Overcoming the odds: Airman defeats tough adversary

Overcoming the odds: Airman defeats tough adversary

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — He awoke on a frigid morning in Washington, D.C., completely blind and was rushed through the cold, snow-laden streets in a furious sprint to the hospital.

A few hours later, Ryan Keeney received the worst news of his life. He had been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia, a deadly form of cancer that, without quick treatment, can claim a victim’s life within months. Even with the treatment, the survival rate is a slim 40 percent.

Keeney was thrown into a world he didn’t understand. Just hours before, he was waking up to spend the day before Thanksgiving with his family, but Nov. 24, 2010, became the day that changed his life forever.

“I was admitted to the George Washington (University) Hospital and I stayed there for the next five weeks being treated with initial rounds of chemotherapy,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Keeney, the former 15th Reconnaissance Squadron commander.

The first night was overwhelming; he said his mind raced faster than a Formula One car. His future would no longer be as he had envisioned.

“What concerned me the most was not being able to see my boys Connor and Finnegan grow up and see their graduation and get married,” he said. “I was feeling a great sense of loss of not being able to be involved in the rest of their lives.”

His career would take a turn as well, and although he was worried at first, the feeling didn’t last long.

“The first day I was worried about not being able to fly anymore,” said the former F-15 Eagle pilot. “After that day I got over myself, realized that wasn’t what was important and moved on and recognized that this was just a challenge I needed to overcome.” 

Keeney spent the next five months undergoing four more rounds of sickening and fatigue-inducing chemo. According to Keeney, the balloons from his kids, which decorated his bleak hospital room to keep him company, and the support from his wife kept his spirits high. 

His morale also received a nice boost when he was promoted to the next rank while in the hospital.

“The chief of staff and vice chief of staff of the Air Force came to promote me to lieutenant colonel,” he said. “I was in my hospital gown and mask during the whole thing and they even put my rank on the gown.”

Seventeen months later and after recovering from the chemo, Keeney’s cancer went into remission. He was able to live normally again. He regained his flying status and began the next step of his career as a squadron commander.

“I was hired in January of 2012 to go be the squadron commander of the 49th Fighter Training Squadron, conducting introduction to fighter fundamentals courses at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi,” Keeney said. 

Before he could make a permanent change of station and take command, Keeney went to Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, for six months of training. Once the training was complete, he headed back to Washington D.C., to finish outprocessing, but before he made it home, Keeney had to stop to see a familiar face at the M.D. Andersen Cancer Center in Texas.

“One of my friends and heroes, Col. Michael Stapleton was there being treated for a different type of leukemia,” he said. “He was one of the guys I looked up to and it was tough seeing him like that.”

Keeney wished his friend well and returned home. All seemed well as he was 18 months in remission and his house was packed up for his new assignment.

Relapse

It wasn’t until his final medical evaluation prior to PCS, that he would receive some heart-wrenching news.

Just nine days before his change of command, Keeney had relapsed.

“The doctor let me drive home that night to tell my family,” he said. “I was worried that I had gotten lucky the first time and I wouldn’t be so lucky with the second time. We had just started to relax and it felt like the rug got yanked out from under me.”

His wife, Aimee, and two boys were worried, but ultimately knew they would just have to get through it again together.

The family packed their suitcases, the belongings being the only possessions they would have for the next year. Just two days later, Keeney was airlifted down to the same center where he had visited his friend just four days prior.

“Unfortunately, my friend didn’t make it, he passed away after I got there,” he said, gazing in the distance as he reminisced. “It was a difficult environment to be in; people literally right next to you are dying.”

Keeney underwent two more rounds of chemotherapy and was selected for an experimental stem cell transplant in September of 2012.

“Essentially what the doctors did was give me enough chemo to kill my bone marrow and then give me stem cells from umbilical cords,” he said. “It was a new procedure; I was actually patient number two on the study.”

This procedure left him so sick he could hardly move or eat. The short 15-step walk to the bedroom was almost too daunting a task.

“Aimee knew that I responded well to challenges and got me a pedometer,” Keeney said. “My challenge was to take one more step than the day prior. Every day I would try to walk around the apartment, (but) after just 100 steps or so, I would have to sleep for hours. That’s how incredibly exhausted I was.”

He continued to recover over the next year and a half, regained his flying status, and received a job offer to be a squadron commander in May 2014.

“I got a call from Col. Michael King asking if I wanted to go be a remotely piloted aircraft squadron commander at Creech Air Force Base,” he said. “It was one of the most exciting questions of my life, I thought my second chance to command had passed and I would never be able to, let alone to command Airmen in combat.”

Second chance

He took command in June 2014, and even though he only served as squadron commander for less than a year, he led the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron through some impressive milestones.

“Keeney led the mighty (Airmen) of the 15th RS for only 11 months in accomplishing over 21,000 hours flying hours, 348 airstrikes, 570 enemy personnel eliminated,” said Col. Julian Cheater, the 432nd Operations Group commander. “Keeney aced his squadron command tour by setting high standards, holding people to those high standards and rewarding top performance.”

Even Aimee made an impact on the 15th RS and Creech AFB. She created a strong spouses group, held multiple events and generated newsletters to keep everyone informed. 

“Being the squadron commander for the 15th was the best job I’ve ever had,” he said. “It was a whirlwind and I’m eternally grateful for leadership giving me the chance to command and take care of people and ultimately help them fulfill their dreams.”

Keeney attributes his success and survival largely to his wife.

“There’s no way I could have done it without Aimee,” Keeney said. “She was always positive, supportive and did all the research on everything I was going through. Going to the hospital was a daily occurrence and she was always right by my side.

“I’m truly amazed she was able support me, know everything about everything with the cancer and be able to raise the kids in as normal of a life as possible,” he said. “They were still in school, sports and extracurriculars.”

Aimee even developed traditions and ways around hospital policies to cheer up her husband and keep the kids connected.

“Typically, kids aren’t allowed in the oncology ward, so Aimee came up with ways for the kids and I to communicate,” he said. “She would take the kids to the street where I could see them from my room, the kids would look through a telescope and I would look through binoculars while we talked on the phone.

“… She kept me going throughout everything and kept the family together and I’m so lucky to have her,” Keeney continued.

Keeney is also grateful for the benevolence of others during his time of need.

“Ultimately, it was the kindness of others that kept me alive,” he said. “From the many units of donated blood I used, to the baby’s umbilical cords, I’m eternally grateful for everyone.”

Keeney encourages others to participate in blood and bone marrow drives and donate umbilical cords so others may be saved.

This feature is part of the “Through Airmen’s Eyes” series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.

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