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Helen Pedersen Keiser displays the many honors won by her late son, Capt. Andrew Pedersen-Keel, who died in combat duty in Afghanistan. (Photo by Tom Conroy/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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People who establish charities in the memory of a beloved family member often say that they hope to keep that person’s spirit alive. Helen Pedersen Keiser can testify to how well that works.
Helen has suffered a particularly grievous loss. On March 11, 2013, her son, Capt. Andrew Pedersen-Keel, a decorated West Point graduate serving in Afghanistan, was shot and killed by an assailant wearing an Afghan National Security uniform.
In Andrew’s memory, Helen and her husband, Bob Keiser, have founded APK Charities, which raises money for military-related causes. Their major fundraiser, the APK 5K Run, 5K Ruck March, and Kids Fun Run, now in its third year, will take place at 9 a.m. this Saturday, Nov. 5, at the Guilford Fairgrounds. (For information or to register, visit apkcharities.org; on-site registration begins at 7 a.m.)
Sitting at her dining room table, which is strewn with paperwork from the race and the charity, Helen explains how the fundraiser came to be.
“We were assigned an Army casualty-assistance officer,” she says. “His name is Capt. Corey Holmes. He’s with the National Guard here in Connecticut. He became a huge support system for us, and it was at this table that Corey and Bob decided that Andrew’s legacy needed to be told.”
Helen calls in Bob from the kitchen to help explain the origin of the race.
“This was really a way to bring the military from Connecticut and civilians together,” he says.
They decided a run was the most accessible type of event, and the ruck march was more accessible still.
The ruck march, Bob and Helen say, is similar to the military exercise of taking long marches with fully loaded backpacks.
“It was Corey’s idea to do the ruck,” Bob says, “but it was our idea to put food in them.”
Participants are asked to carry 10 or 20 pounds of nonperishable items to be given to local food pantries.
“The first two years,” Bob says, “we donated over 2,000 pounds of food.”
Last year, Helen says, the charity distributed $50,000 to its causes.
Another way Helen and Bob have honored Andrew’s legacy is by building a small room off the dining room that is decorated with photos and memorabilia of Andrew’s time in the military.
Pointing to a photo of Andrew dressed for combat, Helen says, “This is one of his happiest photos. It was taken next to his commander in Afghanistan, and you can see he was pretty happy, going out to do his job—very happy and excited and very accomplished at 28.”
Andrew was born in South Miami in 1984. Helen, who was born in Brooklyn and raised in upstate New York and New Jersey, had moved to Florida to study nursing at the University of Miami.
Helen had a relatively late introduction to motherhood.
“I was 35 when I delivered Andrew,” she says. “I waited my whole life for that boy.”
Shortly after, Helen’s marriage to Andrew’s father ended. She decided she needed the support of her own family and moved back north, first working as a nurse at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and then at Yale.
Life as a single mother was familiar to Helen. Her mother had raised seven children after Helen’s father died of a heart attack when she was four years old.
“We had very limited resources,” Helen says, “but my mother was fabulous at stressing education, sports, religion.”
Helen and Andrew were living in Wallingford when she met Bob on a blind date.
“We dated for six years,” Helen says. “When I married Bob, Andrew was 15, and he walked me down the aisle.”
Helen hoped that Andrew would qualify for a scholarship to a private preparatory school.
“We knew he was bright,” she says.
Andrew was accepted to Avon Old Farms School, a boarding school.
“He flourished there,” Helen says. “He thrived.”
A set of twins who were a year ahead of Andrew at Avon were accepted to military academies, one to West Point and one to Annapolis.
“I thought that might have opened Andrew’s mind to service,” Helen says.
Helen believes that boarding school may have helped Andrew adjust to military life.
“There was a lot of regimentation at Avon Old Farms,” she says, “so when he was out of his high school clothing and put into his West Point clothing, that made sense, and when he had to line up for meals, that made sense. There was a hierarchy at Avon Old Farms.
“He just fit in—although it is a transition for sure.”
Bob and Helen moved to Madison after Andrew’s first year at West Point.
