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Local Marine a mover in Afghanistan

SSgt. Keyser of Canyon Country commands the flight line at Camp Leatherneck

Posted: April 3, 2011 6:25 a.m.
Updated: April 3, 2011 6:25 a.m.
On a recent visit home, Marine Corps SSgt. Christian Keyser enjoyed a family reunion with his wife Lisa, daughters Lillian (left) and Nickole (right), and their four-legged friend Hercules. On a recent visit home, Marine Corps SSgt. Christian Keyser enjoyed a family reunion with his wife Lisa, daughters Lillian (left) and Nickole (right), and their four-legged friend Hercules.
On a recent visit home, Marine Corps SSgt. Christian Keyser enjoyed a family reunion with his wife Lisa, daughters Lillian (left) and Nickole (right), and their four-legged friend Hercules.
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Christian Keyser of Canyon Country oversees all ground transportation and heavy equipment operations at Camp Leatherneck, a huge military air base and installation in Afghanistan. U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Christian Keyser of Canyon Country oversees all ground transportation and heavy equipment operations at Camp Leatherneck, a huge military air base and installation in Afghanistan.
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Christian Keyser of Canyon Country oversees all ground transportation and heavy equipment operations at Camp Leatherneck, a huge military air base and installation in Afghanistan.
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Christian Keyser of Canyon Country drives heavy equipment on the flight line at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Christian Keyser of Canyon Country drives heavy equipment on the flight line at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Christian Keyser of Canyon Country drives heavy equipment on the flight line at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Christian Keyser of Canyon Country drives heavy equipment on the flight line at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Christian Keyser of Canyon Country drives heavy equipment on the flight line at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Christian Keyser of Canyon Country drives heavy equipment on the flight line at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan.
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Christian Keyser of Canyon Country, on his fourth overseas deployment, is in charge of all ground transportation and heavy equipment operations at Camp Leatherneck, a huge military air base and installation in Afghanistan. U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Christian Keyser of Canyon Country, on his fourth overseas deployment, is in charge of all ground transportation and heavy equipment operations at Camp Leatherneck, a huge military air base and installation in Afghanistan.
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Christian Keyser of Canyon Country, on his fourth overseas deployment, is in charge of all ground transportation and heavy equipment operations at Camp Leatherneck, a huge military air base and installation in Afghanistan.
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It's a long way from Canyon Country to Afghanistan for U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Christian Keyser. The war-torn Middle Eastern country is half a world apart geographically, socially and politically, from the semi-rural/suburban, high-desert Santa Clarita Valley, Calif., community where he grew up.

SSgt. Keyser, 34, and based at Camp Pendleton, is now on his third combat deployment to the Middle East (he also served a hitch in Okinawa). He's in charge of all ground transportation and heavy equipment that moves thousands of people and tons of supplies in and out of Camp Leatherneck, a huge 1,600-acre military air base and installation about 150 miles west of Khandahar, Afghanistan.

Keyser knows what the troops on the front lines need. He's been there. He saw combat during the first of two assignments in Iraq. Now, at Camp Leatherneck, it's his job to make sure troops get to where they need to be, and have whatever gear they need to complete their missions.

Growing up on the southern end of Sand Canyon and other areas of Canyon Country, Keyser attended local schools through junior high, when he moved to San Francisco with his mother, who took a job there. After high school in the Bay Area, Keyser attended the University of Redlands before enlisting in the Marine Corps.

As we discovered in the interview that follows, Keyser views serving his country in the military as a family tradition and a family affair that extends from his father to his wife Lisa.

She's a self-described Army brat who served in the Air Force, and met her Marine in 2000 when they both attended the same tech school.

"I know this sounds goofy, but the moment I laid eyes on that guy, I knew he was the man I was going to marry," she said in a separate interview. "And he didn't ask me to marry him. He told me I was marrying him. That's how it happened."

Today, Lisa Keyser, 35, holds down the family fort in San Clemente with their two daughters, Nickole, 13, and Lillian, 6, along with Hercules, the family dog, while her husband and the girls' dad is overseas.

Unlike some of the other military wives she knows, she said, "I'm experienced. I'm used to living (apart from my husband). They're scared. They've never been away from their husbands. And they're really just kids, so they just don't know how to handle the whole thing. I don't know if I handle it the best myself, but I make do, and I have the girls. And I know my husband likes me, so he's coming home."

