We have our freedom today because they defended our country, and throughout the month of November, KX News will share local veterans’ stories in our special series Veterans Voices.
The first veteran we honor this month is Rob Keller.
Retired is his current title, but his actions are quite the opposite of the definition of the word.
There are many reasons men and women join the military: for country, family, honor. For Rob Keller, a patriotic person all of his life, it was for those reasons and more.
“I chose to belong, I don’t like to use the term joined, I chose to belong to the military organization because I was able to do something bigger than myself,” said Keller.
It began the summer of his freshman year of college when he attended the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Course in Quantico, Virginia.
He then married the love of his life and biggest, long-time supporter, JoLynn, in 1973, and soon after raised his right hand and was sworn into Air Force.
He was stationed at Ellsworth Air Force Base in his home state of South Dakota. During his time there, he was deployed to Guam and Okinawa, Japan.
After completing four years in the air force, Keller returned to school and earned his degree in journalism.
He and JoLynn then moved to Rapid City, South Dakota where he worked as a news reporter for a local news station, but the military was still calling his name, so he chose to belong to the South Dakota National Guard.
“That started my career in the public information. Found my voice, love that piece of journalism, the videography, all that like I love telling stories,” says Keller.
…which lead to the Rapid City Police Department hiring him as their Community Relations Officer within the National Guard.
He later transferred membership to North Dakota National Guard to the 129th Public Affairs Detachment, soon going full-time active duty within the guard.
Keller assumed a number of roles while in the guard.
Just a few months into his final position in the National Guard as public information officer was Sept. 11, 2001.
“Changed our life forever,” Keller remembered. “And so on my watch of the 14 killed in action on North Dakota guard, 12 happened on my watch. Working with the families, you know, working with the children, getting them services. How do we handle all of that? And that became a became a labor of love to be able to how do we keep their memory alive and tell their particular story.”
Keller completed two public affairs missions in Iraq and was part of one of the first PIO units to embed themselves into a combat zone and tell the stories of our North Dakota National Guard soldiers.
And soon, it became more than only telling stories.
“One time we were there over Christmas, and we did DVDs of all the soldiers, and we send them back, they could be in a room with all kinds of storybooks. And they could read stories to their kids,” Keller recalled. “We had books that were made up that were that we gave to every family, you know, when you go to bed, your dad over here is looking at the same star that you’re looking at. So, yeah…”
Retiring from the military in 2008 didn’t slow Keller down.
He is a member of the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services Emergency Management Support Team, volunteers as the public affairs director for the North Dakota Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, continues to train public information officers and started a nonprofit.
When working with families whose loved one is deployed, they often ask about communicating via social media or email.
While this is good, he shares what is better.
“Write a letter,” Keller suggested, “because when you write a letter, and you get it, you can touch it, your taste, if you want to smell it, probably if your wife said it. And most importantly, you can put it in your pocket while you’re out in combat patrol. So when you write that letter, it becomes personal, you know, my wife and I wrote letters, I think we still have the letters. So we go through those every now and then that brings back a memory brings back an emotion, a feeling. You know, it takes you back to that. That’s what’s important to remember that.”
And while retired now, and continuing to work in public affairs and volunteer his time helping military families, Keller has another reason to be proud.
“Actually, the big thing now was having my son,” Keller shared. “Follow my foot footsteps who he’s going to he’s got 20 years in already. Yeah. So it’s amazing.”
Realizing there was a need to enhance education and training for PIOs on the local, state, federal and tribal level, Keller started a nonprofit called the North Dakota Public Information Officer Association.
And for fun, Keller has ridden his motorcycle to the Arctic Ocean, not once, but twice, and continues to organize bike rides locally.