ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- About 30 years ago, a couple of German boys walked into a primary school in Alabama, unable to speak a word of English.
Keyser and Sven Voigt, brothers serving together at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., have come a long way since that day. They are now naturalized U.S. citizens with 17 years in the Air Force, and on Jan. 29, they re-enlisted together at Robins. Sven is a master sergeant, and Keyser a senior master sergeant.
They were born Germans. They never knew their biological father, but their mother started seeing a U.S. Air Force airman stationed in Germany. The two would later marry.
When their stepfather transferred to Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., Keyser was 5 and Sven was 4. Not a person at the school they attended spoke German.
“We didn’t do a whole lot,” Keyser said. “We did a lot of crying. I remember our teachers didn’t know what to do with us.”
But over a few months, they began to learn English from the children in the trailer park where they lived. After that, they stayed on a trajectory to become full-fledged, red-blooded, Alabama-grown Americans, complete with a deep passion for college football.
Their mother got a little perturbed that they started assimilating so quickly.
“We forgot the German before she learned English,” Keyser said. “That was her motivation to learn, because she could no longer communicate with us.”
They didn’t really forget German. They still speak it and have mostly maintained the language by speaking it to each other.
At about 8 years old, Keyser decided he was a Crimson Tide football fan. He informed Sven that he had to pick another school.
“I said, ‘OK then, Auburn,’” Sven recalled. “Then he said, ‘Nope, you can’t do Auburn either. That’s in my state.’ So I just remembered games we had watched, who Alabama had played and who was nearby and Georgia was nearby, so I just said ‘All right, Georgia is my team.’”
He has been a Georgia Bulldog fan ever since, and it was a big part of the reason he asked to come to Robins for his first duty assignment. He has been here 10 years during two stints.
Keyser, 36, is a medic, and Sven, 35, is a surveillance manager in the 461st Air Control Wing, which operates the J-STARS aircraft.
It’s pretty rare, they said, that brothers serving together in the military would be stationed at the same base. Keyser made a request to come to Robins to be near his brother but was denied because there were too many in his career field here. However, he then got offered a special-duty assignment at the base as a international health specialist. He has been at Robins three years and expects to be here for one more.
They each have two children, so this is the first time the cousins have been around each other for more than the occasional visit. Next year, they are all attending Feagin Mill Middle School together.
Under today’s law, they said, they would have automatically become Americans when their mother married their stepfather. They had assumed that was the case then, but it turned out not to be.
When they were still young, their father transferred back to Germany. At that time they learned if they went back to the U.S., it would have to be on a tourism visa.
“We had felt every moment, to our core, that we were American,” Keyser said. “We had always felt that way, then to realize we couldn’t even join the U.S. military because we were not citizens, it was a shock. I had no idea.”
Their mother, who died of lung cancer in 2003, was the first to become naturalized. Then in 1995, when they were both 17, they were naturalized in Atlanta.
They decided to join the Air Force, because it was the Air Force, after all, that brought them to America.
“We wanted to pay back the military,” Sven said.