Inner fire: Nellis firefighter finds his strength, earns 12 OAY

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Senior Master Sgt. Andrew Kehl, 99th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Department deputy fire chief, leads an exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., July 29, 2019. The 99th CES provides design and construction support for facilities and infrastructure, fire protection, crash rescue, disaster preparedness and environmental compliance. (Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Bailee A. Darbasie)

It’s 7 a.m. on a warm Nevada morning. The bright desert sun is shining through the window as a towering 6’4” Airman is snug on his couch, hunched over, nose buried in a book.

It’s part of his mandatory morning ritual. He starts his day with a hot cup of coffee — no creamer. He strolls over to his crowded wooden bookshelf, grabs whatever seems interesting to him that day and begins his 20-minute reading session.

It’s a tedious task for some, but it’s about discipline for him. Reading is a method he uses to feel in control of his body and mind.

Senior Master Sgt. Andrew Kehl’s gleaming smile and perfectly faded military haircut make it difficult for the Airmen at the 99th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Department to imagine their deputy fire chief as a man who struggles with anything, especially control. Even his office is decorated with awards and trophies, and he was recently honored as one of the Air Force’s 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year.

Living in darkness
Nearly two years ago, Kehl was in the darkest part of his life. He was in a fierce battle with the negative emotions revolving around a dissolved marriage, which resulted in a geographical separation from his son. He was mentally and emotionally exhausted. The normally carefree Kehl everyone knew at Spangdalem Air Base, Germany, had become a sad shell of his former self.

Gloomy grey skies of Germany hung overhead, mirroring the darkness that ensued him within, as he struggled to see the silver lining of his situation.

“The sun didn’t come out for almost a month,” Kehl recalled. “My son was only one year old when his mom and I split. She (moved) to Texas, and I stayed back. I was with him every day until that point.”

Just when he thought it couldn’t get any worse, he woke up one morning to the sound of an irritating, constant ring in his left ear. His head hurt. He couldn’t think straight. All he wanted was for the nuisance in his head to stop. But, it wouldn’t. The ringing persisted, getting louder and louder the more he thought about it.

Worried and confused, Kehl made an appointment with his doctor, who diagnosed his ringing as tinnitus, which is the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present.

“I was at the lowest point in my life,” said Kehl. “I was someone who was so used to being able to control everything; and now that multiple aspects of my life were changing and out of my control, I felt helpless and lost. I wasn’t able to get any work done, and I was letting a lot of people down.”

Finding hope
Succumbing to his depression, Kehl stopped going to work and was facing serious consequences. He sought help through the Military & Family Life Counseling Program, which allowed him mentally and emotionally process the separation from his son. After weeks of spiraling downward in his personal and professional life, he finally saw a glimmer of sunlight peek through the dark clouds of his mind.

“I recall thinking, Hey, you’re either going to be weak and let this overtake all the great momentum in your life, or you’re going to get up and say, ‘No! I want to play football with my son. I want to see him grow up, and graduate high school and college,’” said Kehl. “That moment made me realize I needed to turn my life around and get back on track.”

Senior Master Sgt. Andrew Kehl, 99th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Department deputy fire chief, speaks with his Airmen at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., July 11, 2019. Since arriving at Nellis in March 2018, Kehl has focused on improving and empowering himself through reading, prioritizing and effectively leading his Airmen. (Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Bailee A. Darbasie)

After many phone calls and late nights researching his options, Kehl found a way to reunite with his son and continue his career in the Air Force. He contacted his career field manager, who arranged for a transfer from Spangdalem to Nellis in March of 2018.

“Coming to Nellis saved my life,” confessed Kehl. “I truly thought my career was over. I didn’t know what I was going to do. But, Nellis gave me the second chance I desperately needed.”

Taking control
Since arriving at Nellis, Kehl has focused on improving and empowering himself through reading, prioritizing and effectively leading his Airmen.

To regain control of his mind despite the constant ringing in his ear, Kehl started with a small habit — daily reading.

“Reading has helped me tremendously,” he explained. “I read the types of books that I know will help me on my path.”

When he first started training himself to read every day, Kehl recalls not being able to read for more than five minutes before he was distracted by the ringing in his ear. Drowning out the noise, he can now read for 20 minutes at a time. The bookshelf in his office is full of thick non-fiction books containing what he calls “all of the secrets written right there in front of you.”

His innovative ideas and thirst for knowledge and understanding have made Kehl an admirable figure within the Air Force Fire and Emergency Services. In fact, he constructed a SharePoint site that can be tailored to any specific Air Force Fire and Emergency Services organization, earning him the title of Air Force Innovator of the Year in 2016, explained said Anthony Rabonza, 99th CES fire chief.

“His reputation is well-known, especially for creating the SharePoint site to effectively manage all aspects of fire operations, firefighter training, fire prevention, fire administration and fire logistics,” said Rabonza. “His professional demeanor and how much he cares about the entire Air Force organization — not just our fire department — is truly shown in his work.”

Not only did Kehl improve his mind, but he improved relationships by setting boundaries and prioritizing his time.

“If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority,” Kehl recited. “You can’t have too many irons in the fire. I used to spread myself thin and focus on every little thing handed to me instead of what was most important. It really took away from the full capacity of what I could accomplish for myself and my team. I had to learn to say, ‘No’ to a lot of things in order to focus more on my Airmen and what they needed.”

Using his experience as a guide, Kehl has created an environment that encourages his Airmen to ask for help and approach leadership with even their darkest problems.

“He’s a participative leader who only wants the best for his people,” said Rabonza. “There are so many aspects to the workplace he has improved — communication, morale and management. He has been an amazing addition to our team.”

Kehl’s belief in empowerment and radical transparency has opened the doors of communication across all levels of his unit.

“Those around me know I am not always right and seek proactive feedback from both superiors and, more importantly, from subordinates,” continued Kehl. “At the fire station, we believe in feedback up and down, and communicate all the time with our Airmen. We encourage and empower everyone to contribute.

“Culture is so important in the workplace,” said Kehl. “Mastering the art of maintaining an environment that is light and fun is not always easy. But, it’s a culture that’s important to have for the well-being of everyone.”

Kehl’s hopes his story is one that can speak to most Airmen across the force. Although they have setbacks and may fall off the beaten path, there’s always a way to regain control and find a way out of the darkness.

“Eighteen-months ago, I thought my ride was over,” said Kehl. “I was completely done professionally. But, now I’m one of the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year. I’m only here today because I decided to take control of my life.”