TAMPA — More than 200 family, friends and fellow airmen filled the Incarnation Catholic Church chapel Friday morning in this city on the Florida Gulf Coast to say goodbye to Air Force Maj. Andreas Brian O’Keeffe, 37, of Center Moriches.
He was the last of four members of the 106th Rescue Wing, based at Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach, to be memorialized after their HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter crashed in western Iraq on March 15. A total of seven service members died in the crash.
O’Keeffe was born in upstate New York, near Schenectady, and lived with his girlfriend Allison Denniston on Long Island. The funeral mass was held in Tampa because his family moved there in 1986 and the church was where O’Keeffe attended services and went to elementary school. His parents, Shan and Mary Ann, and sister Bernadette still live there.
“It was his spiritual home,” said Father Michael Suszynski, the church priest.
O’Keeffe was remembered as a scholar, musician and — most of all — someone who could have done anything but chose to wear the uniform of his country.
“Andreas had great talent and tremendous intellect and pledged it generously, joyfully at the service for God and country,” Suszynski said. “He was a young person filled with success, filled with potential at a young age and he made that great sacrifice by volunteering for very dangerous missions. He sacrificed so much so we can enjoy the freedoms we have.”
O’Keeffe’s older brother, also Shan O’Keeffe, joked that perhaps too much was being made of his little brother’s intellect.
“It could be a pain,” he said, eliciting knowing laughs from many in the pews who had been sniffling moments before.
The biggest reason to remember his brother, said Shan, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, was his caring for others.
“Andy always had a huge heart, and was always thinking of others before self,” the older brother said between tears. “His service to country and to all of us is the thing to remember.”
After graduation from the University of South Florida in 2002, O’Keeffe joined the Air National Guard on March 11, 2003, nine days before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He served as an aircraft armament specialist before being commissioned as an officer and getting his flight wings.
All the while, he continued to pursue his education, gaining a degree in law from Georgetown University, where he graduated cum laude in 2006, said his older brother.
For the first four years of his flying career, O’Keeffe patrolled the skies in an RC-26, a twin-engine propeller plane used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. He flew 1,000 hours of combat flight in Iraq and Afghanistan during that time.
But he found those missions “boring and unchallenging and he didn’t feel like he was doing enough,” said his father. “So he decided to change missions, to search and rescue.”
O’Keeffe couldn’t always talk about what he was doing, but he did share drafts of memoirs about some of the missions, said the older brother.
“They were at undisclosed locations in Africa,” said the older brother. “They were extremely challenging, over-water rescues in bad weather, at night, at low altitude, flying for eight hours to pick someone up.”
There were also dangerous rescue missions after hurricanes Harvey and Irma, recalled Air Force Capt. Michael O’Hagan, who also served with the Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing. All told, O’Keeffe and his fellow pilots and crewmates rescued 2,000 lives in about 18 days in Texas and the Caribbean, O’Hagan said.
O’Keeffe was also remembered as a fun and funny friend who liked to challenge others.
One of those challenges led to the creation of a rock ’n’ roll band called the Lipids, said O’Hagan, the spokesman for the 106th Rescue Wing.
O’Keeffe played bass and was known as “Kid Lipid.”
“We were pretty shocked that he had this whole closeted music life,” said O’Hagan. “Matchbox 20 opened up for them supposedly. We heard some of those stories through the grapevine and of course were wildly entertained by all of it.”
The heroics of O’Keeffe and his fellow airmen, highlighted the missions of the 106th Rescue Wing, said O’Hagan.
With about 1,000 members — roughly 90 percent from Long Island — the unit has been regularly deploying to war zones since President George W. Bush first began sending troops to Afghanistan following 9/11, according to New York National Guard spokesman Eric Durr.
“From the 106th, we deployed almost immediately to help out with Hurricane Harvey,” he said. “We were one of the first ones there.”
“I think a lot of times, folks might not even realize that right in their own backyard, there is the 106th Rescue Wing of the Air National Guard,” said O’Hagan. “It is filled with the ranks of men and women who volunteer and push forward, and among them was Andy O’Keeffe, who stood out among a group of people who stood out.”
O’Keeffe’s cremains will be brought back to Long Island for a memorial ceremony on Aug. 4, said O’Hagan.
“His ashes will be spread along the South Shore, which was the route his helicopter would normally patrol,” he added.
In addition to O’Keeffe, who was posthumously promoted to major, Capt. Christopher T. Zanetis, 37, of Long Island City, Master Sgt. Christopher J. Raguso, 39, of Commack, and Staff Sgt. Dashan J. Briggs, 30, of Port Jefferson Station, were members of the 106th who perished in the crash.
Also killed were Capt. Mark K. Weber, 29, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, assigned to the 38th Rescue Squadron at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia; Master Sgt. William R. Posch, 36, of Indialantic, Florida, and Staff Sgt. Carl P. Enis, 31, of Tallahassee, both of Florida and assigned to the 308th Rescue Squadron, Air Force Reserve, at Patrick Air Force Base, near Cape Canaveral.