Building a bridge, building a family: Keller family served in Iraq War
When Bridget (Harris) Keller, a native of rural Lemmon, S.D., joined the U. S Army National Guard as a 17 year old, she never dreamed that this decision would take her half way around the world into the middle of a war.
“Initially I wanted to join because of the tuition benefits,” she said. “My brother Willie joined the Marine Corps eight months before I joined the Guards.”
Both of Bridget’s grandfathers had served in the military, but she said she hadn’t heard much about their experiences before she and Willie joined the service.
“My dad’s brothers both served as well,” she said. “My uncle Darin was in the Marine Corps and my uncle Devin was in the Guards. They both talked to us a lot, and each wanted us to join his branch of the military. I wanted to go to college right after high school and that was not possible in the Marines, so that is why I chose the Guards. My parents had to sign a waiver for me to join because I was only 17, and my dad had long phone conversations with both of his brothers about the subject. But it was ultimately my decision to join.”
Bridget joined the National Guard on Dec. 29, 1997. She went through Basic Training the following summer between her junior and senior years of high school, and the summer after she graduated she completed her Advanced Individual Training to learn a specific job: bridge building.
Meanwhile, in 1998, Albert Keller, from Timber Lake, S.D., also joined the U. S. Army National Guard as a junior in high school. Albert was a part of the Mobridge unit, and Bridget was in the Lemmon unit, so although they grew up in neighboring counties they were not acquainted with each other and did not drill together.
Then in 2003, turmoil in the middle east brought the unexpected and inescapable order: report immediately for deployment to Iraq.
“I never imagined deploying anywhere besides stateside,” Bridget said. “Never. The Guard is set up for stateside emergencies, not international conflicts. I had one day to pack, quit my job, fill out paperwork to be dismissed from the college where I was enrolled, pack up everything in the house I was renting, go home and say goodbye to my family, and get to Lemmon to prepare to depart with our entire unit. The only benefit was that we didn’t have time to think about what was going on. We were told that our mission was to build a bridge. They didn’t tell us the reasons why, we just got an order, we didn’t get any options.”
Bridget and Albert both deployed with the 200th Engineering Company on Jan. 24, 2003. While the 200th was based out of Pierre, Mobridge and Chamberlain S.D., the Lemmon unit was called up to join them because they were bridge builders and the 200th didn’t have enough soldiers. The 200th was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for further training until they flew to Kuwait in March, 2003. In Kuwait, the materials that the 200th needed to build a bridge sat on a ship waiting to be unloaded.
“Whoever was in charge of unloading those ships was moving very slow,” Bridget said. “Our unit had to unload nine ships to get to our own, and we did it in three or four days, even though we had to operate many vehicles that we had never trained on to get the job done.”
ON TO BAGHDAD
By the end of March, 2003, the 200th was headed toward Baghdad.
“We sat outside Baghdad for three days while it was bombed,” Bridget recalled. “We were just far enough out not to be in the thick of it but we could hear the bombing. We pushed through Baghdad in the middle of the night after the bombing to get to our base. On our way to the bridge site we took small arms fire quite often. You can’t prepare your brain for that kind of experience. There’s no training that comes close to the real thing.”
From Baghdad, the 200th traveled 45 miles north to set up camp about 10 miles from Balad.
The 200th was one of the first units on the forward operating base, with only a few Abrams tanks there guarding them. Their purpose was to build a bridge, 305 meters long, across the Tigris River so that military vehicles could travel from Baghdad to Tikrit. Prior to the construction of the 200th’s bridge, only a tiny bridge spanned the river at that point. It was not sturdy enough for large military vehicles to cross, only cars or small pickups.
“As soon as we got to camp, people were sent to do reconnaissance, and the next day we built the bridge,” Bridget said. “We did it on next to no sleep. We didn’t even have our tents set up yet; that first night at camp we slept on cots outside under our trucks and trailers.”
It took the 200th just four hours to build the bridge.
Bridget was no stranger to hard work. Growing up on her family’s ranch, just four miles from where her great-grandparents homesteaded a hundred years before her deployment to Iraq, she and Willie were expected to do a lot to help out.
“We did a lot of manual labor,” she said. “We were responsible for feeding the cattle before and after school if our parents were gone to work. We always fed with a team. It helped us learn to manage our time, instilled the value of being responsible, and helped me mature at a young age.”
