TONASKET – Master Sgt. Keith Caraway kept students of all ages entertained as he spoke about his nearly 20 years in the service at the Tonasket Elementary School Veterans Day assembly Wednesday, Nov. 7.
The students were excited to ask him a lot of questions, including why he joined the military and what his favorite duty station was.
Caraway joined the Army in June of 1999, as an Aviation Operations Specialist with responsibilities ranging from airfield management to airfield facilities and communication with the tower.
Assignments included the Headquarters Company in Giebelstadt, Germany, and the Phoenix, Ariz., Recruiting Battalion before Caraway took on various positions within the 160th Special Operation Aviation Regiment (SOAR) from 2003 to 2016. Deployments included Operation Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and Operation Inherent Resolve, United Arab Emirates and Syria. He finished up his deployments with Syria in September 2017.
Caraway received three Bronze Star Medals, three Meritorious Service Medals, four Army Commendation Medals, two Army Achievement Medals, an Afghanistan Campaign Medal, an Iraq Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary and Service Medals, and the Operation Inherent Resolve Campaign Medal.
Caraway also earned the Master Aviation Badge, Basic Parachutist Badge and the Gold Recruiter Badge.
Caraway served in every leadership position from Squad Leader to First Sergeant.
Asked by an elementary school student why he joined the military, Caraway responded candidly.
“Keith Caraway fancied himself a football player and athlete, but I didn't want to take the SATs,” said Caraway. “I only had a partial scholarship to Arizona State, so I joined the Army. I was only going to do one tour, but I ended up doing multiple tours because I loved the place.”
Asked if he ever fought, Caraway said “Yes,” adding, “One of the best feelings as a First Sergeant was, everyone I took with me made it home.”
After the applause died down, Caraway said, “Some scars aren't physical, but mental. So you have got to take care of your mental health, as well.”
“The second-best place was Germany, but there's no place like home,” said Caraway.
Asked how many wars he fought in, Caraway said he served in Iraq and Afghanistan for 13 months.
Asked what his favorite duty station was, Caraway said serving as a recruiter in Scottsdale, Ariz., as that was his home state. Caraway later said he was planning to retire from the military when his 20 years are up this summer.
“I went to grad school, so I will be an operations manager at a company. I'm looking at Phoneix, as my parents are getting older,” said Caraway, a father of three kids himself. “It's time to go home. It's been 20 years.”
Caraway earned a Bachelor of Science in Management of Human Resources from Bellevue University, and a Master of Arts in Human Service Counseling from Liberty University.
“Now the bidding is out,” said Caraway. “I have interviews Nov. 21 with a couple of corporations.”
Caraway said he will be at Fort Lewis through April and enter a corporate fellowship program that runs from January through April, with the military helping him find employment in the outside world. His official retirement from the military is July 1.
Caraway said one of the biggest challenges of his military career was “with the sequestrations when the government shut down in 2013.”
“A lot of civilians were not hired back, and one out of ten captains were not hired back,” recalled Caraway. “So, it gave me more responsibility, which was not good. We learned to do more with less, so overcoming and getting that mission accomplished was good. I was in Special Operations then.”
Asked what advice he would give kids thinking about joining the military, Caraway pondered the question for a long moment.
“If they're going to do it, I would tell them to make sure they make the most of their opportunity,” said Caraway. “I've known a lot of people who did 20 years, but never got a chance to go to college. They didn't do any savings, and they are out....Corporate employers don't care about your medals, but they care about how much education you have. I got two degrees, and I don't have any debt. The army took care of me. I took advantage of all their programs.”
Caraway also remarked on changes he'd seen over the years.
“I joined in 1999, when the Clintons where in the White House. The budget was so small, they used to send me to get the toilet paper for the quarter, and you could carry it all on your shoulder,” said Caraway. “Before 9/11, the reverence for the military didn't exist back then. I was just a kid that didn't go to college.”
As a “young kid,” especially, Caraway could certainly appreciate care packages sent to troops like the elementary school gathered up over the last few weeks.
“It really means a lot. There's no stores that carry everything you want. People have specific things they like, and if no one sends it to, you don't get it. Psychologically, when someone calls your name for a package, the endorphins get going and you think, 'What did they send? What did I get?' But if they don't call your name....”
Caraway said John and Denise Dhane of Oroville, who he became friends with when they lived across from the base at Fort Lewis, hosted him for his visit here.
“Denise sent me more care packages than my mom,” said Caraway. “She was always sending me care packages and it meant a lot.”
Speaking to the students during the assembly, Caraway got laughs from the kids as he told them how much “soldiers love Twizzlers.”
“I found some soldiers broke down on the side of the road once, and I had some Twizzlers, so I gave them some. It brought tears to their eyes,” laughed Caraway. “But once someone sent me a bag of chocolate-covered almonds, and it melted into one big chocolate-covered almond. Don't send chocolate to soldiers in the desert.”
Caraway then told students he was aware some of them had taken bags of chips from their lunches and put them in the soldiers' care packages.
“Thank you for the snacks and treats,” said Caraway. “It means a lot.”
The visit to Tonasket for the Veterans Day Assembly also meant a lot to Caraway.
“I really enjoyed this place. Seeing the students, it was a treat. It was worth every one of the 306 miles I traveled, to see those faces,” said Caraway. “And the parents looked like they were having a good time, too. I've been in the military 20 years, and this was one of the top five moments.”