Air Force Col. Keith Balts stood at attention yesterday as the remains of another airman, Lt. Col. William Kieffer Jr., were placed in a white hearse for delivery to the airport and transport to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
It’s a vigil that Balts has stood for 22 years, and it’s not quite over yet.
When he was 18, Balts donned a silver remembrance bracelet in honor of Kieffer, a pilot missing after his plane went down in Laos in 1970. He’s worn one with Kieffer’s name ever since.
The two airmen were separated by time — Balts was born the day Kieffer died — but the bracelet brought them ever closer, and yesterday at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, their paths converged.
Kieffer’s widow, Louise, 85, asked whether Balts could escort her husband home after the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command at Hickam was able to recover and identify Kieffer’s remains.
"It’s incredibly humbling and an amazing honor, certainly the honor of my career, to do this on behalf of the family and really as the sole representative of the government to ensure we complete the process and bring a loved one home," Balts said.
Bone fragments, some charred, are all that are left of Kieffer, whose A-1E Skyraider crashed into the ground. But recovery is part of a bargain made by U.S. service members who fight and die for the nation: You never forget, and you never leave a fellow American behind.
Balts, the 30th Space Wing vice commander at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, picked Kieffer’s name for a remembrance bracelet when he was an 18-year-old ROTC cadet at the University of Wisconsin.
"It was a way to think about the sacrifices of the men and women that came before me, including those that made the ultimate sacrifice," Balts said.
That was 22 years ago. The bracelet he wears now is his third. He left the first one in a hotel in New Orleans by accident, he said. The second one was lost in the Mediterranean when he was in Tel Aviv, Israel. He’s worn the current one since 1997.
"In 2006 I was about to pin on (the rank of) lieutenant colonel, and I said, I want to reach out to the (Kieffer) family," Balts said. "He was a lieutenant colonel, and I was about ready to pin on (that rank), so I sent off a letter describing the story so far."
The letter went through the Air Force and found its way to Louise Kieffer, who wrote back. She even sent her husband’s silver oak leaf pins, and Balts said he wore them until he became a full colonel last summer.
E-mail and Christmas cards have gone back and forth since. Kieffer and Balts will meet in person when he arrives in Arlington, Va., where she lives, as he escorts her husband’s remains.
Kieffer said it’s "wonderful" that Balts chose to remember her husband and his sacrifice.
"When we see him at the funeral, that will be the first time that we actually will meet him, although we feel that we know him very well because there’s been so much communication," Kieffer said.
Kieffer said her husband was in the Air Force for 26 or 27 years.
He was a B-24 Liberator bomber co-pilot awaiting orders to the Pacific at the end of World War II when the war ended, she said.
Her husband was a "people person" who liked to help others, play golf and build model airplanes, and he contemplated becoming a teacher when he retired from the Air Force.
Louise Kieffer planned to spend the year in Hawaii while her husband was in Southeast Asia, and they rented a condo in Waikiki.
"He left Honolulu on Jan. 4 (1970), and on Feb. 11 there were two fellows who knocked on my door to tell me, at that time, that he was missing, and two days later he was officially declared dead," she said.
Her husband was 45. A day later, on Feb. 14 of that year, she marked their 25th wedding anniversary.
William Kieffer was on his fourth run over enemy ground troops when his plane took ground fire, failed to recover from the attack dive and crashed.
On July 24, 1993, a joint U.S. and Laotian team first investigated the crash site, locating aircraft wreckage. At least five more trips were made to the site. A DNA match eventually was made.
Kieffer said she was "thrilled and very excited and very grateful" that JPAC was able to make any kind of recovery at all. "It’s really mind-boggling when you think of all the people and equipment and know-how that it took to do these excavations," she said.
Yesterday, Balts carefully helped wrap the remains in a green wool Army blanket — a tradition that officials said dates to the Civil War — for the escort to the East Coast.
William Kieffer’s remains will be inurned Thursday. Balts plans to give the family his remembrance bracelet. But he plans to get a replacement and continue wearing — and remembering — the name Lt. Col. William Kieffer Jr.
"He’s been an inspiration to me my whole career, which is one of the reasons I put the bracelet on to begin with," Balts said. "He and his family have gone through more than I ever will. I may have tough times in my life, but to see him on my wrist, I know that whatever’s going on with me is not nearly as bad as what happened to him and what his family had to endure."