“This would be the home he came to,” she says.
Upon graduation from West Point in 2006, Andrew went through officers’ training, then Ranger school. His first deployment to Afghanistan began in 2008. According to APK Charities’ website, he led three air assault operations and more than 150 combat foot patrols as a platoon leader in Kandahar Province.
He returned to the U.S. for Special Forces training and began his second deployment to Afghanistan in 2012.
Helen has little direct knowledge of Andrew’s time in Afghanistan, because he never described specifically what he was doing when they spoke over the phone or via Skype.
“He said, ‘Mom, don’t worry,’” Helen says. “‘Mom, you don’t have to worry about a thing. We’re fine.’
“That was actually our last conversation,” she says.
Helen was at work when the two uniformed service members came to her house to give her the news. Bob had the soldiers wait in the living room.
When she came home, Helen says, “I walked into the mudroom there, and then I knew. I saw the blue leg, the soldier’s leg with the yellow stripe. My knees went out. I knew.”
Andrew’s death resulted from what is called a green-on-blue attack, green being the color of Afghani uniforms, blue being the color of NATO’s.
“That was the part that really worried me,” Helen says, “and that’s what happened.”
The attack also killed a second American soldier, Staff Sgt. Rex L. Schad, from Oklahoma, and a military working dog named Bak.
Andrew received a third Bronze Star posthumously. Among many other medals, he has a Meritorious Service Medal and a Purple Heart.
Helen still mourns her loss deeply. She answers a rather tactless question about what she does for fun by saying, “Naaah,” and shaking her head.
“The grieving process has no start or finish,” she says.
But she has many sources of comfort, especially her church, St. George’s in Guilford.
“I have said many times I will never be the person that I was,” she says. “That’s OK. It would be impossible. So I am stronger than I thought.
“But I have the support of my husband, family, friends, the church. I am not doing this on my own. I am being really held up by the Holy Spirit. And my faith.”
She manages to get away once a year to Regina Laudis, an abbey of cloistered Benedictine nuns.
“It’s a Connecticut treasure,” Helen says. “It’s actually in a town called Bethlehem.”
Helen discovered Regina Laudis by simply doing a Web search for “monasteries” and “Connecticut.”
“It was a gift,” she says. “I’ve had so many gifts. It is almost my duty to repay and pay forward.”
The causes supported by APK Charities all have personal meaning for Helen and Bob. They include organizations that provide aid to Special Forces members, veterans, and families; that house the families of service members who are undergoing medical treatment; and that care for military working dogs.
Helen has some people who provide a living link to Andrew. He left behind his fiancée, Celeste Pizza (her real name), who graduated from West Point one year after he did. Helen talks about her like a proud mother.
“She managed to bury her fiancé in March,” Helen says, “graduate medical school in May, get a residency in Virginia. She just graduated in May of 2016 as resident of the year and now has a fellowship through Harvard for global health and is currently in Botswana, Africa, learning third-world medicine with a first-world education.”
This year, Helen and Bob, after going to Helen’s 50th-anniversary high school reunion, attended what would have been Andrew’s 10th-anniversary West Point reunion.
“That is where I learned how huge his influence was, and his reputation,” Helen says, “and I said to Bob on the way home, ‘I think his death had a much higher purpose than what’s obvious.’”
Helen clearly sees Andrew in his classmates.
“Everyone’s 32,” Helen says, “as Andrew would be, married, one or two children, graduate degree, good job, beautiful future, beautiful faces. And they loved my boy.
“Being with them is not painful at all,” she says. “It’s completely comforting. It’s very…not stressful at all. It’s joyful, really.”
Helen has had a similar experience at the APK races.
“I never felt happier,” she says. “It was like Andrew was just channeling all this joy into my heart, into his friends, into the event. I’ve never experienced anything like it.
“So I hope it happens a third time,” she says. “That is a compelling reason to do this, to bring together his friends, his soldiers, the community, and smiling happy people.
“It’s a message for society to remember that there was a soldier who came from here, who gave his life, and that there are other soldiers still serving who deserve the recognition.”
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