Lisa Keyser shares her husband's dedication to serving her country. "I know he's a patriot, I know I'm a patriot and my kids are patriots, and it really is awesome," she said. "I'm glad that through this (interview), people can see him and hear about what he does, and I hope they realize the sacrifice he makes for them, and for himself."

The following is an edited transcript of Signal Online Editor Stephen K. Peeples' recent telephone interview with SSgt. Keyser.

*****

The Signal: Where did you go to school in Santa Clarita?

Keyser: A preschool at Sulphur Springs Elementary, Fox Lane, was my first actual school experience. Then we moved into Canyon Country, to a couple different places. I stayed with my (older) sisters for extended periods of time on several occasions, so I moved around to a lot of the different schools (including Santa Clarita Elementary). All my older sisters went to Canyon High.

I moved out of Santa Clarita in the middle of junior high school (at Sierra Vista), to San Francisco, because my mother got a job up there. I went to O.J. Simpson's high school, the Galileo. Don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but I did play on the same high school football team that O.J. Simpson did. Different years, but same team.

And after high school?

I was kicking around, not doing anything really special. I worked a lot of different jobs - construction, several different law firms. I played football for a year at the University of Redlands. But I just wasn't doing anything I was really super proud of.

What motivated you to join the Marines?

My father was in the Marine Corps from '50 to '53 during the Korean War, so that was something that I've always wanted to do, and just never made the decision. So I was kind of a recruiter's dream - just walked right in and told them, "Sign me up and I'll ship to boot camp as soon as you have a spot open, and I don't care what job or MOS (specialty) you give me. I'll do whatever, go wherever the Marine Corps needs me."

This is your fourth overseas assignment?

Yes, if you count my initial deployment when I first joined. I went to Okinawa and left my wife and kids behind, and the rest of my family as well, so I count it as a deployment. But this is my third combat deployment.

Please tell us about your current assignment, what you do and how you go about it on a daily basis.

I work out at the flight line here at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan. We've got a pretty good-sized flight line, so we have a lot of fixed-wing aircraft that come in, as well as a lot of helicopters. My Marines and I are tasked with loading and off-loading every single one of them that belongs with the Marine force, so we stay very busy.

We do 24-hour operations, so we've got two shifts. Half the Marines work during the day shift and the other half work at night, and I work some or most of both (shifts).

How many Marines are in your crew?


I've got 60, including myself. I'm the supervisor. I've got four mechanics that take care of and maintain the equipment when it goes down, and the rest are operators, and they're kind of spread out to several different bases. We've got Marines here at Camp Leatherneck, and out at Lashkar Gah, which is a British base (about 20 minutes away by air), doing some joint operations there.

I pop in on (the Marines at Lashkar Gah) as often as I can. I sent them a Christmas tree my mother had sent out at Christmas time, and bring them cigars and stuff like that.

The area looks pretty desolate (on Google maps)... looks like a small river runs through a big, mostly dry riverbed....

The rivers out here kind of snake around all over the place. Every (river) I've been to over here looks pretty dry, but I'm from Canyon Country, so I'm used to that. I'm definitely home in the desert.

Can you put into perspective the importance of what you do in keeping things running and making sure everybody gets to where they need to go when they need to be there?

Yes, our job covers two different areas, and you hit on both of them. One is the personnel. All personnel going in and out of this whole area of operations come through our area here at Leatherneck. That's all of their baggage and personal effects, and equipment they need to do their jobs. My Marines are responsible for loading and unloading all that onto the birds (planes) going to and from (the base).

Then there's cargo -- all the beans, bullets and Band-Aids that go everywhere. If the cargo is going to a larger area, it's usually going to be on a larger fixed-wing aircraft. My Marines load and unload all of that, as well as all of the smaller items that are carried out on the helicopters. My crew stages up all that gear so the helicopters can come in and pick it up.

There's also an HST, which is an external load hanging from the bottom of a helicopter. We move a lot of things around by that method. And we help load up assets for air-drops by parachute.

How much interaction do you have with the local Afghan people?

Here, not very much. My Marines at Lashkar Gah have quite a bit of interaction, so when I've visited there, I've spoken to a few different people. But the Afghan language is very different, so (the conversation is) more like, "Hey, hello, how are you doin'?" and then I just kind of carry on.

You were in Iraq twice?

Yes, sir, I went there in '03. I crossed the border on my birthday, actually, on March 13, and that was the initial push-up (to Baghdad), and then I went back in 2008.

