TEMPLE — Just like any other promotion ceremony, the colors were present, the promotion orders were recited and family watched. But for the newly pinned Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Keas, the ceremony came one hard, emotional year later than he expected.
On June 18, 2012, Keas was two weeks away from his promotion boards in Korea when the diagnosis came in — stage 3 esophageal cancer. He told his wife in Temple over Skype.
The boards became an afterthought to chemotherapy and a surgery that left Keas in the intensive care unit for two weeks.
“It was a pretty scary time,” recalled his wife, Shelley Keas.
Upon his request, the 44-year-old soldier was transferred to Fort Hood’s 1st Battalion, Warrior Transition Brigade, so he could recover from treatment at home. In March, the cancer came back and spread further.
“After the last diagnosis, I figured I was done (with promotions). I thought I had no chance,” Jeffrey Keas said.
Thanks to the brigade leadership, the promotion happened Wednesday in the Keas’ backyard in front of family from Oklahoma, friends and fellow soldiers who served with the man whose journey to the Army was far different than most.
At 38, Keas was inspired to enlist after his son, Jeffrey Keas Jr., joined the Marines in 2005. He was visiting his son in California, and the family attended military appreciation night for the San Diego Padres.
“They asked all the veterans and people who serve the military to stand,” the elder Keas said. “I saw my son stand up and I felt ashamed, because I couldn’t stand with him.”
Two years later and 40 pounds lighter, Keas found himself in basic training, while his son was serving in Iraq. His younger son, Mitchell Keas, is still serving in the Marines and stationed in Hawaii.
“I definitely have more respect for him being that age,” said Jeffrey Keas Jr., now out of the service and living in Dallas. “He held up next to 18-year-olds.”
Sgt. Nayaira Mojena, of the 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, remembered when she and Jeffrey Keas served alongside each other in Iraq from 2009-2010 and made sergeant together. She said once she heard about the promotion ceremony, she seized the opportunity to see him gain a stripe.
“He was my battle buddy over there, my go-to over there,” she said. “He would give advice to me and we’d make it through day by day.”
All the effort by the brigade to ensure the promotion happened was a “testament to his character,” Jeffrey Keas Jr. said.
During the ceremony, the noncommissioned officer was pinned to his new rank by his son and his father, Fred Keas.
“That made me feel very proud,” Fred Keas said. “My son is my hero.”
Fred Keas initially asked the brigade about the possibility of a promotion for his son and battalion Command Sgt. Maj. Sullivan Stallworth said the event was an example of what the brigade is all about.
“It’s all about taking care of the soldiers,” he said. “It’s well deserved. I’ve reviewed his records, and he’s an outstanding soldier. If not for his illness, it would have been awarded sooner.”
Lt. Col. Christopher Cook, battalion commander, said Jeffrey Keas is an inspiration to everybody.
“He always has a smile on his face and continues to show leadership and personal courage,” he said.
With more than 20 people at the backyard ceremony, one special person watched over Skype from Hawaii, Jeffrey Keas’ 9-month-old grandson, Garrett.
“I always think about him,” he said. “He’s my driving inspiration.”
Contact Rose L. Thayer at email@example.com or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHmilitary.