Three Draper Veterans Talk About War And Life
World War II
Charles Keller has a gift for giving.
While out and about in Draper—which is often—the 95-year-old resident carries a pocket full of boondoggles. To everyone he meets, he offers a hand-woven boondoggle—the nickname for a zipper-pull used on jackets or key chains.
“I have more fun with the couples,” he says. When he extends his palm, displaying several bright boondoggles, the women know exactly what color they want. Men, however, look on apprehensively, thinking they’ll have to ante up. Their smiles—when they realize the boondoggle is a gift and one from the heart—are what Keller enjoys the most.
Keller’s generosity extends beyond his boondoggle gifts. He’s generous with life advice and with stories of a world war few remember firsthand.
Born and raised in Wisconsin, Keller was the last of 10 children. After high school graduation he was drafted into the U.S. Army. His mother, a German immigrant, had four sons in the U.S. armed forces during WWII, all of whom survived, but nonetheless caused her much worry. “No one thinks of the family or the mother of that boy (in the military) and the circumstances she has to live through,” he says.
He received training as a teletype technician and, after being stationed in the United States, served in the 95th Infantry Division at the bitterly cold and bloody Battle of Metz. His infantry, known as the “Ironmen of Metz,” helped defend and liberate the city of Metz, France, which had fallen to German forces.
In the battlefields, teletype was the means of secure communication via a typed, all-caps message using wire as the transmission medium. Technicians crawled across muddy fields and ice-encrusted ground laying down the wires by hand. “They couldn’t use radio, because it was universal and everyone could listen to it,” he explains.
During the Battle of Metz, Keller recalled a jeep journey deep into the front line in order to fix a broken teletype machine. As he traveled down hills, he saw flat expanses of field turned into open graves.
“The jeep driver says to me, ‘You want to see dead soldiers?’ The dead were thicker than the hair on a dog’s back.” Keller remembers no side being spared—German and American soldiers covered the ground.
“And that’s why I say, ‘There aren’t any winners in a war.’”
When Keller returned home, he married his sweetheart, Violet, and moved west to the wilds of Montana where he worked as a seismograph operator in the oilfields and had a brief stint as a mink farmer, a job he says was “nothin’ but pure work.”
With his military training, he went on to have a 35-year career with Ma Bell, the telephone company. People, he says, always cooperated with him. “Walk in with a decent disposition and a smile, and people are happy to help,” is his workplace etiquette advice. “A dirty look gets you nowhere.”
Being a generous gift-giver causes Keller to spend hours weaving boondoggles. He estimates he’s made a few thousand, using a four-point knot he learned as a boy. With his daughter, Kathleen, he faithfully walks a mile every day. And, he swears by a pot of oatmeal for breakfast, doctored up with raisins, a tad of brown sugar and two pork sausages.
“Life,” he says, “is an ongoing situation. If you want to enjoy life, you have to contribute to your well being everyday.”
Ever since he was a boy, Keller has had a great appreciation for those who have served. He recalled seeing veterans from WWI. “I admired these men simply because I knew they went through hell and high water to save us once before,” he says. “And I knew they’d do it again (in WWII) so I had to appreciate that.”
Keller’s daughter feels strongly that it is important to remember the sacrifices U.S. veterans have made. Kathleen keeps a collection of her father’s stories and accomplishments in order to honor the hard work, dedication, and sacrifices her father, and all veterans, have made. She wants people, especially young people, to understand that the many freedoms we enjoy in this country are due, in large part, to the efforts of these men and women.
“My father, along with all our veterans, are treasures in our community,” she says. “All of them—they deserve to be saluted.”
The Vietnam War
On any given day, Richard B. Carter has the choice of three hats to wear.
There’s his golf cap for sunny outings with golf buddies. On game days, it’s his alma mater University of Utah red cap. But the one he wears with the most pride is his blue Vietnam Veteran cap.
“People come up to me and thank me for my service,” says the retired US Air Force Major. “I say to them, ‘It was a blessing . . . and it was a privilege.’”
Others, however, who served in Vietnam never got a chance to say, “You’re welcome.”
“Vietnam was a nonsense war,” he says, adding that it was politically motivated and could have ended sooner. He recalled so many ground troops coming back from Vietnam only to be spit upon at home. Today, he believes attitudes have changed, as evident by the thank-you’s he receives whenever he wears the cap.
Carter, 85, was born in the Depression and raised on a farm in Santaquin, Utah. He enrolled in the University of Utah and signed up for the Air Force ROTC with a goal of becoming an officer. After graduation, he attended flight school, having been bitten by the flying bug at age 11. His older brother, who flew a Cessna 150, had taken him up for a spin, performing aerial acrobatics in the hopes of making Carter sick. It backfired.
“I loved the excitement,” he recalled. “He let me do a take-off and a landing. I was motivated.”
His brother went on to become an aircraft mechanic, servicing and refueling the Enola Gay, the first aircraft to drop the atomic bomb.
Upon joining the Air Force in 1955, Carter trained with bombers, hopscotching to various bases learning to fly B-52s, B-29s and B-57s. In 1967, he was stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines for the Vietnam War.
