The impact of Clemson’s Reserve Officers Training Corps program was on full display on September 18 as Air Force Col. Keith Balts capped a 28-year career of service during a pandemic-safe retirement ceremony, conducted on the same stage he ushered dozens of fresh new second lieutenants into the military during his last two years in uniform as commander of Clemson’s Air Force ROTC.
Balts’ extraordinary career is a testament to the caliber of leaders Clemson’s ROTC program attracts. One of them, four-star Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, commander of the U.S. Space Force and the highest-ranking graduate in the history of Clemson’s ROTC programs, officiated over the ceremony.
The event was not quite what Balts envisioned for himself as his career came to a close after nearly three decades in uniform. Adhering to strict COVID-19 guidelines, in-person attendance at Memorial Auditorium was limited to 70 people, all wearing masks and seated with at least four empty seats between them. The outpouring of warmth and love in the room, however, easily drowned out the strangeness of it.
“Colonel Balts and his family are not leaving the Air Force family. They will forever be a part of us,” said Operations Officer and Assistant Professor of Aerospace Studies Maj. Wayne Leneau. “His leadership, guidance, and experience will be sorely missed. Most of all, we’ll miss the day-to-day positive impact he’s had on those he served with. We hope today’s ceremony will demonstrate our deep respect and gratitude to this dedicated patriot, mentor, and comrade.”
Raymond, a 1984 Clemson graduate, began his speech by saying every retirement ceremony is special, but this one happened to be taking place on the 73rd birthday of the U.S. Air Force, and on the same stage he was commissioned into the Air Force more than 36 years ago. Despite those significant touchstones, Raymond said the most meaningful thing about the day, for him, was the honor of being asked to oversee the retirement of an exceptional officer he had the privilege of serving with for most of his career.
“Given that so many family members are here in person during the time of COVID says a lot, and I know we have lots of people piping in virtually. If we weren’t under COVID, this auditorium would be packed,” said Raymond. “That’s the impact this officer has had on so many throughout his career.”
The list of accomplishments in Balts’ Air Force career could fill a book. Before coming to Clemson, he spent the majority of the preceding decades working with rockets, satellites and radar systems during a critical time when the U.S. military was integrating space operations into combat operations on the ground. Balts was a leader in that transition, and over the years became what Raymond described as a “Ph.D. of Space.”
Balts was tasked multiple times to lead units responsible for some of the country’s most important national security space systems. Raymond recalled visiting Balts when he was assigned as a commander at Cavalier Air Force Station, a remote complex located in the stark landscape about an hour and a half north of Grand Forks, North Dakota.
“It’s a very small installation with a big radar and a really small group of people running it. Not an easy place to be,” said Raymond. “I’ve been there several times, but when I went there when Keith was in charge, it was a family. I think that’s one of the things that I took away about his leadership: he built this small unit in a really isolated place into a tight-knit family. Not only did he build it into a family, but it was an award-winning squadron.”
Balts’ assignments sharpened his expertise with space-oriented operations. In 2008, in an incident that made the news worldwide, a U.S. reconnaissance satellite stopped functioning once it was launched. Balts was part of the military operation, known as Operation Burnt Frost, which was put together in a matter of months to take care of the problem.
“There was a fuel tank that had really hazardous fuel and we were concerned that fuel tank would survive reentry,” said Raymond. “So some innovative people got together and figured out a way to take a missile and shoot down that satellite very precisely and do it right at the correct time, and, of course, Keith was one of the first ones they called to be a part of that team.”
Raymond praised Balts as a superb airman and colleague.
“In the launch business, a million things have to go right and if one little thing goes wrong you have a really bad day. You don’t get a do-over. It either works or it doesn’t. You get instantaneous feedback if you do a good job. I will tell you: Every single mission Keith oversaw was successful.”
Balts’ passion for everything space-related started when he was 11 during a family trip to Cape Canaveral that sparked a “lifelong dream for space.” He credits his parents with instilling a work ethic and sense of independence that fueled his desire to excel at every task he was given throughout his career.
“God could have put my soul in any body, anywhere, at any moment in time, but He put me in a middle-class, Midwestern American family, yours, and for that I am truly grateful,” he told them.
Raymond remembered the day Balts was selected to be the Air Force ROTC detachment commander at Clemson. He brought Balts a Dabo Swinney poker chip to tell him the good news.
“My first feeling was jealousy and the second was anger because my whole career I was trying to get this job,” he laughed. “But the third was thinking, ‘This is really cool.’ And he’s been a great commander. If you look at the time Keith has been here, the detachment has just soared. It’s won all kinds of awards and enrollment is up higher than it’s been in a long, long time.”
He told Balts this last assignment was most certainly his most important one.
“In 1984, there was a young cadet who walked across this stage and raised his right hand,” he said, pointing to himself. “I was lucky to have a great ROTC commander, Col. Jordan, who is here today. That’s significant. That might be the biggest impact you’ve had on our national security. There’s a lieutenant or maybe a captain you mentored here that’s in the beginning of their U.S. Air Force career right now that could grow up someday to be chief of staff of a service. Forget all the other stuff, you’ve built future leaders that will go out and multiply and carry on your legacy.”
Balts’ first civilian job will also be at Clemson, working as a professor of practice in the College of Business. Wendy York, dean of Clemson’s College of Business, who was in attendance, said Balts exemplifies the values Clemson strives to instill in its students.
“I have been honored to work with Col. Balts as commander of our Air Force ROTC detachment and look forward to his continued service to Clemson University in developing our next generation of mission-driven business leaders,” York said. “There is no better person to lead the College of Business’ business-critical leadership competency program than Col. Balts. The Clemson Family will benefit greatly from the principled leadership he has lived and breathed throughout his distinguished career.”
Balts peppered his speech with references to people who contributed to the items decorating his uniform, which he would be taking off for the final time. However, there was one piece he would not be removing.
A highlight of Balts’ time as Clemson’s Air Force ROTC commander came in 2018 when he was instrumental in organizing a special POW/MIA day event where three surviving prisoners of war from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, respectively, all Clemson alumni, shared a stage. It was one of less than a handful of times living prisoners of war from all three conflicts appeared together on one stage anywhere. The event was a huge success, attracting a standing-room-only crowd of more than 700 attendees and included media coverage from USA Today, the Department of Defense and several local media outlets.
As it turns out, honoring United States POWs is very personal for Balts.
“There is one more item not on my uniform I wear every day that deserves a mention at this career milestone,” he said, pulling the sleeve back on his right arm to reveal a silver bracelet inscribed with the name of Lt. Col. William Kieffer, an A1-E Skyraider pilot who was shot down by small arms fire on a combat mission over Laos in February of 1970. His remains were not identified until June 1, 2010.
“I’ve been wearing Lt. Col. Kieffer’s POW/MIA bracelet since my first year in ROTC,” said Balts in his emotional closing statement. “He was shot down over Laos the day I was born and I’ve had a strong connection to him ever since. His family gave me the honor of my career by allowing me to escort his remains home to Arlington nine years ago. Besides my wedding ring, his is the only other accouterment that I will never take off.”