PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --
At the 302nd Airlift wing most people are like meteors or comets, here for a while but then moving on. However, one Reserve Citizen Airman has been with the wing since the beginning and has shown up like the Sun day after day for 37 years.
Tech. Sgt. Tanya Keller, 302nd Maintenance Group Plans, Scheduling and Documentation production controller, retired from military service Sunday after 37 years, but will remain with the wing as a civil servant for even longer.
In 1982 Keller was 18 years old and working a clerical job in a medical facility. She didn’t want to leave her job, but she wanted to get away for a while, expand her horizons and learn something completely new. One of her co-workers had a family member in the Air Force Reserve and told her reservists could go away and serve part time and their employers had to keep their jobs for them.
So, she enlisted as a traditional reservist in the aerospace ground equipment career field.
“My mom was very supportive of me. She grew up in the 20s, 30s and 40s when women in the military were extremely rare,” Keller said. “She wanted to join, but her father told her he would disown her if she did, so she got to be part of the military kind of vicariously through me.”
After attending basic military training and technical school, Keller arrived at Peterson Air Force Base Sept. 25, 1982 and has been here ever since. At that time, the 302nd Airlift Wing hadn’t been re-activated from its original iteration yet and the unit was known as the 901st Tactical Airlift Group.
“All we had here at that time was a couple of offices down in Hangar 140,” she said. “We had no equipment, no airplanes, no facilities yet. So those first six months or so I showed up for Unit Training Assemblies and just did whatever needed done.”
She said that her shop didn’t actually get up and running until mid-1983 when the facilities were completed and the 901st officially moved in.
“Women were just getting into the military and maintenance career fields in larger numbers, so at first we were kind of a rarity, but I never really felt like we weren’t valuable or we weren’t considered as important as the gentlemen,” Keller said. “Personally, these people became my family, I literally have grown up with the 302nd.”
She stayed with the AGE career field for four years before out-processing for a few months. She took that time to try out a few different positions and found out there was an open position in the Maintenance Operations Center as an AGE dispatcher. She ended up spending 14 years there until her career field realigned and wasn’t eligible to stay in the MOC anymore, so she cross trained to become a C-130 Hercules aircraft crew chief in 1999.
“I have been with C-130s my entire career,” she said. “We started out here with B-models…then we went to the E models and then to the H-models, which we picked up directly from the factory.”
When she finished crew chief technical training, she went straight out to the Peterson flight line to work on aircraft. She planned to and return to the MOC, but stayed on the flight line for five years because she enjoyed the work and being able to apply everything she had learned about the aircraft and maintenance operations.
“It let you see the big picture in a lot of ways. And then being able to go out and actually be the worker bee that’s launching and recovering and repairing and preparing that aircraft for its mission, that’s something I really enjoyed,” she said. “Every job that I have worked in has prepared me more and more for each job that I went to next.”
As a crew chief she deployed to several locations in the U.S. for the Modular Aerial Firefighting System mission and to Panama, Germany, and England for the airlift mission.
“Any of these missions that we do you can really see or feel your impact,” she said. “But firefighting is a very special mission because we’re protecting our neighbors and our friends and our families’ homes.”
Keller says she loves the Air Force Reserve because it’s like a family where people work together to complete the mission.
“It’s the people that make you want to come in here every day, it’s our mission and it’s just being a part of this Air Force,” she said. “This is my family.”
She said the greatest challenge in her career was going through the medical board process twice. During both reviews she was placed in a no pay, no points, no participation status. The first review took more than three years and the second took more than two years. Despite all that she has accrued more than seven and a half years of active duty time through her annual tour, deployments and taking on extra orders throughout her career.
“There came a point in her career in the recent past where the Air Force told her she was no longer going to be able to serve,” said Col. Jason Martin, 302nd MXG commander. “I have dealt with folks who were going to be put out of the Air Force for medical reasons and generally what I’ve seen when that happens is attitude goes right down the toilet…but Tanya was the exact opposite.”
During that time she was allowed to come in while in civilian status, but prohibited from participating in UTAs. For a reservist, not participating in UTAs means that they miss out on most major events and exercises, and they have to find ways to complete required training individually and lose the opportunity to build comradery with their wingmen.
“I noticed she never wavered from her professionalism, she never spoke ill of the Air Force when she was going through a process that was creating a pretty significant emotional event,” Martin said.
The second medical board resulted in her being ordered to retire and she said when she first got the news, she was scared. As an Air Reserve Technician she was required to be retainable in the military. However, she learned that across the Air Force Reserve, several ART positions had been separated from one position into two – a civil service position and a traditional reservist position. Keller’s leadership researched the process and put in the work to convert her position so she could stay with the wing until she is ready to retire for good, which she said will be at least three more years.
“They secured my future,” Keller said.
She also said she is glad that the medical board process has recently changed and now allows commanders to decide whether their people who are going through the process can continue to participate or should be put in a no participation status instead of that status being automatic.
“She was more than happy to be there, keep the operation running and ensure that her Airmen were being trained and I have to tell you…that stands out immensely,” Martin said.
Martin also said that he’d never had an experience where someone was going through a medical board process and waiting to find out whether they were going to be able to continue to serve and handled it with such grace and professionalism.
“I guess my accomplishment is I show up,” she said. “I show up and I’m here and I do what I can.”