Editor’s note: This is the final of a series of articles about Fred Kehl, of Soldotna, a veteran of World War II. Part One, on April 17, looked at his experience on the front lines of the U.S. push into Germany and the liberation of Dachau Concentration Camp. Part Two, April 24, recalled Kehl’s life prior to being drafted and what led him to re-enlist into the service, using his German language abilities in the realm of intelligence. This week’s Part III follows Kehl’s life after the war and how he found another kind of service.
By Jenny Neyman
As an infantryman with the U.S. 7th Army’s 42nd Rainbow Division on the front line of the German theater in World War II, it was easy to discern the enemy — the ones shooting at you.
Enemy was more nebulous once active hostilities ended with Germany’s surrender in 1945. It became more challenging to suss out the Nazis, no longer in uniform squaring off across a battlefield. Staff Sgt. Fred Kehl’s job became accordingly more nuanced. Being fluent in German, Kehl went from being a harbinger — an interpreter communicating officers’ orders with German prisoners and citizens as Allied forces secured new areas — to working in the Counter Intelligence Corps stationed in Berlin — using records, surveillance, interviews and investigations to tell the spies, Nazi leaders and covert operators concealing themselves among the rest of the citizenry.
Nowadays, in Soldotna, Kehl’s work is subtler still. The insidious enemies he now seeks are guilt, anger, confusion and frustration, his tools of investigation are in the arsenal of emotional intelligence, and the battlefield is the stormy minds and aching hearts of those struggling through the grieving process.
For all the physical injuries he witnessed in the war — starvation of concentration camp prisoners at Dachau, gunshot wounds, carnage suffered in explosions — it is the mental wounds that can be much more damaging and harder to heal.
“Pathological grief, going on and on, can end in suicide, or mental institutions or something mentally and physically going wrong,” Kehl said. “There has to be an ending point somewhere on this journey.”
Kehl is a certified grief counselor, helping people heal from loss and escape the sometimes-debilitating cycle that mourning can become. In a way it’s not so unlike his duties in the war — acting as interpreter, now to explain the grief process to those caught in it, and as intelligence officer, to figure out where the enemies of healing lie.
“I know the grief process backwards and forwards and with all that knowledge I can put together a program and can explain why you have good days and bad days, why that is so you can start to deal with grief much better instead of resisting it,” he said. “Primary grief is not your enemy, it’s your end to grieving. But people often don’t understand it. They don’t know, ‘Why is this happening to me?’”
Though grief counseling is not a common field to pursue — especially among his stoic, emotionally restrained German immigrant, Midwestern, war-veteran, Depression-era generation and upbringing — it seemed a natural expertise to develop for Kehl, who says he has always been something of a “cracker-barrel psychiatrist from years back.”
That and he’s had an entire career of firsthand exposure to people struggling with grief, once he started work in funeral services.
“As a funeral director you’re sitting next to it all the time, and it got interesting seeing how it affects people, some deal with it differently than others. So then I did college classes on grief and death and dying,” Kehl said.
And now, in his 80s, retired from funeral work and at an age where he’s long since deserving of retirement from any sort of work, he chooses instead to open his home and heart, free of charge, in service to others seeking change for the better.
That’s something Kehl can relate to. At one point in his life Kehl, even with his honorably squeaky-clear service record, sorely needed change himself, in the form of a swift kick to the rear.
Kehl was born in Highland Park, Ill., to German-immigrant parents who came to the U.S. with Kehl’s older brother in 1923, to escape the financial ruin and chaos of Germany after World War I. In his early life, it seemed as though Kehl’s greatest aptitude was to be a pain to his mother.
“I think I still hold the record for the biggest baby born at that hospital. I was 14 pounds. I damn near killed my mother. She didn’t have any more after that,” Kehl said.
Growing up, he remembers being sensitive to strife in the home.
“She and dad fought all the time. I was a kid growing up in this, so I was deathly afraid they were going to get divorced,” he said.
He took to distancing himself from the family, coming, going and doing as he pleased.
“I became what is referred to as juvenile delinquent,” he said.
Nothing too egregious, he says. Mostly that he didn’t give a damn about school, so didn’t always go or participate as he should. And he fell in with a group of “fair-weather friends,” who hung around as long as he had money he could spend on them. That led to some petty theft, culminating in — he still cringes at the thought — taking money from his mother’s purse.
“This was during the Depression. Even a nickel could buy a lot,” he said.
His parents’ efforts to line him out were largely ineffective.
“I’d come home at one in the morning. Dad would be waiting with a nice willow switch. Man, did that damn thing sting,’” Kehl said.
Then one morning, he woke up to find his parents and brother dressed and ready to head out of the house, telling him to get in the car.
