Maj. Keith Altenhofen was the “real deal”, an elite helicopter rescue pilot who flew in sandstorms and combat situations that might unnerve other pilots.
The son of a physician, he did not follow his father into the medical field, but saved hundreds of lives in medical evacuations on multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His story emerged this summer as Central Catholic High School student Ben Shinkwin began work on a memorial flagpole at the school’s football stadium for an Eagle Scout project. The 60-foot illuminated flagpole is a memorial for the 1986 Central Catholic graduate, who died from the effects of post traumatic stress disorder on Jan. 3, 2016, leaving a wife and two children.
“He was a man who knew how to take the extra step and go the extra mile to save people in harm’s way,” said Shinkwin, a member of Boy Scout Troop 194 in Modesto.
Altenhofen collected friends in his trek through high school, college and the military, and hundreds attended his funeral services last year in a hangar at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas and at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Modesto.
“He was the guy who was the life of the party,” said Matt Friedrich, a friend in high school. “Everybody loved Keith no matter where you were on the social food chain.”
Altenhofen was from a prestigious family. He and his two sisters, Becky and Janine, were godchildren of Emil Hofman, a legendary professor at University of Notre Dame. His father, Dr. Timothy Altenhofen, was a neurosurgeon with homes in Modesto and Pebble Beach.
Along with his fascination for airplanes, Altenhofen had a yen for military service like his father, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran, and his mother, a former military nurse.
“I’m afraid I had something to do with motivating him along the route of the military and flying,” said brother-in-law Wally Bone, who was an Air Force pilot when he courted Becky Altenhofen. “He joined the Army and was trying to get into flight school. He did not want to be a doctor.”
Altenhofen was stationed in Korea as an Army helicopter rescue pilot and was recruited for the Air Force after excelling in ocean rescues while stationed at Keflavik air base in Iceland. He was trained in the elite Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas.
He was given the nickname “Inch” by his Air Force instructors. “At Weapons School, we made sure everything was done exactly right, and everyone fails a lot of stuff,” said Col. Christopher Barnett, who flew with Altenhofen over a 10-year period. “We liked to say he was within an inch of being kicked out, even though he really wasn’t.”
Altenhofen, then 40, had returned from an Iraq tour in fall 2008 when orders came for a deployment to Afghanistan. He first asked to sit this one out but figured a young rescue pilot would have to make the trip and might not survive what was coming, Wally Bone said.
In 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates wanted more medical evacuation assets in Afghanistan after a wounded Marine had laid on the battlefield for four hours and died, resulting in a congressional hearing.
The Weapons School class was closed and the senior instructors were deployed to southern Afghanistan in March 2009. On the first day in the country, “we were pulling British troops out of a firefight with mortar rounds dropping in between the helicopters,” Barnett said.
The pace never let up for the crews in the 129th Rescue Squadron. Altenhofen flew 195 sorties in three months, including an unprecedented 100 combat sorties in 30 days, often in support of special forces that were outnumbered by Taliban insurgents. The Modesto native stayed on the ground only five days of the three-month deployment, Barnett said.
Altenhofen mastered the controls of HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters, the Air Force version of the Black Hawk, which also have a co-pilot, flight engineer and pararescue people in the back who pick up the injured and tend their wounds in flight to the hospital.
The Pave Hawks are not exactly medevac birds with a red cross on the side, but are armed with .50-caliber machine guns for fighting their way into battles to save lives.
Altenhofen was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses for missions in April and May 2009 that were written up in military magazines.
His squadron supported an operation by U.S. forces in Marjah, a Taliban hub for processing opium and black-tar heroin for funding the insurgency. Under the cover of darkness on May 18, 2009, Afghan commandos, Army Green Berets and other forces took over a village market, the Loy Cherah Bazaar in Marjah, seizing a reported 15,000 kilograms of narcotics, bomb-making materials, weapons and communication equipment.
The Taliban awoke the next day determined to take it back. Calling in fighters from the surrounding countryside, they launched repeated attacks on the special forces.
The rescue helicopters, launching from a forward operating base called Bastion, were asked to evacuate a Green Beret on a rooftop who had a serious arm wound. Altenhofen’s aircraft was in a flight of two Pave Hawk helicopters that flew into the stronghold.
The Green Beret commanders first told them to hold off because of intense fire from AK-47s, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
When the choppers did approach, the enemy fire was directed at them. As Barnett, in the lead helicopter, made aggressive passes near the enemy to draw fire, Altenhofen flew into the landing zone and picked up the Green Beret, who had been brought down from the rooftop. Dust flew from machine-gun bursts striking a building next to the landing area.
In the evening, the Pave Hawks were notified of a solder who took a round in the abdomen in the same battle in Marjah. Launching into a black, moonless night, equipped with night-vision goggles, the Pave Hawks ran into difficulties in picking up the second casualty.
Altenhofen’s aircraft, called Pedro 35, was approaching the battlefield, not far from the Taliban position, when one of the engines was shot out. He diagnosed the engine failure and aborted the approach, most likely saving the lives of the crew. The damaged aircraft managed to return to base, while Barnett’s crew evacuated the casualty.
The Pave Hawks returned the next day for an Air Force combat controller on the ground who was hit in the neck. The fighting had intensified and an A-10 Warthog was dropping ordinance on the enemy positions. The Taliban had surrounded the landing zone and targeted the incoming helicopters with rocket-propelled grenades, small arms fire and other weapons.
Barnett made attack runs to draw the fire and a mortar round exploded underneath his aircraft, almost knocking it out of the air. According to a narrative for his Distinguished Flying Cross, Altenhofen’s crew flew into the landing zone “with complete disregard for their lives” and evacuated the injured serviceman.
