After graduating from high school, many young adults are unsure of what to do next. Some look to the military for guidance, experience or as an alternative to college, but Brian Kester, 40, joined the U.S. Army to help pay for college and follow in his family's footsteps.
Born and raised in Stilwell, Kester is a former Oklahoma Army National Guard heavy equipment operator who served for 12 years.
"Several members of my family were military," said Kester. "Both grandfathers were in the Army during World War II and Korea. My father was [part of the] 101st Airborne [Division] in Vietnam. My brother served in the Army National Guard."
He also had several uncles who served, and currently has a nephew in the U.S. Navy.
Kester was trained as an engineer, operating Humvees, heavy equipment and served as a combat medic and radio operator during his one year of combat duty during Operation Iraqi Freedom II.
"We were in Fallujah, Iraq, from about March 2004 until January 2005," said Kester. "We were there to do our job, and everyone of us made it back home. What people saw on TV or read in the history books, we lived it. It was an experience of a lifetime that I wouldn't trade for anything."
After serving, the Stilwell veteran completed his bachelor's degree in funeral science and began his career in Tahlequah in 2008. Since 2011, he has worked at Hart Funeral Home.
"I got interested in this career by working for a funeral home in Stilwell, and I just felt like it clicked," said Kester. "I love being able to help people and talking with their families. I even like the science part. I'm just able to excel at it."
Being in the military has benefited both him and his family. He married his wife, Chelsea Eubanks, on Aug. 18, 2007, and has four daughters: Kyla, 21; Makenna, 17; Brayleigh, 11; and Maecee, 8.
"I was able to pay for college and we were able to buy a house in Tahlequah with a VA [Veterans Affairs] loan," said Kester. "I am also able to get medical care through the VA hospital."
According to Kester, the Tahlequah area is a great community that is loyal to its veterans.
"I would like to see a monument somewhere in memory of the local men and women that we may have lost in the different wars," said Kester. "The only way for us to know what we have paid for our freedom is to tell someone."
At a federal level, he believes veterans should receive a flat 5 percent tax rate in addition to the resources offered through Veterans Affairs.
Despite the need for improvements in veteran assistance, Kester still recommends serving.
"I believe that the military is only meant for certain people, but I do believe every able-bodied 18-year-old should at least go through basic training and serve a year," said Kester. "It would be good experience and discipline."