Yet the deserts of Iraq were a world away from the prairies of home.
“I learned a lot about life,” Bridget said. “It really makes you grow up quick. We were mortared pretty regularly in our camp. After the bridge was built, we rotated through maintenance and guarded it. We also built a POW camp on our base, guarded prisoners, and guarded the perimeter of our camp. We had a number of haul missions to get supplies, since we had trucks that didn’t have a bridge on them anymore.”
As members of the National Guard, the 200th had gone through the same training as other branches of the military, including combat training, no matter what specific job they were trained for. Some members of the 200th were tasked to do raids in unarmored vehicles.
“Everybody had armored vehicles except us,” Bridget said. “Our only protection was our flak vests and the Kevlar on our bodies. I don’t know why, except that possibly it was not put on Guard vehicles since they were intended for use stateside, not in war zones.”
The members of the 200th lived through intense heat, up to 130 degrees, blinding dust storms, mortar fire and MRE’s.
“The hardest part was not being able to call home and not getting any mail,” Bridget said. “They were shooting down the planes that carried our mail. Six months into our deployment, they recovered some mail, but it was stuff that was written when we first went over. We definitely became very tight with each other, because that was all we had.”
While on guard duty at the bridge, members of the 200th had to check every vehicle that went across, searching for Saddam Hussein.
“The scariest part was that after he was captured he said that he crossed our bridge several times,” Bridget said. “Who knows if that was true or not, but people can come up with all kinds of disguises.”
After Saddam was captured, Bridget and others went to Tikrit, and stayed at the military base established in one of his former palaces.
“It was unbelievable,” she said. “Wow. Everything was so intricate. Even the toilets had gold on them. He built a mini zoo there — when war started they released all of the animals. Supposedly tigers, lions, alligators were on the loose. We never saw any, but that was the rumor going around.”
After Bridget and Albert returned, both lived in Bismarck, N.D., but they only saw each other once or twice a year.
“We were just friends,” Bridget said.
MARRIED AND STARTING A FAMILY
In 2010, that changed.
“We were both tired of terrible relationships and decided to give it a go,” Bridget said. “We were married in seven months.”
In 2011, after the birth of their first child, they decided to move back home, and settled close to Bridget’s family.
“We didn’t want to raise our kids in Bismarck,” Bridget said. “A week or two after we moved back, in October 2011, we bought 50 head of cattle and started the Keller herd. We run our cattle with my dad. Any time there is cattle work to be done, we help, but we have kept our herd small because we are so busy with Keller Drilling and our family.”
Albert worked in the oilfield until 2015, when he began the process of starting Keller Drilling, a regional well drilling and service business that has grown to 15 employees, three drilling rigs, plus two massive rigs for drilling deep wells up to 6,000 feet deep, and three service rigs. Keller Drilling is licensed in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.
“He started in June, 2015 with one tiny rig that he bought to drill our own well because we couldn’t find anyone to come do it,” Bridget said. “We are currently in the process of starting Noresman Drilling Supply in Hettinger, N.D., to sell well parts, windmill parts, water tanks and other supplies.”
Bridget encourages today’s young people to consider joining the military.
“If you want to have an understanding on how the big world works, military service is important,” she said. “I also think it helps you find you, and form your morals and ethics. Whether you serve for four years or 20 years-plus it can help ground you as a person and teach you responsibility. I don’t use my bridge building skills anymore beyond building Legos with my children, but I definitely learned valuable leadership skills that I can apply to life.”
Besides keeping the books for Keller Drilling, being mom to their five children — Albert, Korbin, Bodee, Teagan and Terek — plus a special exchange student, Marta, since August of 2019, Bridget has worked as the Perkins County Veteran Service Officer.
“It’s such a rewarding job,” she said. “I work with veterans from all eras, helping them get the compensation they deserve, even if they have waited 50 years. This is a county position, but I can help any veteran in South Dakota, they don’t have to be in Perkins County. I have gotten to help a lot of the people that I deployed with through my job.”
Bridget served for 20 years, four months, and one day, as a member of the South Dakota and then the North Dakota National Guard. Albert served from 1998-2009.
“Appreciate where you live and what you have,” Bridget said. “And a hot meal.”