The career of a Shamokin native who rose to become the highest ranking officer in the U.S. Air Force will end New Year's Day.

Gen. C. Robert Kehler, a four star general, is retiring after 39 years in the military. His command included Air Force Space Command and the nation's Intercontinental Ballistic Missile system. His final assignment as commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) saw him charged with overseeing America's nuclear arsenal and cyberspace operations among a great many other responsibilities.

He reports directly to the secretary of defense and the president.

Kehler joined ROTC when he matriculated at Penn State University, but he says it was his upbringing in Shamokin that prepared him for a career in the military.

"I don't count my beginning time that shaped me for this job as starting at Penn State. It started in Shamokin Area School District and it was contributed to by friends and neighbors and people who live in Shamokin," Kehler said by telephone earlier this month. "I'm a proud son. Shamokin was a good place to live, and I felt like I was well-prepared in every aspect."

A son of Caroline and Claude E. Kehler Jr., he grew up in the Academy Hill section of the city, directly across the street from the former high school. His father was an officer in the U.S. Army and a World War II veteran. He also was a long-time city councilman, having served 36 straight years, and was a leader and advocate for volunteer firefighters and emergency services.

Kehler gained a sense of public service from his father and from others belonging to the "greatest generation." After graduating from Shamokin Area

High School in 1970, Kehler initially chose to pursue studies in engineering before changing paths and pursuing a degree in education. His father advised he join ROTC regardless of what he chose to study.

"My dad valued the military. He advised me to get into the ROTC program at Penn State. That was great advice. His philosophy was, look, whether you stay in for a career or not, it's a good way to start and it will allow you to serve and give you something that you'll value forever. He was exactly right," Kehler said.

While at Penn State, Kehler didn't quite envision a long military career. He certainly didn't have his eye on becoming a four star general. He was passionate about music and about education and he figured he'd become a high school music teacher.

He auditioned to become an officer in the Air Force marching band. Had he earned the position his life would have been wholly different. They chose someone else, however, and Kehler believes it was the best thing to have happened to him.

His college education proved useful as he rose through the ranks, starting first as a missile combat crew member at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont. He'd learned to be an effective communicator, a valuable skill for any leader.

As his responsibilities grew with new assignments and increasingly heady military titles, communication was key.

"When I would talk to the Secretary of Defense or even more senior officials within the government," he said of his position with STRATCOM, "I would walk in with the mindset that would say I know more about the subject than they do, I just have to teach them what I know."

Kehler would later become a missile operations staff officer, Headquarters Strategic Air Command, Offutt AFB, Neb.; nuclear employment and policy planner, Nuclear and Chemical Division, Joint Staff, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C.; commander, 30th Space Wing, Vandenberg AFB, Calif.

He called his command of the 21st Space Wing at Peterson AFB, Colo., a "high point." This was his assignment when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. His unit transitioned from peacetime to wartime within hours, something he never expected to experience. It was a tragic day, he said, but he was proud of the way his unit responded.

Maj. Gen. John W. "Jay" Raymond met then Col. Kehler in 1995, serving as his executive officer at Air Force Space Command and has continued to serve under him in many assignments including at director of plans and policy at STRATCOM.

He was assigned with Kehler at Peterson AFB on 9-11.

"The strength of his leadership and character remains vivid in my mind," Raymond said by email. "While many were understandably caught up in the emotion of the attacks, Gen. Kehler remained steady and focused on our mission. He enhanced our capabilities to detect further attacks. He took immediate action to heighten the security of the base. Most importantly, he ensured his wing didn't waver and had the military discipline needed to respond to such attacks on our nation. I will never forget that day or the strength of leadership Gen. Kehler provided."

Raymond pointed out that Kehler has been a general for nearly 14 years and a four star general for six years. His positions continually saw an increase in demanding leadership.

"He led the Department of Defense through numerous complex issues and directly enhanced the national security of the United States. With a steady hand, he guided our nation's nuclear deterrent forces through some challenging times. He focused on making our space and cyberspace capabilities operational for national and military advantage. But I think his most important and lasting legacy will be the leaders he mentored over the course of his career," Raymond said.

Becoming commander of STRATCOM in 2011 was his highest profile position. It is the successor to Strategic Air Command, and among its main objectives is nuclear deterrence. The geopolitical landscape has been altered many times over since the Cold War ended, and with it in some people's opinion, so has the importance of a large nuclear arsenal.

But that arsenal remains the foundation of the security of the U.S., Kehler says, "even though the nature of that responsibility has changed a little bit."

"That's still the primary purpose of strategic command," he said.

He spoke of STRATCOM's many other objectives: overseeing Department of Defense activities in both outer space and cyberspace, combating weapons of mass destruction such as the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria, planning worldwide intelligence and surveillance activity and joint electronic warfare.

"It's a collective group of responsibilities that are global in scope and that are tremendous in impact in terms of our ability to influence events. It all contributes to our nation's ability to deter against strategic attack against the United States and our allies," Kehler said.

The aging nuclear force was under intense public scrutiny during Kehler's tenure at STRATCOM. The nation's nuclear force hasn't been "recapitalized" in 30 years, a result of the successful end to the Cold War, Kehler said. The U.S. must modernize and upgrade nuclear platforms, command and control systems and the weapons themselves, he said.

Kehler was relieved of his command of STRATCOM during a traditional change of command ceremony in November, handing over the reins to U.S. Navy Adm. Cecil Haney.

"There hasn't been a day that's gone by where I haven't felt like we were all doing something important and meaningful. I've been very fortunate to serve with the people that I've served with. They are America's best people," he said.

Raymond describes Kehler as an ethical leader with "the highest degree of integrity." He is competent, intelligent, articulate, has a steady demeanor and cares for others, he said.

"He sets very high standards, consistently enforces those standards and is not afraid to make the tough calls. He is the most competent officer I know, and his competence spans a broad set of mission areas. When he speaks, people take note," Raymond said.

Kehler says he's not sure exactly how he plans to spend his retirement. He and his wife, Marjorie, recently relocated to Alexandria, Va. Their sons Matthew and Jared are both adults and have established careers.

He calls his wife the "unsung hero" in his career; a great mom, his most trusted adviser and his best friend. She had a role in service herself, looking out for the needs of military families.

"She has been the rock of our family for the whole time we've been married," he said.

At 61 years old, Kehler says he's in his prime and has no intentions of not making substantial contributions in whatever he chooses to pursue.

"This is really the first day that I've had an opportunity to sit down and start thinking about other things because we went right from change of command to a couple of moving trucks," Kehler said. "I'm now at a point today to say, heck, there isn't something pressing for me to do. Now I have an opportunity to spend a little time and ponder what's next."