As with his previous Air Force stations, including in Georgia and Libya, Carter took along his wife, Elaine, and their children. While there, Elaine volunteered at a base’s dental clinic, and with the Red Cross, helping the wounded to eat, shave, and write letters home. “It was a great education,” she recalls, both for herself and their children.
At the airbase, Carter trained with two squadrons flying B-57s—twinjet tactical fighter bombers. Every two months, he’d switch from training pilots to bombing targets in Vietnam, in all flying 283 combat missions in 306 days.
Night missions into north Vietnam were both exciting and uncharted. To locate targets, he’d follow roads looking for truck lights below. On most missions, Carter flew without the aid of spotlights, infrared technology or the flares that were equipped on his aircraft. “I always spotted something,” he recalls, crediting his excellent vision and ability to follow orders for his successes.
He recalls the B-57 as one of the nicest aircrafts to fly in the war, with its short, stubby wings making it agile enough to get out of situations quickly. One such time was a night mission in July 1967 to destroy a truck convoy. Aftering dropping bombs and maneuvering the B-57 upwards to near 9,000 feet, the enemy’s radar-controlled 35 mm guns locked onto him and fired. The bullets, exploding around him, sounded like popcorn popping, he recalls. As he banked, a bullet hit his plane and exploded, tearing four feet off the fuselage and narrowly missing his navigator.
“He never told me about these things,” says Elaine, “Not until he received the Silver Star (for that mission).” The Star is the third highest military decoration for gallantry in action. That, along with the Distinguished Flying Cross—for directing combat operations from an aircraft—join 16 other air and service medals framed in a glass case in his office.
After the war, Carter continued training Air Force pilots in the states, in all serving 20 years. He later flew corporate jets, did aerial photography and ran a successful real estate business. He and Elaine served two LDS missions, including at the newly rebuilt Nauvoo Temple in 2003-04. This month he is being honored in a special military service at the University of Utah’s Veteran’s Day Commemoration.
Carter’s life philosophy is simple: He is thankful for his health and looks forward to what each new day brings. As for his Vietnam experience, Carter says it was “unfortunate and fortunate,” but prefers to dwell on the fortunate.
“I told Mrs. Carter, wherever we are stationed, think good things of all the people. Be nice and be happy that you are there. With that philosophy, we met so many wonderful people.”
The Iraq War
On a Saturday in 2003, Jason Reading moved to Arizona with his pregnant wife and children. On Tuesday, he got the call—his National Guard unit was headed to Iraq. On Thursday, he was gone, leaving behind unpacked boxes and an unmowed yard.
“I always figured that at some point I’d be called up to active duty,” he says. “That wasn’t a surprise to me. What was a surprise was how long it was.”
Reading learned of his son’s birth while in Kuwait and returned home in time to see Max turn one. The greatest thing about his homecoming he says was that he returned with no casualties under his command. All of his men came home—in spite of numerous engagements with insurgents, the first of which was an ambush on their first day in the country. And, he also returned home with a profound appreciation and respect for his wife, Heather, “the true trooper in all of this.”
Every night in Iraq, while lying in bed, he’d wonder if he’d live to see the next day through. “Not too many people have the blessing to contemplate their mortality on a daily basis,” he says. “It definitely gives you an intense appreciation and gratitude for everything you have.”
It was his father’s philosophy of “always giving back” that prompted Reading to join the National Guard at 22. The Guard’s active role in local peacetime projects appealed to him, including helping with the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.
His unit entered Iraq at the start of the war, into a spartan, scorching land with no military infrastructure. His career transformation from Harvard Business School graduate to investment banker to combat engineer and company commander in charge of 120 men felt natural, like something he was always meant to do.
His Guard unit, nicknamed “The 911 Battalion”, set to work. “Every time there was an emergency or the area command needed something done and they didn’t exactly know how to do it, they’d call us.”
Equipped with bulldozers, cranes and scrapers, The 911 Battalion built defensive perimeters, repaired suspension bridges, dug through rubble, escorted convoys, searched for IEDs, and built a gunnery range for training. Success, he says, came from the cooperation and expertise of his unit’s Guardsmen, who, back in the U.S., worked as professional engineers, tradesmen and technicians.
Construction, destruction and patrols proved non-stop, despite ambush dangers, IEDs and oven-hot summers. He and fellow guardsmen worked “all bundled up” in protective helmets, flak jackets, Kevlar gloves, and pants tucked into their boots.
“You’d sweat a lot … an amazing amount,” he says of working in temperatures that topped 136 degrees in the sun.
With his young family back home, Reading recalls feeling terrible for Iraqi families trying to raise children in such an environment. Not only were temperatures harsh, but so was everyday life with no security, limited opportunities and no escape.
“If everyone could experience what the quality of life was like there, few people would complain about life here,” says the father of five.
Today, Reading, 46, is a private equity investor, helping small companies grow. In his free time, he works in his woodshop, making many of his home’s furnishings and having recently completed a beautiful garden shed. Reading said he was honored to have served in Iraq and has great respect for those who serve full time. Even though brief compared to others, his 15-month deployment taught him to be a big fan of peace.
Armed conflict, he says, is sometimes unavoidable, but he believes we should do everything possible to avoid putting U.S. soldiers and airmen at risk. He’d be happy if the United States never had to go to war again.
“No one wants peace more than a soldier,” he says.