CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait -- Women's History Month brings to mind a lot of "firsts" such as Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, the first woman and the first African-American to serve as adjutant general of the Maryland National Guard, who formerly served in the 29th Infantry Division. But accomplishments such as this are built on the legacy of quiet professionals such as the 29th Inf. Div's Sgt. Claudia Keit (pronounced: "Kit"). The story that Soldiers like Sgt. Keit tell is one that plays out over decades. It is one in which older women mentors help younger Soldiers. In turn, those Soldiers go on to lift up, nurture and train the young women who follow.
Keit's desk is located in a nondescript tent on Camp Arifjan. She has made it her own by including a little color: curved, purple desk organizers, pink notepads, a flowered notebook, and a water glass covered in pink peony flowers. Next to it is a posted sign that sums up part of her personal philosophy: "It's a great day to have a great day."
Her hand passes over the Tiffany-blue hazardous materials binder -- filled with records on everything dangerous or explosive that she is responsible for as a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) specialist -- to grab a large white softball toy with a mischievous face.
"It's my Wilson," said Keit referencing the famous-faced volleyball from Tom Hanks' movie 'Cast Away.' "The commander went to the thrift shop and gave us these white balls with funny faces. Now I grab it and squeeze when I'm happy."
Spoiler alert: Keit is always happy.
Coming to America
Keit, a married mother of two, is originally from Ancon, a town two hours north of Lima, Peru. Ancon is a dusty, mild, tourist town on the ocean reminiscent of Hollywood before the highways and aqueducts. Her parents, both military veterans, immigrated to New Jersey when she was sixteen years old and only fluent in Spanish. Many things were foreign to Keit on her new adventure. One element was hauntingly familiar: Her parents told her stories of the Communist Shining Path group, who attacked churches and schools in the name of political revolution.
"My mom taught me that terrorists want you to think like them -- to kill you until you only do what they want you to do," Keit said.
The events of September 11, 2001 reminded her all too much of those stories. On that day, she was working at a department store.
"My coworkers were listening to the radio and crying. I didn't know what was going on so I asked a Spanish-speaking co-worker. When my dad came to drive me home, as we came down the hills on I-280, we could see New York covered in smoke. As an immigrant, you see the U.S. as the most powerful country in the world."
Her father is a former helicopter pilot; mom, a military police investigator. After 40 years in Peru they wanted to provide their daughter Claudia with more choices, but even state school tuitions had too many zeros on the bill. Their daughter decided to take destiny into her own hands.
Said Keit: "One day I just said to myself: 'You know what? I'm just going to go into the Army.'"
In The Army Now
This decision to join the Army was more difficult than she originally anticipated. Many, if not most, Soldiers find basic training challenging. It's even harder when you don't speak English, as was the case for Keit, who taught herself along the way with the help of her battle buddies.
"I had to work three times harder," said Keit. "I would always be standing next to a different Soldier in the chow line and when asked what I wanted to eat, I would point to the tray of the person next to me and say 'same'. That's all I knew how to say then."
Keit demonstrated the Army value of selfless service early in her career. She tells a story about her bunkmate, Suzanne, "who was lost and helpless on her first time away from home." Keit helped Suzanne learn how to tie her bootlaces, how to make a bunk -- all the recruit duties that need to be performed rapidly to standard. Suzanne went on to become an Army drill sergeant and credits Keit for her success. They are still close friends.
At her first overseas duty station, Keit was 19 when she saw her future husband Terrance, 26, a contractor on assignment at the U.S. Army base in Yongsan, South Korea. It was love at first sight.
"When I saw him, I said, 'That's the man for me. That's going to be my husband."
They didn't see each other again for two months until New Years Eve and discovered they had a mutual friend…and a secret.
"He was my female battalion's command sergeant major's son," said Keit. "I thought nobody knew. We didn't tell anyone."
After a three-month Romeo and Juliet-like courtship, they married secretly in Korea. Keit withheld the news from her parents until just before boarding a plane to transfer to a new duty station at Fort Belvoir. Terrance moved to an assignment nearby in Virginia.13 years later, they are still together.
9 to 5
After leaving the Active Duty Army, Keit started a civilian position at the National Guard Bureau -- making copies and fetching coffee -- but her boss, a retired Maryland National Guard colonel and deputy Human Resources administrator, saw promise in the young woman.
"She saw potential in me that I didn't see in myself," said Keit. "I was like a little baby HR person when she found me. She pushed me to go to school…wouldn't leave me alone." And when Keit started going to school, her retired military mentor "never took it easy on me."
"She used to stress me out, but that's when I do good things. She said, 'I know it's hard, but it will pass. And then I got my degree."
Speaking about her professional mentors at NGB, Keit says: "They're old enough to be my parents and taught me that you need to prepare yourself and take a chance. Learn your craft and be good at it."
After getting her degree, Keit was challenged to join the Virginia National Guard to merge her upper-level view of HR policies and procedures with boots-on-the ground reality as a traditional Soldier. During this chapter of her life came the additions of her two daughters - Sofia, 11 and Victoria, 5. Keit calls Victoria "my baby -- she will forever be my baby," and added, "I could be here for hours talking about my kids."
At the same time, Keit must leave home and be a noncommissioned officer in charge of the welfare of several Soldiers with a different version of issues. It's a different mentality, she said, to work with seniors, peers, and subordinates.
"You have to be calm and professional at work; you've got to have that Zen. Remember who you are. Don't let the situation determine who you're going to be," said Keit.
Natalia Rivera, a chaplain's assistant with the 29th Inf. Div. first met Keit during annual training at Fort Pickett and they bonded over their love of Lysol and a shared Latina heritage. Rivera laughs at the similarities between Saturday Night Live's Billy Crystal in "Fernando's Hideaway" and Keit. She says they share an accent, but also share a common mentality in appearing poised and professional at all times.
Crystal's catchphrase in the skit? "It's better to look good than to feel good, dah-lings."
"She has that soft side," said Rivera speaking of Keit's evening walks to the showers in a fluffy bathrobe, "and is also old school Army. She's been under the wing of a lot of leaders...and she has a lot of wisdom...that mom persona...that tough love."
"I'm older than some of the rest of the ladies and I've been on overseas assignments, so I knew what to look for -- problems, stress," said Keit. "The deployment was time for me to pay it forward."
For Keit, that meant shifting into "Mom Mode."
"Being a mom comes naturally. I observe a lot, so when I see something, I ask people: 'What's your problem today?'"
One of the most prominent problems is a common one: Cleanliness.
"I've decided that Sunday is cleaning day, 'cuz there ain't no dirty people living in my room."
Keit, once mentored by older women, now in turn takes her place this Women's History Month as a mentor and mom to the young Soldiers of the 29th Inf. Div. Speaking of her mentors, Kit says, "They're just bad ass girls, you know what I'm sayin'? All three are like my moms. If I could put all three in a blender…take a little of each one…that would be me."