In the company of heroes: Pararescue chief retires after 30 years

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Ryan Conroy
  • 24th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

Over the course of his thirty-year career, he was decorated nine times for actions that saved dozens --if not hundreds-- on and off the battlefield.

He was a major command pararescueman of the year, an Air Force Pitsenbarger Award recipient valor under fire, and AF pararescue senior NCO of the year, and the AF Lance P. Sijan senior NCO of the year.

Following his long career, Chief Master Sgt. Davide Keaton, superintendent of the 26th Special Tactics Squadron, wore his maroon beret for the last time, Jan. 12, 2017, surrounded by a hundred teammates, former commanders, friends and family.

“It’s not just retiring a Special Tactics Chief,” said Col. Michael Flatten, vice commander of the 24th Special Operations Wing and the retirement ceremony officiant. “It’s retiring a close friend, a brother in arms, one of my heroes…and one of the best men Special Tactics has ever produced.”

Keaton’s service began when he enlisted in the Air Force in 1987 as Law Enforcement installation patrol – today’s Security Forces career field. After five years, Keaton realized the job wasn't a good fit for him, despite being credited with saving three lives during that time.

“I routinely say bloom where you’re planted,” said Flatten. “But sometimes you may be planted in the wrong place, and Keaton was like a Palm tree in Shemya, Alaska.”

Keaton’s time in Security Forces ended in 1992, when he made the decision to cross train into the Pararescue career field.

“In law enforcement, there wasn’t a lot of job satisfaction for me; it was a spur of the moment decision to join pararescue because it was the only job available to me at the time,” said Keaton. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I said ‘I’ll do whatever I have to do.’”

Pararescuemen are among the most highly trained technical rescue and emergency trauma specialists in the U.S. military. They must maintain an Emergency Medical Technician- Paramedic qualification throughout their careers. With this medical and rescue expertise, along with their deployment capabilities, PJs are able to perform life-saving rescue missions in the world's most remote areas.

After completing the pararescue pipeline, a difficult two-year training process of psychological and physical challenges, his career took a dramatic turn.

“In every annual report [since he cross trained], Dave’s maturity, drive, professionalism, pursuit of training, selfless service and focus on team are highlighted,” said Flatten. “He continued to save people, on the battlefield and off… including 2 military working dogs.”

Over the course of his time as a PJ, he attained paramedic, static line and freefall jumpmaster, and dive medical tech qualifications. He trained a generation of new PJs, earning the Outstanding Instructor Award and serving as interim Commandant of Indoctrination –the first chapter of the PJ pipeline infamous for its high standards

“I love pararescue: I loved my career, I loved the men I served with and the ST community as a whole,” said Keaton. “That’s why I stuck around it for so long: it was home for me.”

Keaton deployed more than 15 times throughout his career in support of Operations FIERY VIGIL, SOUTHERN and NORTHERN WATCH, JOINT ENDEAVOR, ENDURING FREEDOM, IRAQI FREEDOM, COPPER DUNE and NEW DAWN.

Each deployment served to showcase Keaton’s courage; he was credited numerous times with charging behind enemy lines to rescue fallen teammates and save lives – epitomizing the pararescue creed – “These things we do … that others may live.”

“He set the standard for service in a selectively-manned unit tasked with the nation’s toughest missions, including a hostage rescue in 2008 and a combat military free fall infiltration in Afghanistan in 2009,” said Flatten.

Leaders in Special Tactics describe him as an “absolute juggernaut,” “trusted advisor and right hand man,” “the most powerful SNCO I’ve ever supervised,” “proven warrior and leader”….and most importantly to many Special Tactics Airmen, “trusted teammate.”

He accomplished all that despite challenges he faced, never losing focus on the mission nor his love for those around him.

“I now know what sacrifice is,” said Keaton of his time in Special Tactics. “I know firsthand what loss is, and what those families go through when they lose loved ones overseas to protect our freedoms.”

This dedication to the fallen was epitomized when he participated in an  812-mile memorial ruck march from San Antonio, Texas, to Hurlburt Field, Fla. in 2014. It came at a time when the Special Tactics community was reeling from the loss of two operators, Capt. Matthew Roland and Staff Sgt. Forrest Sibley, who were killed in an ambush during a deployment to Afghanistan that year.

Unbeknownst to his teammates, Keaton had broken three ribs a week before the ruck march began, but kept that to himself. Matching –and sometimes outdoing-- the pace of teammates 20 years his junior the entire trip, he rucked 128 miles with a 50-pound rucksack and a baton engraved with one of the 19 Special Tactics Airmen killed in action.

“I’m not going to complain about broken ribs -- the pain I felt during the march paled in comparison to what the Roland and Sibley families are going through, so having three ribs is something I can deal with."

Keaton ran the last 12 miles of the memorial ruck to meet the waiting Gold Star families at the finish line...despite suffering a stress fracture in his leg.

“I’m thankful to serve with incredible people that have made that ultimate sacrifice. Not one day goes by where I don’t think about at least one of those guys,” added Keaton.

According to Keaton, life after retirement will be spent catching up with friends and making time for the things that are important outside of work. But, the Special Tactics community is now left with big shoes to fill-- someone who will never quit.

“He is the epitome of a teammate and I have never, in my life met anyone more concerned about the welfare of those around them as him,” said Flatten “He rightly walks in the company of heroes.”