AF career boosts confidence, strength for Native American award recipient

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Vann Miller
  • Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Native American Heritage Month is an opportunity to learn of the accomplishments of respected citizens while acknowledging the contributions to our nation of those members from Native American tribes.

Here at the Academy, one notable member has been acknowledged by her peers for her dedication and service.

Gayle Blue-Keyes, director of the Information Protection office here, officially began working for the Air Force family in 1993. Nearly 20 years ago, she began her career as an Air Force intern with the 94th Security Police Squadron at Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga.

Although her relationship with the military extends into her childhood, Blue-Keyes said she has had a full and successful life in the Air Force.

"I've moved around with the military throughout my career, and I've been used to that," Blue-Keyes said. "When I was a child my family moved to Clark Air Base (Luzon Island, Philippines), where I ended up going to high school."

While Blue-Keyes is a descendant of the Mississippi Band of Ojibwe, she grew up in the military once her mother remarried a service member.

Her experience as a military dependent gave her a unique perspective, she explained.

"Growing up in a small town in North Dakota during the '70s, my multi-racial family was seen as foreign and not warmly accepted." she said. "Though moving to the Philippines was a complete culture shock, I loved the immersion in the different cultures."

Blue-Keyes said culture played a significant role in the lessons she's learned early in life.

"I absorbed the world through experiences of my American classmates, many who were bi-cultural themselves," she said. "That environment really gave me confidence and a sense of strength I had not previously known. When we returned to the states with a Mississippi assignment, I earned a full academic scholarship to Jackson State, a historically black university famous as Walter Peyton's alma mater."

Her family's military experience helped her recognize the opportunity of attending a culturally diverse university, she said.

"Going to JSU was the one of my best life decisions, as I got a debt-free education and met the father of my four kids there," Blue-Keyes said. "Another great and equally life-altering decision was to apply and accept a job with the Air Force upon graduation."

After her first job at Dobbins ARB, she followed the advice of a mentor and decided to take charge of her career. She said she pursued great opportunities wherever they led.
"Early in my Air Force career I was (on temporary duty) to Eglin (AFB, Fla.) for a foreign disclosure tour. The security director there, Bill Vickery, took the time to ask me about my future with the Air Force and where I wanted to be in 20 years," she said. "When I told him I wanted to be in an influential position like his, he told me I had better get some decent luggage and be prepared to move where the promotions are."

That advice changed how she looked at her career in terms of balanced personal sacrifice, she said

"He explained how waiting for an opening at my current assignment could freeze my potential to contribute to the Air Force," she said. "I was stunned that a senior leader would take the time to offer such a junior civilian the benefit of his perspective."

Her individual perspective and commitment has allowed Blue-Keyes to stand out as evident in her career of accomplishments. In 2004, she was recognized as the civilian manager of the year by the Air Force Association, Wright Memorial Chapter, and she received the Air Force Materiel Command's Outstanding Security Forces Higher Headquarters Air Force Civilian Award. More recently, she became the recipient of the Air Force's 2012 Society of American Indian Government Employees Meritorious Service Award. The SAIGE Award recognizes Defense Department civilian and active-duty employees for the assistance they provide in humanitarian or global conflict missions.

"I think of the SAIGE award as triumph in the face of adversity," Blue-Keyes said. "(It's) a theme common for many Native American people."

Blue-Keyes gave an example of triumph over adversity in a story about one of her loved ones.

"My grandfather was born into the tribe without the benefit of U.S. citizenship and was separated from his family to attend Flandreau Indian School around the age of 10," she said. "The school's outcomes seemed to be born from Army Capt. Richard Pratt's vision of 'Kill the Indian, save the man.' I'm told by my uncles that my grandfather returned to White Earth Reservation afraid to practice his culture or speak his language."

As was the case in her own life, the military offered advantages for her grandfather, she said.

"Naval service during WWII rebuilt my grandfather's warrior spirit, giving him the strength to take his family out of the poverty and violence pervasive on White Earth Reservation back then," she said. "Five of his six sons, including my father, went on to serve the Army and Marines during Vietnam, learning trades and earning benefits while defending our nation."

Often, Native-Americans find themselves almost inextricably bound to a prevalence of substance abuse, health issues, suicide, and early mortality, she said.

"I lost my father to cancer at the age of 51 as well as my brother and sister at 36 and 42 respectively," Blue-Keyes said. "This opportunity to serve the Air Force has provided me an anchor of opportunity and hope to not only overcome that cycle that sadly too many of my people succumb to, but to honor my loved ones with a career that has reached heights I never thought possible."

Blue-Keyes said that her civilian career has provided a remarkable life for her and her family. During her time, she has served at more than half a dozen assignments and not only obtained two master's degrees, but has attended Squadron Office School via seminar and Air War College in residence.

"One of the reasons I love serving the Air Force is the people," she said. "The diversity of backgrounds and experiences of Air Force personnel I've worked alongside in my career is unmatched in the private sector. That kind of dynamic cannot help but make the organization better for meeting its mission and providing opportunity for its people. I would encourage those who want to make a difference in securing our Homeland to explore the opportunities in Air Force service."