Describe your experience in Iraq.


My deployments have been very different. It's always situational - what unit you're with, where you are and what your specific mission is. In 2003, it was very combat-based, obviously. We were doing the push-up to Baghdad, so everything was "shoot, move, communicate."

On the second deployment, we were situated in one spot and sustaining that area, doing a lot of the type of things we're doing now, except we weren't on the flight lines, but we were supporting all of the ground units rolling in and out on convoys.

And we went out on a couple of other missions. On one, we had a bunch of mattresses left over, so we took them to a local village just outside of base and distributed them to the people there.

The people were very appreciative and everybody we ran into was really great. They were all smiles, and the kids were great, running around and holding your hand and walking around with the Marines. I was on the ground walking for a lot of the deployment in 2003, so I got to deal with the local populace quite a bit. But on my second deployment, the (other) Marines hadn't had an opportunity to do that. So they really enjoyed ... doing some of the things they joined the Marine Corps to do. It was a good experience.

The run-up to Baghdad in 2003 was historic and very fast. We heard all about it from the usual military and media sources. But what was it really like on the ground? What was the feeling and the attitude of the troops as you were moving north?

It was definitely a singular experience. We were with First Wing Division, Regimental Combat Team One, so we were there from Kuwait all the way up to Baghdad. The smells, and the thoughts that go through your mind, are different than they are on a deployment like I'm on now, where you're more static and doing your mission every day. Everybody was really upbeat; we didn't have any morale issues. I wouldn't say we were happy to be there, but we were definitely happy to be in the unit we were in, and to be part of that mission.

It did go really fast, though. We took over a cement factory in downtown Baghdad, and were holed up there. About two weeks after we got there, a sergeant major came up and told us the whole shebang was over, the big push-up was over. We were unaware of it at that time, so that was pretty cool. We out-ran our information chain, so that's how quickly it went.

That was also the case in reporting. We would hear that coalition forces were at point A, but you were already at point B. So where were you when Saddam Hussein's regime was famously toppled along with his statue in Baghdad on April 9, 2003?

We were with First Wing Division, Regimental Combat Team One, and we (went) from Kuwait all the way up to Baghdad. A few Marines from our unit went a little bit past Baghdad, but once we were there, we stayed in the city for a few weeks until there was a little bit of stabilization. And we sort of leap-frogged. We'd go back toward Kuwait several miles, then a couple of days later, go (north again) toward Baghdad a mile.

Headed back toward Kuwait, once we got outside of Nasiriyah, which was a fairly rough neighborhood while we were there, we got onto an airbase we had taken over, and stayed there, stable, for about a month. Then we started getting ready to move out of country -- "retrograde" is what we were calling it then, and now it's called redeployment. We shot out of country after that.

Bet you were glad to beat it.

I'm always ready to get home. I've deployed enough times and for long enough to know there's no place I like being better than the United States and California. Japan's great, I loved the sights and sounds of that country, and there are definitely interesting things to see here, in Iraq and Germany and the other places I've stopped in. But I've definitely realized there's nowhere I'd rather be than back in the States.

When are you going to be back in California for your next leave?

I'm hoping to get home this summer. My wife is speaking to my sister and her family who actually live there in Santa Clarita. We're planning on taking a road trip when I get back, and I'm going to take however many days they'll let me take. We're going drive from Camp Pendleton all the way up the coast, stop in Santa Clarita, stop in the Bay Area, probably head up north and maybe east, and then back down to San Diego, to Camp Pendleton.

I'm actually excited to go to Okinawa again, to Japan again, for three more years. So we want to see a little bit of the States before we have to take off again.

What did you do on your first trip to Okinawa?

I was at Ninth Engineer Support at the time. They're actually part of the (larger) unit I'm with right now. We're a branch of it, and they're part of that same tree, so to speak.

When you go back to Okinawa later this year, your family is going with you this time, and it's a three-year hitch. What will your assignment be?

It's strictly an engineering mission, so a lot of road construction, runway construction, demolition. It's the same amount of "essential" as far as mission accomplishments. I think what we're doing right now is just more fun for us as engineers, because we get to knock buildings down and build roads. You get to push a lot of dirt around. It's basically playing with Tonka Trucks, and you can't beat that.

