By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
When he was in elementary school a decade ago, Zach Keitel dreamed of flying high in the United States Air Force.
He drew pictures of airplanes in flight. And he sent them from Effingham to his personal hero, his brother, Tim, who was a first-year cadet at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
The drawings helped Tim, who was a “Dooley,” the upperclassmen’s nickname for AFA freshmen. The artwork from his younger brother was another way his family back in Effingham was pulling for him hundreds of miles away.
“You definitely do need that support at that school. When I saw Zach’s drawings, I knew my family was in my corner. You want to succeed and make them proud of you,” said Tim, who went on to graduate from the academy and served as an Air Force officer for five years.
Tim also inspired his younger brother, Jeff, to attend the AFA. Jeff earned his lieutenant bars last year and now serves at the Los Angeles Air Force Base in California. And Jeff added to Zach’s determination to attend the AFA in Colorado.
Last month, Zach, a senior at Effingham High School, was nominated for the Air Force Academy by Congressman John Shimkus. He is now awaiting word on his appointment to join the next class of freshmen for the fall at the military academy, founded in 1953.
Zach, the youngest of seven children of Kal and Renee Keitel, of Effingham, will be a rare third legacy if his appointment comes through this spring. Last year, only five AFA graduates had a three-generation legacy.
He went through a long list of tasks for the application process, starting last summer. It has included testing, essay writing, physical examinations and even an interview with an Air Force officer through a Skype computer connection. His appointment will be the fulfillment of his dream from a decade ago.
“Ever since my oldest brother was out there in Colorado, I wanted to be in the Academy,” Zach said.
“Tim’s appointment started the tradition rolling,” said Renee. She was a catalyst that got that tradition started, too.
It started when Tim was a frustrated 18-year-old facing graduation from Effingham High. He had excellent grades and had participated in sports. But no colleges or universities were impressed enough to offer money for tuition.
“He learned A’s don’t pay for college. Tim was grumbling about that as he applied to different colleges. So I just told him if he wanted money for college, why not go to a military service academy. That would be tuition free,” Renee recalled.
Kal entered into the picture by going online to check on the military academy option. He shared his findings with Tim.
“He studied it and he was impressed,” Renee recalled.
“It’s a top-notch educational facility and it offers military service to the country. Those things really landed on what our boys were looking for,” Kal said.
This was a different higher education path than most of the Keitel’s children, which includes Greg, Amy and Stacey. Health care was part of their career path.
But the military academy qualifications fit well with their younger sons.
“They consider character, leadership, sports and school activities. They’re looking for well-rounded candidates. We had always told them to get great grades and not goof off,” Renee said.
If appointed, Zach will experience part of the path taken by his brothers. As a legacy of academy graduates, he can join Tim’s former squadron of cadets, Squadron 12, known as the “Dirty Dozen.”
In addition, Zach will know his way around campus more than other “Dooleys.”
Zach is interested in studying engineering to help with space missile projects after graduation. Of course, there is still the wait for the appointment announcement.
“We went through this with Tim. We were excited by the announcement from the Congressman’s office. Then we learned that is just the nomination. We had to wait for the appointment,” Kal said with a laugh.
Tim — part of the Class of 2011 from the Air Force Academy, completed his military career about 18 months ago – will have a few years of commitment to the Air Force Reserve as an academy alumnus. He is now working with a financial consulting company in Denver. He decided on applying with the Air Force Academy because it offered him more focus. His work in financial management in the Air Force took to many postings during his five-year military career.
“I was frustrated that college cost so much and there wasn’t much chance of getting enough scholarship money. A military academy gave me a purpose and where I wanted to go at the time,” Tim explained.
He, like his younger brothers, was very active in sports at EHS through cross country, wrestling and tennis.
“I was not concerned with the physical demands when I entered the academy. I took a candidate fitness assessment, too,” he said. “Of course, when I arrived on campus that was the first time I had been to the academy. I took the ignorance is bliss approach.”
Of course, basic training before entering a military academy is not just about push-ups and squats. There is a mental challenge, too, for the incoming freshman that lasts for weeks from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. The mental work on cadets continues through a cadet’s first school year.
“In your freshman year, they break you down. You’re no longer an individual, but part of something that is bigger,” Tim said.
Jeff Keitel, who graduated from the Air Force Academy last May, believes the Academy taught him resiliency more than anything else, especially during the mental mind work he encountered during his freshman year.
“The best virtue I gained from that experience was resiliency. To never give up. They throw everything at you. If you’re not resilient, you crumble and fall,” Jeff said.
He said Tim gave him some tips, but the idea was to have Jeff experience the “shock” of the academy training.
“He didn’t want me to live it through him,” Jeff said. “He told me to expect the unexpected.”
Jeff is now working as a cost analyst in career financial management with space research and development projects.
“We’re breaking barriers in space right now,” Jeff said.
Both Tim and Jeff are excited about Zach’s nomination for the AFA. They plan on visiting him there, which offers them some time to catch up on their alma mater.
“I’m looking forward to going back to Colorado and see the different changes. It will be great to see Zach get there and finish. That will be truly amazing for our family,” Jeff said.
“It’s a really unique thing to have been there. I’m still deeply connected with people in the Air Force,” Tim added.
The Keitel family is looking forward to the day when Tim, Jeff and Zach can show off their Academy graduation rings.
And on that day, Tim might pull out the old drawings from his brother. He has kept them through the years. They are a good reminder when Zach was his “wingman.”