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The goal of the River to River series "Leaving Afghanistan" is to understand a dimension of the war's impact by focusing on the individual experiences of Iowans who have done all types of work in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.

After Nearly 40 Years Of Service, A Retired Military Aviator Gives A Snapshot Of His Career

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Brian O'Keefe
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Brian O'Keefe

As part of River to River's Leaving Afghanistan series, Ben Kieffer spoke Brian O'Keefe of Des Moines. He is a former military officer and pilot aviator, and he retired in 2020 after serving 38 years in the military. Beginning in 2010, O'Keefe had multiple deployments in Afghanistan in various capacities.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Through Decades Of Military Service

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Brian O'Keefe
Brian O'Keefe

"I joined the active army as a military policeman. Contractually, I wanted to get to to Europe on Uncle Sam's dime. So I did a tour in Frankfurt, Germany, and then I was stationed stateside at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. And then I immediately joined the Iowa National Guard in the fall of '85 while I attended a community college here in the Des Moines area.

"I did a year in the Iowa National Guard right up in Boone, Iowa, as a crew chief, and then they said, 'hey, you want to go to flight school?' And I thought they were joking, but I was honored to be selected. And in 1986, I went to flight school in Fort Rucker, Alabama, learned to fly the old … helicopter. And then I returned to Boone while I attended college and and flew out of there. Then I transferred to Waterloo, Iowa, flew a gunship and a COBRA gunship there. And then 1990, the Iowa Guard was asked to provide medevac support for Desert Shield Desert Storm. I volunteered for that. And so I went back to the Huey and we activated here stateside and spent nine months supporting active duty bases in the southwest part of the country during the the conflict. '99 I went through here locally in Iowa. You know, you do as a National Guard pilot, I did counterdrug here for 12 weeks, 66 counties with local deputies and law enforcement agents looking for marijuana. I've had the privilege of flying cover for presidents as they visit when you're flying along routes. And so it's a really unique opportunity.

"And then 2002, I went with the 101st Airborne into Iraq. We were on the initial push, and that was a unique experience at the time. I was 38 and my commander was 26. Most of the pilots were in their early 20s. So they were they were experiencing life at a at a different level than myself. We went to South America 2008 under [a] of kind of warfare on terrorism. And we supported the second largest embassy in the world out of Bogota, Colombia. And we were privileged to support the rescue of some Americans who had been held by a terrorist group down there, the FARC. So that was a neat experience — to celebrate the Fourth of July in a U.S. embassy in a foreign country. On the rescue of some Americans, 2010-11, we were sent as a fixed wing pilot. It's a small King Air twin engine turboprop. And we were able, because of our anti-missile capabilities, fly generals and their support staff from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, all the little countries through Pakistan and five or six bases into Afghanistan. That was 10, 11."

Deployment To Afghanistan: 2010, 2013, 2015 and 2016

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Brian O'Keefe
Brian O'Keefe

"We are direct support of the generals. So the theater area commanders, they report to the Pentagon basically. So as they went around and met with different leaders in in the other countries around us, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, we went into Iraq quite frequently. So they had that whole area of responsibility. So during that 10, 11 period, I made 15 trips up into Afghanistan from it could be 24 hours stay to a month stay. But so I was in and out in the Middle East throughout that time period of 10, 11.

"We had an opportunity to visit all the bases. So the larger ones from the north, Mazar e Sharif, Herat to the west, Kandahar to the south, and to some of the smaller ones in between. And it was based off of future operations, on a larger scale that generals were planning further out, whether it was the development of a base, relationships with the locals, and then ensuring that just from a morale standpoint, that they're getting the things they need to be able to defend themselves and be ready to take action if needed.

"The Army and the Air Force provide medium altitude reconnaissance surveillance platform to support the commanders. And also the soldiers was a NATO level. We supported Afghans and all the, any other country that was participating in operations in northern Afghanistan. So we had every everything from just south of Kabul towards the Pakistan border up into the Hindu Kush to the north. So we would be out everything from finding and tracking high value targets, doing patterns of life on areas that the Special Forces, Army, Brits, we're going to do an infill or doing assault to whether it's Taliban or we would even locate if they're going to have a big mission or a high threat mission, that aircraft was on site before, during and after an event because they knew the value would be provided.

