Imagine fighting in the Army’s most elite team during the height of the Vietnam War. Your odds of surviving are grim—833 to one—and yet you continue to hold your ground, spying behind enemy lines and taking on 25,000 foes with only six men on your side. You endure arduous and insurmountable challenges—sleep deprivation, lack of food or water, intense psychological stress, and isolation. And then, if you survive, you are sworn to secrecy for 25 years. And then, if you survive, you are sworn to secrecy for 25 years.
This is Keith McKim’s story.
A veteran of the 5th Special Forces Group (SOG) of the Green Berets in Vietnam, Keith’s team was labeled a “black operation,” their very existence denied by the U.S. Government. “Our codename was the ‘Studies and Observation Group,’ making us sound like egghead professors writing about the war instead of highly trained, motivated warriors who were fighting the communists on their own turf,” Keith says.
Serving for 10 years, Keith and his fellow SOG team were the best-kept secret of the Vietnam War. They were the first U.S. soldiers to skydive into battle, chased by enemies the second their feet touched the ground. Serving on teams of six, they lived a covert “ghost” existence with no assistance as they delved deep into enemy territory. Every day was brutal and deadly. Of the SOG men, 100% experienced casualties. 50% were killed.
Keith himself experienced life-changing wounds from the war. He lost his left eye and experienced gunshot wounds and shrapnel in his arms and legs. In 1970, he was medically discharged from the Fitzsimons Army Medical Hospital, and he’s lived in Colorado ever since.
Jumping out of airplanes—as well as running marathons later in life—took a toll on Keith’s knees. He had difficulty walking and getting up, and the lack of cartilage in his joints was causing unbearable pain.
Exploring his options, Keith discovered Colorado Springs Orthopedic Group (CSOG) and Dr. Eric Jepson, an orthopedic surgeon in Colorado Springs. Dr. Jepson informed him that he would need a total knee reconstruction, rebuilding his bones.
“They asked me what my goal was when I went into their office,” Keith says. “I told them that I wanted to walk 20 miles. The doctor said, ‘We can make that happen.’”
Dr. Jepson performed Keith’s surgery in February 2023. Now, Keith is spending three hours on an elliptical four times a week. He can walk the many acres of his property again without pain, and he has the chance to play with his great-grandkids in ways he couldn’t before.
Knowing it takes a year to heal completely, Keith has been applying his diligent Green Beret work ethic to his recovery process. “When I do exercises, they always set limits,” he says. “They will tell me I need to do 10 repetitions. However, each time I’ll always do one more—for the Marines.”
Over 84,000 veterans reside in the Colorado Springs area according to the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC. Home to the Air Force Academy, Cheyenne Mountain Space Force Station, Fort Carson, and Peterson and Schriever Space Force Bases, it’s no secret that the culture of Colorado Springs has a heavy military influence.
In varying ways, civilians in the city rally together to support those who have sacrificed greatly to defend our country. For the orthopedic surgeons at CSOG, this means intentionally honoring veterans and being of service to them through medical care and helping them regain their quality of life.
Dr. Michael Van Manen started working at CSOG this past year, but his medical career began by serving in the military himself. He joined the Navy in 2004, then completed his medical training and residency before being immediately summoned for active duty at Twentynine Palms Naval Hospital for four years.
At Twentynine Palms, a large Marine Corps base in the middle of the hot California desert, Dr. Van Manen provided preventative medical care to thousands of soldiers before they were deployed to the war in Afghanistan. One of two orthopedic surgeons on base, he provided general orthopedics and care for a wide range of injuries. By the end of his service, he had risen to the positions of Chief of Surgery and department head.
“The biggest thing in the military is to adapt and overcome,” he says. “So whatever was needed of me is what I did. You learn to do more with less.”
He moved back to his hometown of Pueblo, Colorado, with his wife and kids. Now working at CSOG, he regularly serves veterans through his practice.
The Navy had a great impact on Dr. Van Manen’s life, and that influence is seen in his medical practice and values today. “The biggest thing I learned in the military is that it’s about something bigger than yourself,” he shares. “As a doctor, the oath I take is very similar—to treat your patients with the best ethics and morals you can. It’s not about you. It’s a constant, selfless act.”
The military legacy continues in the doctor’s family. His oldest daughter began her studies at West Point in the fall of 2023. “I think it is a great institution where you can learn about yourself and overcome hard challenges,” he says. “This is what I try to instill in my kids, and hopefully, they will continue on that path.”
Dr. Van Manen can proudly share how he spent his years in the military. For 25 years, Keith couldn’t speak about his Vietnam experience. Not to his wife, parents, kids, or friends. Many of the men he knew died heroically in battle—and yet nobody knew.
By the time he and the other members of the 5th Special Forces Group were released from their vow of silence in 1997, the U.S. Government had already destroyed all SOG records: maps, diaries, daily reports, and any evidence of the covert operations. All that was left were the many awards and medals the warriors received—and their personal testimonies.
Keith now dedicates his life to sharing those stories as one of less than 100 SOG men still living. “I tell the stories because Americans need to know about their heroes,” Keith says. “And the SOG men were truly heroes. The ones who faced impossible odds and succeeded.” The author of two audiobooks, Vietnam Green Berets, SOG Medal of Honor Recipients, and U.S. Navy SOG Seals, Keith has traveled across the nation to share stories and breathe life into the legacy of SOG men, speaking at the Military Order of World Wars, the Knights of Malta, the American Legions 104th reunion and more. He plans on releasing two more books in the next couple of years, documenting the untold stories of the SOG men whose sacrifices and testimonies were written in blood and then concealed.
I hold the Silver Star for valor, as well as the Bronze Star, Purple Heart medal, and various other medals,” he says. “But I’m just a voice for SOG men, and that’s all I am.”