“I said, ‘OK,’ happy go lucky. ‘Where’re we going?’ Nobody said anything, not aword out of any of them,” he said.
They drove to the county seat of Waukegan, Ill., and pulled up at the courthouse.
“That’s where the sheriff’s office was. They said they, ‘We’re going to have the judge sentence you and send you to the boys reformatory.’ Oh, man. I begged and hollered, ‘Oh please!’ I did a complete about-face.”
Thus began his path along the straight and narrow, doing better in school, getting a job as a golf caddy to give his earnings to his mother. When he got drafted into the Army in 1943 at age 18, after graduating high school, he was determined to be a good soldier. Two hitches later, when he discharged in 1920, his record was as clean as he’d kept his nose and any proverbial whistle.
His first attempt at civilian life didn’t go so well. He was discharged in 1946, and took a job pushing papers at Naval Station Great Lakes, Ill. He missed the intelligence work he’d been doing in Berlin, so he re-enlisted. In 1950 he was discharged for good. He started working for his brother, who was a freelance insurance investigator, hired to investigate auto claims. Then he got a job selling cemetery lots in a Waukegan cemetery, for which his dad, a landscaper and gardener, used to be the greenhouse manager. It might have been one in a string of odd jobs, but it stuck, and instead took him to an odd place.
“They went up to Alaska and asked if I wanted to come up there and work for them. I thought it was an icebox, and all the other stuff we used to think about the North. I never thought I’d stay very long,” Kehl said.
He moved to Anchorage and started selling lots for a memorial park on Klatt Road, along the Old Seward Highway (now Angelus Memorial Park). In 1956 he realized this old business in a young territory presented a career opportunity.
“I opened up a funeral home. The reason I could do that was just because you could do that. The Alaska laws were so simple that anybody could have done it,” he said.
His already-established comp-etition wasn’t too keen on another entrant, but he built his business by being fair in the free market, he said.
“People came to me because they knew I would give them a fair deal,” he said.
He expanded to opening another Kehl’s Funeral Home in Palmer, and eventually leased his operations to an international funeral services corporation headquartered in Houston. In the late 1990s he sold both funeral homes and invested the earnings, successfully enough that he and his wife, Dorothy — whom he met as a waitress at the Westward Hotel — can live on in retirement.
But retirement from funeral services work hasn’t meant retirement from service, period. He’s obtained certification from the Association for Death Education and Counseling and began leading support groups and counseling individuals and couples through the grieving process.
It can be a frustrating and frightening road to travel when one doesn’t know what’s ahead of them, but if the process is explained there’s comfort to the confusion.
“The guilt that is produced during grief, 99 percent of it is garbage because it’s all blown out of proportion,” Kehl said.
Sigmund Freud led the way in the field of grief counseling, labeling and explaining the three parts of personality — the Ego, the Id and the Superego.
“But he didn’t help us too much because, hell, I didn’t know what the Id was, and neither did anybody else,” Kehl said.
His practice uses the Transactional Analysis work of Eric Berne, a Canadian-born psychiatrist, who renamed Freud’s characterizations as the parent ego state, the adult ego state and the child ego state. Working through grief is the process of managing those three components.
“When you are upset, two parts battle each other and the third part up in the head tries to control each two. When that happens you turn into a blithering idiot until it peters out,” Kehl said.
It’s like a roller coaster — at the top is order and control, governed by the authoritative parent state. At the bottom is the chaotic child state, characterized by pain and anguish.
“That’s where adult human beings start acting like kids and they never understand it because nobody explained it to them, so they start wondering, ‘Maybe I’m going crazy.’ The child state is going to demand that everything is going to go back the way it was. Well, how impossible is that? But it never stops trying to do that,” Kehl said.
The adult state governs the struggle between child and parent states. Child state is necessary because it’s cathartic, allowing sufferers to expresss their pain, anger and heartache over a loss. The key is to go through that cycle and recognize and express the grief so that when the roller coaster climbs back to the controlled adult state, you can exit the process on stable footing and not get drug down through another bout of grieving.
“There’s nothing wrong with crying. You just need to learn when to exit the ride, and there are many exit points in the grieving process,” Kehl said.
Even with a recent move to Soldotna from Anchorage last year, to be closer to their daughter, Tammy Weste, in Kasilof, Kehl isn’t exiting his involvement in grief counseling. He’s starting his practice from scratch, looking to volunteer as a grief support group leader at Central Peninsula Hospital, with veterans organizations, and in meeting with individuals and couples privately. All free of charge, because he’ll never be free of his sense that he’s charged to do this work.
“I’ll keep doing it until I can’t do it anymore. When they have an ambulance out front,” he said.