Here (in Afghanistan), we do a lot of route clearance, going around and finding IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and clearing them out, clearing out different routes for us. The infrastructure here is fairly low-level, so the engineers do a lot of road construction. Every now and then we get the opportunity to build schools or orphanages, stuff like that. (Okinawa) will be a pretty diverse mission, but all engineering, and my piece of that - and my Marines' piece of that - is usually the construction of the foundation.

In civilian life, what was your training for this? Or did the Marines train you after you joined?

I got most of my training after I joined, as far as my military occupational specialty of being an engineer equipment operator. I had worked several different construction jobs, but it was more of a labor or finish-work in the house type of thing, so I didn't really do a whole lot of what I do now.

As far as the shooting side of it, growing up in Sand Canyon, we only owned three acres behind our house, but it was right butted up against some national forest land, so nobody else was really out there. So my backyard was thousands of acres because my dad picked a good spot. All the families out there shoot and ride motorcycles and stuff, so we were always out shooting.

Speaking of your dad, you mentioned he served in Korea, but another family member served on Guadalcanal in World War II, is that correct?


My great-uncle on my mother's side, so I've got it from both sides of the family. He died there, actually. My father's other brother was in the Army during the Korean War. He wasn't a Marine, so he was the outcast. Everybody else on my side of the family's been in the Marine Corps.

And your wife, Lisa, was in the Air Force for six years?

Yes, sir. She actually did what I do. She was a heavy equipment operator, so it was pretty cool. She's a really small, petite lady, but she'd get on the biggest piece of gear and just manhandle it around and tear it up. She always used to comment that she was a lot better operator than I was.

You sound like a solid family guy. What comes first for you, family or country? How do you juggle your family responsibilities with serving your country?

Well, I met my wife after I enlisted, so she knew what she was getting into, plus there were a lot of soldiers in her family. She was an Army brat, she was in the Air Force and she's married to a Marine, so the military and serving our nation is analogous with the whole family setup.

She doesn't ever make me make a decision. She floats along with whatever I'm called to do. She works within those parameters and does a really outstanding job of taking care of the kids and keeping the house together when I'm gone, and I don't have to worry about bills or anything. I don't even know how much we pay for bills, because she takes care of everything so I don't have to worry about it while I'm deployed.

For my girls, this is my third deployment for my oldest and second for my youngest, but they're getting the hang of it. They have a hard time right when I leave, but they get into the groove of how things go when Daddy's gone. And they know I'm coming home eventually.

When I do get home, I try to spend as much time (with them) as possible. We always joked about how I don't have any friends because I'm always either with the Marines or with my family, so I don't go out and party or anything on the weekends. I spend all the free time I can with (my family) because I never know how much longer I'll be with them before I have to take off again.

Roger that. It's like you have two families.


I definitely look at my Marines as my brothers, and the younger ones, I try to look at them as my sons, because I'm old enough to be their father, I'm sure.

What would you tell Americans about the importance of supporting the mission over there until it's completed?

If you take care of the individual troops, then they'll take care of the mission. Show support for (us) and we'll be here ‘til it gets done. That's what we're here for.

What's the favorite thing you get from home? You guys get care packages and stuff from home...


We've been getting some really, really great care packages from a lot of different organizations and individuals. One of my Marines was getting packages about once a week from a sorority ... really sophisticated stuff, like cigars and things. It was like a ... "Ya-Ya Sisterhood" or whatever that's called that was sending him these packages. Then we found out they were retired already. We all give him a hard time about it every time (he received a package).

We've gotten cigars and toiletry things that'll keep us from having to wait in line at the PX. Sometimes that line is pretty long, so we just grab some soap or a stick of deodorant from one of the care packages. It's kind of a lifesaver sometimes when you have to take off.

We appreciate everything everyone sends - magazines, letters ... a lot of cards from elementary school kids. ... The pictures are really funny, and some of the things they write are pretty awesome. We're appreciative that people take the time to think about us and send us anything.

Before we wrap it up, would you like to give a shout-out to your wife and girls? You're on!

Hello, and I miss you guys, and I love you all. Lisa, I love you, miss you. Nickole and Lillian, I'll be home soon. I love you guys and miss you, too. If my sister, Lisa, and her family (in Santa Clarita) get to hear this or see this, I miss you guys, too, and I'll see you when we go on our road trip. That'll be awesome.

We very much appreciate your time here today, and the time and effort of you and your comrades overseas. We wish you nothing but the best. Good luck, and have a safe journey home.

Thank you very much, sir. I appreciate it. You have a great day.

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