Created in 1996 to share images and information on Pennsylvania's industrial heritage, with emphasis on the coal, iron and steel, and railroading industries, this website now lives here in an updated and more accessible format.
Featuring short VLOGs about trips to historic railroads, hikes to abandoned industrial sites, and other exciting historical adventures.
This website focuses on my activities as a licensed HAM (Amateur Radio Operator). My on-air call sign is N3VCK.
I served an 18-year career during the Cold War as an Armor officer in the United States Army, with leadership, command, and staff assignments in the Federal Republic of Germany, the Republic of Korea, and the continental United States, including Army Staff in the Pentagon during the Gulf War of 1991.
I was commissioned in Armor as a Distinguished Military Graduate of the Virginia Military Institute's Class of 1978. At VMI I served as Cadet Platoon Leader of the Tanker Platoon, an extra-curricular group of cadets who maintained -- and conducted special training on -- the Institute's five M48A1 tanks. These gas-burners were older than us, having been assembled in 1954! Just prior to graduating, we had the unique experience of road marching five new replacement tanks from the railhead at Buena Vista, Virginia to the training area near Lexington, Virginia. We created quite an "uproar" in Buena Vista ... the local elementary school children were actually let out of class to watch the parade pass by.
After graduating from the Armor Officers Basic Course, at Fort Knox, Kentucky in March, 1979, I received orders for overseas duty with the 3d Armored Division in the Federal Republic of Germany. Between April, 1979 and March, 1982 I served successively as Platoon Leader, 3d Platoon, B Company, 3d Battalion, 33d Armor Regiment, as that battalion's heavy mortar Platoon Leader, and Executive Officer for the Brigade Headquarters and Headquarters Company. Colonel Gordon R. Sullivan, future Army Chief of Staff, was the Brigade Commander during my tour as HHC Executive Officer. That's me early in my time as Mortar Plt Ldr after clearing my ammo account at Grafenwoehr Training Area.
In March, 1982 I returned to Ft. Knox for the next phase in my professional schooling at the Armor Officers Advanced Course and the Junior Officer's Maintenance Course. Afterward, I got orders to Ft. Hood, Texas. But, before I could get back to tanks I had to "do my time" as an Operations Officer at a place called TCATA (Training and Doctrine Command's Combined Arms Testing Activity). I was there two years. The officers in III Corps, on main post, called it the "Retirement Home," and that's exactly what it was; I got out of there just in time. The one positive thing I can say about my time at TCATA is that, while there, I fell in love with Quartermaster officer Debbie, who became my wife on July 14, 1984. At Ft. Knox they told us, "If you want to be a successful Armor Officer you have to get in bed with the logisticians." I took them at their word!
I commanded Company C, 3d Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, Fort Hood, Texas from February 1985 through August 1986. At the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, California in March, 1986, "Charlie" Company, organized as a combined arms tank-mechanized infantry team, killed more of the enemy with fewer rounds than any previous unit, setting a new record for direct fire efficiency. Commanding "Charlie" Company was absolutely the best professional experience of my life.
From the period of my service with the 3-66 Armor, I have been affiliated with the 66th Armor Regiment. I had the honor of sharing several wonderfully motivational conversations with the honorary Regimental Commander, the late Colonel Herbert Long, while I commanded "Charlie Company." As a Major, he had commanded the 1st Battalion during the Normandy Campaign in July-August, 1944.
During the same period (mid-'80s), the U.S. Armor Association developed a new award for service that was designed to recognize particularly outstanding service. The proudest moment of my military career came at the conclusion of my time in command, when I was awarded the Bronze Medalion of the Order of Saint George (the patron saint of mounted warriors) for "long and honorable service to armor and cavalry."
Between frequent contacts with the "old veterans" of our regiment and the pride being shown in the heritage of mounted warfare, it was a good time to be a soldier.
I returned to Germany and the 3d Armored Division in January, 1987 as Assistant S3 in charge of training for the 2d Brigade. My principle duty there, in addition to designing and coordinating the annual training program for the brigade's two tank battalions and the mechanized infantry battalion, was to serve as Officer-in-Charge of the Tactical Command Post. I served in that capacity for two years before being "bumped up" to Division Headquarters because of my expertise in designing tank gunnery training programs. I was assigned to a special staff section overseeing the Division's team for the international Canadian Army Trophy tank gunnery competition. Unfortunately, the senior officer who personally intervened -- against the strenuous opposition of my superiors -- to have me transfered to Division HQ did not support our recommendations. In the end I was little more than the highest paid sign painter and eye-wash gopher in the U.S. Army. The 3AD's 1989 CAT team was a shameful embarassment; it was the worst, most wasted year of my life.
That's me in happier days, in the back of the Brigade TAC; the officer on the radio was my boss, (then) Major Pete Chiarelli, Bde S3 and future Army Deputy Chief of Staff.
As a new Major, I was selected to serve on the Army Staff in Washington, D.C., assigned to the Office of the Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence as the Foreign Armor Science and Technology Officer. My job was to coordinate the efforts of several intelligence analysts who kept track of developments in potential threat countries. Our biggest challenge during my time on the Army Staff was to keep up with developments in the disintegrating Soviet Union. I think my biggest contribution came during Desert Shield, when I wrote the information paper that lead to speeding up the fielding of new M1A1 tanks to units earmarked for deployment to Saudi Arabia.