"These are these are individuals that were designated beyond my level. But my function and purpose was provide that platform. So my back-seater and people monitoring our transmissions could do a positive I.D. on someone. But you monitor what they're doing, who's around them, what information, what equipment. There's a lot of intel that that is valuable by seeing who comes and goes around somebody. So that was kind of based off other intel. We'd get to say, 'we want to track this person for a period just to see if they weren't making decisions at that time.'"

Memories That Left An Imprint

"The thing I got out of it was the friendships and relationships and the unique opportunities I had as an officer and as a pilot to to go around that country and see people that were maybe there for the first time or isolated to an area of Afghanistan that they don't they don't see or know what's going on outside their walls or within 10 miles of them. So flying with generals, they don't brief or discuss with us, but you kind of can pick up based off of who they're talking with and how things happen after some visit we make with somebody. It was amazing at Bagram, especially being based out there. That was the main hospital. That's the main hub. So you got to see people on their worst day, whether they're being brought in by stretcher or meeting a guy just escorted in his buddy, that was flown in KIA And he's getting the body to the morgue in Bagram. Seeing guys all excited, Facetiming their wife because he gets to go home for baby delivery. So Bagram was quite unique. And like I said, because as an officer, as a pilot, I wasn't tasked with a ton of other duties. I flew six days a week. But any time I had off, I'd like to spend it at — we call them like a USO or a little rec building. And, you know, you just look for that young soldier whose got that thousand yards stare, and I take the opportunity to go visit with him, see how their day's going.

"With the overrun of Kabul and the lack of action by the Afghan military reminds me of April of 2011 when I was in Kabul, and we were waiting on a passenger to depart. But the the big voice or the sirens going off, which usually indicates an attack by artillery or mortar rocket. But I couldn't hear anything and we departed, but I found out that while I was standing there, just down the ramp on the runway at Kabul, an Afghan officer, a pilot for the Afghan Air Force, had been challenged by the U.S. Air Force about illegal use of some equipment. And he stood up and killed all nine of them right in this conference room. And so that stuck with me, knowing that some Afghans that I saw when I was out doing reconnaissance stuff work both sides.They put on the uniform, and I guess never felt that commitment from them as it did from your fellow NATO soldiers."

Thoughts On The People Of Afghanistan

"We're the fifth empire that's tried to go in there and establish some democracy and capitalism, free trade, but to me, they're a third world country and they're tribal. And, you know, they don't recognize borders. They recognize family. And and the rest of us are, you know, just a necessary evil that they take advantage of our compassion and money and training and funding. But they'll move on without us.

"Because basically [U.S.] soldiers, they would commit to a fight, whether they were ambushed or they were doing assault themselves, but I mean, I watched from above where we would get ambushed. And as soon as we started shooting back or brought in some air support, they could just set down their weapons and walk back in the village and go back to their everyday life. And we were we were limited by our rules of engagement. There's a couple of times where we could have engaged a threat that was engaging our people and we couldn't because couldn't confirm the occupancy of certain buildings, that they weren't worried about collateral damage or women and children not involved. So it was frustrating that they could they could shoot until they got tired, but our guys couldn't take full advantage of our capabilities to defend themselves."

Readjusting To Civilian Life

"I do notice some things once a while. My neighborhood just planted trees, and they use little five gallon buckets to keep the young trees watered. And that was a that was a common method for the Afghans — they would use five gallon buckets to trigger rockets so they could set them, walk away in the water trickled out, then the rockets would fire. So that was always as a reconnaissance part that. We're always looking for people around the base that were trying to shoot at us, as they walk by those, you know, like I wonder if they're still using those buckets. But, you know, I look, when I see a heavy loaded car, I think about vehicles that were loaded down with 200 pound bombs that these use in Iraq. They're just things that you kind of think twice and say, 'no, that's not. You're safe and you're okay.'"