She sat wide-eyed as an amazed little girl hearing of adventures from around the world.
Alyssa Peters-McKeethen was that little girl and those stories came from her grandfather, Colonel Lloyd McKeethen. He trained and flew in one of the most famous squadrons in military history — the Tuskegee Airmen.
Colonel McKeethen instilled a military passion within Peters-McKeethen from a young age. Her parents were also members of the Air Force and her view on serving was no different.
“I knew I was going to be in the military,” Peters-McKeethen said. “I didn’t know what branch of service, but I just knew I was going to serve.”
That love of service began far away from the battles that the airmen faced. It all started in Macon County, Alabama, with one dollar.
“My mom’s side of the family owned the land that the Tuskegee Airfield was built on,” McKeethen said. “At the time, they wanted to donate it because they had no use for the land. But at the time, African Americans didn’t have the privilege to donate. So, they sold it for a dollar.”
That one dollar sale turned out to be a vital piece in our nation’s history.
Years later, Colonel McKeethen completed his training on the same plot of land to become a Tuskegee airmen, and would later serve in World War II, the Korean conflict, and the Vietnam War.
Throughout his career, he earned numerous commendations, including the Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Air Force Outstanding Unit Award Ribbon.
The ‘Last Lonely Eagle’, as McKeethen became known as, was the last airmen to retire from service. He also had a special connection to West Point.
He crossed paths with the Commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, General Benjamin O. Davis, who was one of the first African-American cadets to be a U.S. Military Academy graduate. Davis was recently honored for his commitment to his country with his name on the newest barracks at West Point.
In the short time he was able to speak with him, Gen. Davis offered his advice to a young airmen.
Colonel McKeethen had a very distinguished military career with 25 years in the Military Aircraft Command. He served as a test pilot, aircraft commander, squadron commander and held key staff positions in aircraft maintenance management and logistics. He retired in 1979 with over 30 years of active service.
He finished his flying career with 8,500 hours in the air and knew everything there was to know about aircrafts.
“I would look up, and he would tell me exactly what plane was in the sky,” she said. “What make it was, the model, down to the finest details.”
She considered herself very fortunate to hear the stories of an individual who lived through such a historic era and made numerous sacrifices.
Having just concluded branch week, McKeethen called her grandfather to discuss her future plans in the military.
“You know, you could always fly,” her grandfather said.
Hesitantly, she replied, “I can’t fly a plane, papa.”
He added, “Well, not yet you can’t.”
Although he may have wished for Alyssa to follow in his footsteps, her passion led her in another direction.
Upon her graduation from high school in Cedar Hill, Texas, Peters-McKeethen enrolled in college. After earning a two-year degree from a local school, she decided to enlist in the United States Army. While being stationed in Japan, there were only five commercials that ran on a loop — only one, however, stuck in her mind.
“West Point teaches about the people they taught, like Eisenhower, Grant, and other military greats,” Peters-McKeethen said.
After hearing those words an innumerable number of times, the statement began to resonate with her. She then considered the United States Military Academy as an option.
She was one of the select few that were admitted to West Point as a prior service cadet. Once she arrived, she jumped at the chance at being part of a team.
“During beast, they had mass athletics where you can pick whatever sport you want,” Peters-McKeethen said. “I picked rugby because Coach (Bill) LeClerc didn’t look for the best players, he looked for people who will work well together, have good character and are willing to take in new information. He wants us to be good people, and I think that’s important.”
She spent two years on the pitch before staying on the squad as a manager for the 2017-18 season.
Peters-McKeethen had a unique journey to West Point and her grandfather had and still has a huge influence on her passion for service.
It was so impactful that, she completed an assignment for a creative writing course.
She honored her grandfather’s service with a poem titled, “An Ode to a Great Man.”
An Ode to a Great Man.
It was a scorching, hot day in July of ’26
A brown baby boy named Lloyd entered the mix
His parents adored him, his teachers did too
He grew tall and strong, and tried hard to do
All that would help him reach for his dream
Grab on and hold tight, but somehow it seemed
It was like catching smoke, something slippery or greasy
For brown little boys sometimes life was not easy
The Great Depression soon took hold of the land
And the brown little boy worked like a grown man
To help feed his siblings, his mama, and he tried
To hold them together when his dear daddy died
With his country at war, there was no hesitation
The young man left home to serve his great nation
Barely eighteen when he entered flight school
“Colored boys cain’t fly!” Now ya’ll know the rules!
Black cadets, sadly, all shared the same fate
Racism, segregation, so much damn hate
They tried hard to break them again and again
“Not foreigners, but the Americans they had vowed to defend
They tried to deny him but he was determined to fly
Though many washed out, Lloyd said, “Do or die!”
“I will never give up, on strong shoulders I stand”
He persevered and became a Tuskegee Airman
Hundreds of missions, a Congressional Gold Medal
35 years of service, a ‘Red Tail’ never settles
Or lets others stop him from reaching his dreams
Lloyd learned that obstacles weren’t as big as they seemed
‘The Last Lonely Eagle’ the newspapers called him
The last TA to retire, now respected by them
Almost 90 years-old now, he remembers each plane
And every mission he flew back in his glory days
As a child, I sat wide-eyed, an amazed little girl
As he told of adventures from all ‘round the world
This great man, this hero, beat huge odds to win
I’m so proud of my grandfather, Colonel Lloyd McKeethen
Although she realizes the importance of her grandfather's place in history, he will always be “papa” first.
“He’s more than just a Tuskegee airmen,” she said, “he’s my grandfather.”