After four years in the Pentagon, which gave me time to complete a Master of Science degree in Information Management and to discover the hobby of railfanning, I volunteered for South Korea. From August, 1993 through July, 1994 I was the S3 of the Division Support Command at Camp Casey. From there, I moved to Seoul and took a position as Information Management Officer in the United Nations Command headquarters. Both of these assignments were great experiences. But neither was considered prestigious enough to merit my promotion.
So, the Army personnel command sent me to the place they send all officers who aren't good enough to get promoted: ROTC, where we train, mentor, and select the best officer candidates to lead our soldiers. Make sense? I didn't think so, either. But, hey, as another non-promotable Major once told me when I was a young Captain,
As a Major of Armor having failed of promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, U. S. Army Cadet Command assigned me to command the ROTC company at Frostburg State University in the mountains of western Maryland. Although attached to the West Virginia University battalion, I was a full Professor of Military Science and chair of an academic department.
This picture was taken at Burnside Bridge during a Staff Ride with officers and senior cadets to Antietam National Battlefield; I am standing, at right. CPT Larry Howard is at far left, CPT Joe Deskevich is perched on the wall over my right shoulder, and NCOIC MSG Duguid is probably behind the camera.
After eighteen months at Frostburg State I bowed to the inevitable and accepted early retirement to the civilian world. For 18 years, I went where the Army sent me and did my best to take care of my soldiers and accomplish my mission. In all that time, I never played politics or went out of my way to advertise myself or my unit. The units under my command consistently outperformed their sister organizations in every phase of combat readiness save one: standing inspections. And that is the secret of my failure. If I had it to do over again, I'd do only one thing different: I would never prioritize my soldiers' training over looking good in inspections.
Nah! How would that look in a letter to a soldiers' widow? "Your son is dead, but
his commander's supply room passed the Army General Inspection. Hooah!"
Post-script: Today I am a fully recovered civilian ... at least that's what I put on the questionnaires at the Doctor's office ...
Revised and abridged in February 2024, three years after the Republic died.
Vagel Keller earned a Ph.D. in History at Carnegie Mellon University in 2005, a MS in Information Management at Marymount University in 1993, and a B.S. in Civil Engineering at the Virginia Military Institute in 1978, forty-two years before the removal of the statue of General Thomas J. Jackson from the Institute.
Membership in Historical Organizations:
Locomotive and Railway Preservation Society
Friends of the East Broad Top
1979 – 1996: Commissioned Officer, United States Army. Retired Major. Served in a variety of leadership, command, and staff positions, including service on the Army Staff in Washington, D.C. and culminating as Professor of Military Science and Chair, Department of Military Science, Frostburg State University.
2013 – 2020: Assistant Scout Master and Merit Badge Counselor, Boy Scouts of America
2005 – 2018: Editor, The Keystone Flyer, monthly newsletter for Division 2, Mid-Central Region, National Model Railroad Association
2002 – 2008: Judge of Elections for Pittsburgh 12th Election District, 14th Ward
2006: Graduated the Pittsburgh Civilian Police Academy
1990 – 93: Board of Directors, Friends of the East Broad Top Railroad, Inc., a 501.c.3 non-profit historical society dedicated to preserving the East Broad Top Railroad National Historical Landmark in south-central Pennsylvania.
Vagel Keller taught courses in various subjects pretaining to technology, modern warfare, public policy, and the environment in American and World History at institutions including Frostburg State, Penn State, and Carnegie Mellon universities, from 1995 through 2020. He is happily separated from academia.
"'Visit My Community': The Need to Extend Environmental Justice to the
Countryside," Pennsylvania History, Vol. 79, No. 4 (Autumn 2012): 395 –
Underground Coal Mining in Western Maryland, 1876 – 1977: A Reference
Guide (Frostburg, MD, Frostburg State University Lewis Ort Library,
"Profile: Karl Mason, 1915 – 1966," Pennsylvania Heritage, Vol. 32, No. 3
"Analyzing Change and Continuity in Women's Experience as Wage
Earners," Organization of American Historians Magazine of History, Vol.
15, No. 1 (Fall 2000): 32 – 40. Lesson Plan.
"Bedford County's Railroads in the Civil War," Bedford County Historical
Society, April 2011
Pennsylvania Humanities Council Commonwealth Speaker on
Conservation and Environmental History, 2008 – 09
"'He Wanted to Clean Up the World:' The Life of Karl Mason," Pennsylvania
Association of Environmental Professionals Annual Meeting, May 2006.
"Anatomy of a Brownfield: A Retrospective Look at the Pittsburgh
Technology Center’s Infrastructure," The Brownfield Center, May 1999.
Roundtable on the Future of Pennsylvania Environmental History,
Pennsylvania Historical Association Annul Meeting, October 2011.
Panel Chair & Commentator, "Sportsmen, Commissioners, and Governors:
The Social and Political Dynamics of Conservation and Environmental
Policy in Pennsylvania, 1870 – 1960," Pennsylvania Historical Association
Annual Meeting, October 2007.
"Chemical Forest: Hardwood Distillation in Pennsylvania's Upper
Allegheny Valley," American Society for Environmental History/Forest
History Society Joint Annual Meeting, March 2006.
"Rural Rustbelt: Juniata Iron in the Industrial Age, 1870 - 1930,"
Pennsylvania Historical Association Annual Meeting, October 2000.
"Records, Resources and Ruins: Researching & Preserving the East Broad
Top Railroad," The Lexington Group in Transportation History Annual
Meeting, September 1997.
Honors and Grants:
Goldman Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching, Carnegie
Mellon University Department of History, 2005
Scholar in Residence, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission,