain, we need you to go pick them up.”
His accolades and his accomplishments are kept close to him, his service and his pride keep him humble.
“It’s something that I quietly keep in the back of my head,” Keller said. “And just know that what I’ve done and where I want to go.
“Even here in this community there are other veterans who I would say their service is just as equal or greater than mine. There are other veterans with their own stories.”
Keller was informed there will most likely be a third deployment, this time also to Afghanistan. This time it will be Keller being a mentor to the new soldiers deploying for the first time.
“I’ll be able to use my experience to help the younger guys who haven’t done that before,” he said. “Give them an idea of what to expect and what my experience taught me.”
Logan Tuttle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.