Hannah Woods graduated from EKU in May 2022 with a Bachelor’s in Political Science, Globalization and International Affairs, a minor in Criminal Justice, and the University-level Certificate in Veterans Studies. Here she reflects on what she learned during her semester-long internship experience, specifically the time she spent as liaison to Lt. General Ken Keen. She is the recipient of the 2021-2022 Lorden Co-op Award issued by the EKU Department of Psychology and the Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies.
I’m not going to lie. I was a bit nervous when I was told I would serve as liaison to Lt. General Ken Keen during his visit to the EKU campus.
I had never been around someone so accomplished. Still, the purpose of my internship was to enhance my learning in the Veterans Studies program in a way that would better prepare me for graduate studies and a career in law. No doubt, I will be in a lot of high-stress situations and around accomplished people in the years to come.
The first day started at 7 AM. To my surprise, the General had been taking part in daily physical training (PT) with the ROTC cadets. I immediately noticed that he was a very hands-on person and someone who likes to lead by “doing.”
From there, I accompanied General Keen to a number of events: a meeting with President McFaddin, an oral history recording with Neil Kasiak of the William H. Berge Center, a discussion with Prof. Peter Berres’s “Veterans in Society” class.
The VTS 300 talk featured the General’s wife, Mary Ellen Keen. She helped the students understand the good and bad of being a military spouse. It is nice to see the world and have a support system in the military. It is difficult to always be moving and readjusting to a new place, particularly with children.
According to Mrs. Keen, the longest they spent in one place was two years. The shortest amount of time they spent in one place was three months. They would get adjusted, begin to make new friends and then it was time to pack up and do it all over again.
During the discussion, I thought back to my grandfather’s service. I thought about the toll it may have taken on my grandmother and my mom. After all, my grandfather spent 21 years in the Navy. The first 12 years of my mother’s life were spent moving from place to place. She describes a similar experience to Mrs. Keen: loving the fact they got to explore the world, difficulty leaving friends, family and even pets behind to start a new life thousands of miles away.
The current war in Ukraine had only just started when General Keen made his visit. Many people were nervous and unsure how to react. It just so happened we had a retired three-star General to ask for perspective. General Keen said that if he were commanding troops, he would likely be preparing his units and transporting soldiers to bases in western Europe. A few months later, that is exactly what is happening.
The conversation also proved to be a good example of how Veterans Studies pairs well with different majors. For example, I am a student of Political Science, Globalization and International Affairs. In my classes, we discuss Russia and its efforts to invade former soviet-bloc countries regularly. Hearing the perspectives of a high-ranking military leader – the type of person Presidents go to when they want to put policy into action – was fascinating, to say the least.
The first day of the General’s visit put me in front of high-ranking campus officials. It helped me see the inner workings of different campus programs as well as how the university welcomes home its distinguished alumni. The second day taught me about perseverance and how not to give up when times get tough.
The title of General Keen’s “signature lecture” for the campus community was “Lead the Way … Never Give Up.” The General shared about his childhood in Hyden, Kentucky. He talked about what it was like to come to EKU as a first-generation college student in the late 1970s, how that experience led him to be among the first ROTC cadets to go through Ranger training, and how he considered himself most fortunate to have met his wife Mary Ellen, who had been among the first women admitted to an ROTC military police program after being accepted to EKU with a scholarship to be on the marksmanship team.
The primary focus of the General’s lecture was on his leadership of U.S. forces who provided humanitarian relief during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Even though I was only 10 years old when the earthquake struck, I remember the horrors from the daily news. Suddenly, more than a decade later, I found myself thinking back to those memories, adding in details shared by someone who had led an outsized role in saving lives and combining all this with similar discussions had in my classes over the past several years.
Disasters come up all the time in my classes. We discuss whether or not they are natural or manmade. We look at the ramifications from a humanitarian perspective as well as practical considerations such as the impact on infrastructures and economies. Many people probably thought, “Haiti is a small country. This won’t impact me in any real way.” In fact, even disruptions in a tiny country influences the global market and supply chains for years.
That said, the most heart-felt part of the lecture came when he discussed a personal interaction with a Haitian military officer. General Keen had accompanied the man to a village they had both visited about two days before the earthquake. The community had been impoverished even before the natural disaster. Suddenly, they lost everything – many members of the village were missing. Yet, the General described them as resilient and in good spirits.
General Keen, after learning that the officer accompanying him had lost several immediate family members in the tragedy, asked why he was there helping on the streets when dealing with such immense loss. The man responded that he didn’t know where he could possible be more useful than where he was in that moment.
To the General, as well as to the audience at EKU, it really helped put a lot in perspective with regard to hardship and personal struggles.
The final event I took part in during the General’s visit was the Eastern Kentucky University ROTC Military Ball. I was very nervous going into this – a new kid on the block with no clue what to expect. It was, in fact, the most formal event I had ever attended.
First, there was a receiving line with a mixture of high-ranking military officers and distinguished guests. After the receiving line, we all made our way upstairs to the Keen Johnson ballroom for opening remarks and a toast.
The military toasts were quite different than others I had witnessed. First, the lowest ranking or youngest cadet opens a bottle of champagne (or cider, in our case, since most of the cadets were under 21). They are then responsible for pouring drinks for everyone else at their table.
The room then alternates between formal and informal toasts. The final toast is for “those who cannot be with us.” The director of the event, EKU ROTC’s Lt. Colonel Thomas Vincent, directed the attention of those in attendance to the “Missing Man Table” or “Fallen Comrade Table,” as some refer to it. This space is set aside service members who are fallen, missing or captured. The ritual and meaning are described on the War Memorial Center’s website:
The table is round, to show our everlasting concern for our missing men.
The cloth is white, symbolizing the purity of their motives when answering the call to serve.
The single red rose; displayed in a vase, reminds us of the lives of these Americans and their loved ones and friends who keep the faith while seeking answers.
The red ribbon symbolizes our continued determination to account for our missing.
A slice of lemon reminds us of their bitter fate; captured and missing in a foreign land.
A pinch of salt symbolizes the tears of our missing and their families who long for answers after decades of uncertainty.
The lighted candle reflects our hope for their return, alive or dead.
The Bible represents the strength gained through faith to sustain us and those lost from our country, founded as one nation under God.
The glass is inverted, symbolizing their inability to share a toast.
The chair is empty, the seat that remains unclaimed at the table.
As an outsider looking in, I thought the toast was very significant. Even at an event that is meant to be joyous and celebratory, members of the military take time to remember those who have fallen or been left behind in combat.
Before dinner, the final ritual was the cutting of the cake. They do this with an actual military sword. And our esteemed guest, General Keen, was asked to do the honor alongside the youngest cadet. It was sort of like a passing of the torch, a fascinating tidbit about military culture that I would not have gotten had I not taken part in the internship.
Overall, my experience with Lt. General Keen was not only rewarding but educational. I was able to put what I had learned in the classroom about international relations into a real-world context. I was able to build my confidence and represent our university.
Of course, I could have read about all of these rituals and General Keen’s history in books. However, as a lifelong learner I don’t think I could have gotten from a book what I got from my two-day experience as an intern for the Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies.
I am thankful to General Keen, Mrs. Keen, President McFaddin, the Veterans Studies program and all those individuals who helped me understand, respect and truly enjoy the uniqueness of military and veteran culture.