They unloaded water, ammunition and other supplies to refresh the troops. The three soldiers rescued at Marjah recovered, said Barnett, whose Distinguished Flying Crosses were upgraded to Silver Stars in January.
Switching to attack mode
Altenhofen also was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for missions over a 10-hour period on April 4, 2009. The crews had taken a wounded Afghan soldier to Kandahar and then escorted a group of Green Berets through a contested area in northern Helmand Province that was rife with insurgents and improvised explosive devices.
The special forces had support from a B-1 Bomber that struck enemy positions, but the air support could not help 40 Green Berets who were pinned down by large-caliber weapons nested in a building compound. What they needed were close-combat aircraft – like the Pave Hawks.
Altenhofen piloted one of two choppers that first passed over the Green Berets and the Taliban forces to scan the location of civilians and enemy positions. The Pave Hawks then pointed their guns forward in a dive and assaulted the two buildings where the fire was originating, taking out the insurgents.
Later, the Pave Hawks destroyed another enemy position. The 40 Green Berets and their vehicles were able to proceed to a safe area for the night. None of the special forces were rescued on that mission. There were no casualties.
Barnett said that during the deployment the small rescue group also evacuated civilians from two mass-casualty incidents, one sparked by a suicide bomber in an open market.
“Keith gave everything for his country,” said Barnett, who spoke at his funeral. “He did not have to go on that tour and he did.”
Returning home to Las Vegas, with its windy afternoons and colored-gravel lawns, required some adjustment for Altenhofen after three months of life-threatening military action.
His wife, Dawn Altenhofen, said they went shopping at Walmart, where the dauntless rescue pilot was overwhelmed by the massive number of cereal boxes, household products and customers in the store.
“Standing there in Walmart, Keith was freaking out and saying ‘we have to leave’,” Dawn said. “He was a little off.”
Altenhofen returned to his fun-loving self with a ski trip to Utah and a jaunt to Europe in December 2009. In Prague, he tried on a fur hat and posted a Facebook picture for his friends in California cities, Austin, Vail, Iceland and other places.
After his retirement from the Air Force in 2013, ending a 21-year career in the military, Altenhofen worked as a helicopter tour pilot taking customers over the Grand Canyon and the spectacular lights of Las Vegas.
“He liked doing that,” Dawn recalled. “He would fly tourists out to the Grand Canyon and serve them lunch.”
Altenhofen stayed involved with his son, Matthew, from a previous relationship and in 2011 Dawn gave birth to their daughter, Lillian. Keith had vowed to be a strict father figure, but Lillian soon had him wrapped her finger.
Family and friends said Altenhofen was never quite the same after the 2009 tour in Afghanistan. According to Dawn, the residual effects of rescue and combat operations made him yell in his sleep. He started drinking heavily to sleep at night.
In the last four years of his life, there was not much recovery from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, Dawn said. Her husband thought pilots should not complain about post-traumatic stress because combat is far tougher for soldiers on the ground.
Carl Castro of the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans & Military Families, said it’s not unusual for military veterans to use alcohol to treat symptoms of PTSD. He estimated that 40 to 45 percent of veterans who complete a high-stress tour of duty will have symptoms such as loss of sleep, nightmares, reaction to loud noises and relationship problems.
They may agonize over the death of a friend in battle, second guess their actions or have feelings of hopelessness. Castro concludes from studies that multiple deployments are a risk factor for PTSD. Many veterans are fine after a first deployment but are surprised by symptoms after a second one, he said.
“Everyone has a breaking point where they can’t take it anymore,” said Castro, who is director of the center at University of Southern California.
Altenhofen had seven or eight tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, but family members believe the traumatic incidents of the 2009 deployment finally got to him.
He told them a story about transporting a young Afghan girl who had been shot and tortured by the Taliban. Evacuated from a hostile area, the girl died in her father’s arms inside the helicopter before they could reach a hospital.
“He could not get over that people would do that to children,” Wally Bone said. “He thought the Taliban were animals for what they did to civilians.”
Barnett was not able to confirm the story about the girl but said: “They would shoot children to try to pull in the U.S. forces and ambush them.”
Dawn said she had no complaints about the counseling, therapy and services provided to her husband through the Department of Veterans Affairs. In one of his low points, she said, he entered a civilian alcohol treatment facility but could not relate to the other patients.
The family said Keith died at home from a seizure after suffering the effects of PTSD. His sister, Becky Bone, said the manner of his death did not diminish his years of rescue service, which enabled many people to return home, raise children, build careers and enjoy their lives.
“He was very patriotic and had a higher calling,” Becky said. “He wanted to do something with his life that helped a lot of people.”
Altenhofen’s death last year sent a shock through the air-rescue community. “A lot of people on that deployment had problems because, in reality, it was a lot more than we had expected,” Barnett said. He noted that many of them joined a private Facebook as one way to stay connected.
The flagpole and a memorial plaque will be dedicated at the Central Catholic football game Sept. 29. For Shinkwin, the Eagle Scout, the project has been far more than an exercise in digging the foundation and pouring cement. He said that Altenhofen’s story gives him a new perspective on a brother who’s a military officer.
School President Jim Pecchenino said the stadium needed a new flagpole because of redwood trees that have grown to obscure the view of the older standard. Spectators will now turn their gaze to the new flagpole on the west side of David Patton Field when the National Anthem is played. Some may toss a salute for the rescue pilot.
“I think it is reassuring to know that people like Keith exist in our country,” said brother-in-law Chris Sharpe of Carlsbad. “There are people who are willing to sacrifice their lives to help others. The Modesto community can take pride in knowing he was a product of their home town.”
©2017 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.