Bernie O’Keefe was in his first semester in college and “wasn’t crazy about it,” as he puts it. He wanted to start his life and wanted direction, particularly because things were getting pretty serious with his girlfriend, Pat (with whom O’Keefe just celebrated 45 years of marriage). “I am the oldest of 10 kids,” he says, “and I didn’t want to be a goof.” That – combined with the draft, the fact that a couple of his friends joined the military, and his father having served in the Air Force – led him to enlist in the USAF in 1972.
O’Keefe turned out far from a “goof.” His nearly 27 years in the Air Force included four overseas tours (England, Turkey and twice in Germany), as well as many “temporary duty” (TDY) assignments around the globe.
He found serving during the Cold War had some unique aspects. “I was always working with security of nuclear weapon systems and just realizing their power – rather not understanding their power was a big deal,” he recalls. “In my first tour in Germany I went through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin. I was required to wear my uniform there. The Berlin Wall was something that brought the whole idea of the Cold War into focus. The Soviet threat was real.”
O’Keefe, who retired from military service as the Senior Enlisted Advisor (now called the Command Chief Master Sergeant) at Luke Air Force Base in 1998, is particularly proud of being on the team that put the Ground Launched Cruise Missile program into action. “That included working through the testing phase of deployment and security, opening the formal Cruise Missile School at Davis-Monthan, and the initial operation of the 38th Tactical Missile Wing in Germany,” he says. “It was five years of hard work with great people.” O’Keefe is quick to point out, however, that his job at Luke AFB was the greatest position and hardest job he had, saying, “Working directly for the General was awesome.”
The most challenging aspects of his service? “Being away,” he says without hesitation. “It just doesn’t get easier. From a job standpoint, supervising airmen, finding the balance between the operational tempo and taking care of the airmen is tough.”
O’Keefe feels that no one can go wrong by entering the military. “In that first enlistment, you mature so much and grow in life skills,” he says. “You learn the importance of teamwork and responsibility. You really grow up.”
It is clear that the Air Force knew they had a leader in their ranks, honoring O’Keefe with both the AF Achievement and AF Commendation awards. Impressively, he is also an EIGHT-TIME recipient of the Meritorious Service Medal.
After his retirement from the Air Force, O’Keefe worked in the corporate world, and taught and coached at Desert Vista High School for 11 years before completely retiring in May 2017. He earned multiple awards in his civilian life as well, including the Tempe Diablos Excellence in Education for Going Above and Beyond and Junior Achievement Teacher of the Year.
O’Keefe and his wife Pat live in Mesa. They have two children, Paul and Kacie, and three granddaughters.
We hope you will join us at the 21st Annual Phoenix Veterans Day Parade on November 11, 2017, to see all our Veteran Grand Marshals. This year’s parade theme is “SILENT SACRIFICE: Honoring Our Cold War Veterans.” The parade typically boasts more than 100 entries, and this year will have a special float with nearly 20 Vietnam Veterans riding on it. The parade will also feature patriotic floats, high school marching bands, JROTC marching units, color guards, Veterans Service Organizations, animals, novelty units and much, much more.
For more information on the parade and the parade route, click HERE.