Turtles on Fenceposts

“If you see a turtle on a fencepost, you know it didn’t get there by itself.”

Last week, the Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies had the privilege of hosting Lieutenant General (ret.) Ken Keen and his wife Mary Ellen at Eastern Kentucky University.

I learn a lot by observing and asking questions of great leaders. I learn more when I share a similar background with them. That saying about the turtle originated in the hills of eastern Kentucky, near a little place called Hyden, where General Keen grew up before graduating from EKU in ’74. He commanded troops in the 7th Special Forces Group, 82nd Airborne Division, and 75th Ranger Regiment. One could write pages just summarizing his accomplishments.

But accolades and glory were not the topic of his presentation to the campus community, “Lead the Way … Never Give Up.”

No, he spoke about setbacks, about wanting to give up, about falling down and having to dig deep to persevere. I have encountered so many students over the past two years who’ve struggled to make it to class due to depression and imposter syndrome. And I know a few of those students were in attendance – that they got the chance to hear from someone who relentlessly chased their dreams that they are not alone, that struggling and doubting and failing are not defects of character.

“Learn to fail, but never let yourself be defined by those failures,” he said at one point.

I share with the General the common experience of growing up in a holler. Many times, I looked around and wondered how someone like Keen – a first-generation college graduate from a socioeconomically disadvantaged region – made it to the top.  Over time, General Keen became that turtle.

A turtle doesn’t get on top of a fence post, and a General doesn’t get three stars, unless they have help. The presentation showcased many mentors – including many enlisted men, non-commissioned officers – who helped Keen cultivate his leadership style. But it was clear to everyone that his biggest source of support was his wife, Mary Ellen.

An inspiration in her own right, she was among the first women to graduate from an ROTC program – same class as her husband. The couple visited our Veterans in Society course and told students about the sacrifices military spouses make on a routine basis: managing the complex emotions of children worried about absent parents; handling financial and legal issues in the absence of their deployed service member; and often, when you are the spouse of a flag officer, leading others coping with unspeakable loss on the home front. Make no mistake, when your family serves at the “tip of the spear” like General Keen’s did for so many years, the frequency and severity of such tragedy increases.  

My first childhood home was in a Kentucky holler, and I can imagine walking the fence line of my grandfather’s farm only to come upon the site of a turtle on a fencepost. Ironically, it was my grandfather who made the biggest impact on my life growing up. He was a man who started with nothing. Quit school to provide for his siblings, taught himself carpentry, working his way up from hammering nails to leading crews and building houses.

That holler I lived in had belonged to his father – my great grandfather, who lost it to unpaid debts and the need to provide for seven children. It was my grandfather who returned home, years later, and bought it back. He refused to give up. And he refused to let his family give up on a dream that had been born into the world generations before his birth.

If I can become half the man that General Keen and my grandfather became, I will count myself lucky. And If I happen to see any students in need of a hand up to advance their dreams along the way, I will be happy to pay it forward – to give them a boost up to the very top of that fence post to so that it might spark others’ imaginations.

2022 EKU ROTC Military Ball with Lt. General (ret.) Ken Keen
My grandfather on his farm.

Travis L. Martin, PhD, is founding director of the Kentucky Center for Veterans Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. He has established several nationally recognized programs to support returning veterans in higher education and the non-profit sector. A scholar of American literature, psychoanalytic trauma theory, and social theory, Dr. Martin presents frequently at conferences and universities. He has published dozens of research articles and creative short works on veterans’ issues. A former sergeant in the U.S. Army, he served during two deployments in the Iraq War (2003-04 & 2005). His book War and Homecoming: Veteran Identity and the Post-9/11 Generation is slated for publication with the University Press of Kentucky in 2022. He resides in Richmond, KY.