Harrison County

A Biloxi cop befriended a World War II vet. Then it got complicated.

How a cop helped a veteran he found living in a ‘deplorable’ FEMA trailer

A Biloxi police officer who responded to an emergency medical call wound up adopting a World War II veteran with no family.
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A Biloxi police officer who responded to an emergency medical call wound up adopting a World War II veteran with no family.

The boy spotted a most peculiar insect in the broad Texas sky.

It is a dragonfly, Charles Rogers thought. No, his father said, it is an airplane. His father explained, as one would to a 5-year-old back in 1931, that a man sat at the controls of the machine, which could turn and go straight but not backward.

I want to fly, Charles Rogers thought. One day I will fly. Rogers had entered the work force by age 8, washing airplanes at a nearby hangar until his hands were raw so he could pay for flying lessons.

World War II deferred his dreams. Rogers men didn’t wait to be drug by their heels to war. At age 17, Rogers joined the Marines, which he considered the toughest and bravest of America’s armed forces, serving in the Pacific, seeing sights and hearing sounds that still contort his face and bring tears to his eyes.

“We would hit the beaches,” he said. “I don’t like to talk about that. I lost too many good buddies. There were some brave men there.”

So many years and so many places are jumbled in his 90-year-old memory. Restless after the war, he became a private pilot, flying in South America, North Africa, Yugoslavia, Israel, socking away money as only a child of the Great Depression can, until life delivered him into old age and a FEMA trailer in East Biloxi, where, around mid-July, he met a cop.

This could be an altruistic story of a cop who acted as a hero when he met one of his heroes, a veteran with battle wounds, a member of the Greatest Generation. But this story has a twist.

The Biloxi police officer, Chris Keckler, saw Rogers was in dire straits. Keckler wanted to help. He did help.

But he also became wrapped up in Rogers’ affairs in a way neither of them could have foreseen. Keckler has acted as caretaker to an old man now suspicious of the officer’s motives.

The officer has talked to his supervisors and is working to extricate himself from medical and financial responsibilities he has assumed for the veteran, whose heart has stopped at least twice in the last few months.

Rogers resides right now in a room devoid of personal touches in a Coast nursing home. Keckler still visits. He says he always will.

“He had done me every favor he could except stand on his head,” Rogers said. “It hit me in the face. I said, ‘Here it is. It’s too good to be true.’ ”

Dire straits

It was late afternoon, near the end of his shift, when Keckler responded to an emergency medical call on the Biloxi peninsula. When he drove up to the property, Keckler thought, “A FEMA trailer? In 2016?” Hurricane Katrina’s tidal surge had swallowed Biloxi’s eastern tip, but she was long gone.

Then Keckler, a member of the Air Force Reserves who served in Iraq, saw Rogers. Pus was oozing from ulcers in his swollen legs. Rogers was having chest pains. Keckler noticed the old man had a small gun. “Do me a favor,” Keckler said. “Put that up.”

The camper-sized trailer was piled high with boxes, magazines, papers. Even a stack of magazines served as a surface for vitamin and spray bottles. A narrow path ran from the bed to one spot for sitting on the couch. Rot had softened the camper entryway, with a hole at the center.

While they waited for an ambulance, Keckler and Rogers talked. “I was looking at the trailer and going, ‘Where’s your family?’ ” Keckler said. “Of course, I found out he didn’t have any family. Obviously, he needs someone to help him.” Keckler also found out Rogers was a World War II veteran.

Keckler said he would come to the VA hospital in Biloxi to check on Rogers, then the ambulance took him away. Keckler assumed the old man, living in those conditions, had no money.

He went to visit Rogers that evening. Keckler also made some inquiries, learning Rogers was getting one hot meal a day from Meals on Wheels. Keckler and his son went grocery shopping for Rogers when he got out of the hospital. The officer went to the trailer the next day to take the veteran shopping for more groceries and make a start on cleaning up the trailer. But Rogers was gone.

Keckler eventually found out the veteran had been rushed back to the VA. It looked like he might not survive. He was on a ventilator in the intensive care unit. Keckler checked on Rogers daily.

“He pulled through,” Keckler said. “From there, I’d just go visit him every day. We just built a friendship. I try to be his legs for him.”

“ . . . I liked listening to his stories. Both my grandfathers were in World War II.”

Appearances deceive

After Rogers got taken off the ventilator, he refused to sign a Do-Not-Resuscitate order. Keckler said Rogers told him: “If they pull the plug, you plug it back in.”

And so, the officer became the veteran’s primary caretaker.

Keckler learned that Rogers was an only child, raised on a cattle ranch lost in the Depression. He married in middle age, but lost his wife to cancer about 20 years later. After she died, he moved to Biloxi. He had stopped in the town once during a charter flight. He loved the silvery beach and Live oaks draped in Spanish moss.

Keckler said he picked up Rogers’ mail, made phone calls for him, helped with medical decisions.

“I’m going to get his mail and stuff like that and I’m going, ‘Holy cow! Why are you living in a FEMA trailer?’ ”

Rogers, as it turned out, had more than enough money to live in a nice home. He had, in fact, gotten an architect to draw up plans in 2007 to replace the two-story house, complete with shooting gallery, that he lost in the storm. The plans were in his old Cherokee Laredo, parked outside the camper with flat tires.

Keckler said he talked with his supervisor before assuming medical power of attorney for Rogers and a limited financial authority that allowed him to write checks Rogers signed. Rogers also made Keckler executor of his estate.

At Thanksgiving and Christmas, Keckler asked on Facebook that friends send cards to Rogers.

“He really enjoyed that,” Keckler said. “I saw a change in him. It was almost invigorating.”

New arrangements

Rogers hated the powdered eggs at the VA hospital, so Keckler supplied the veteran with boiled eggs. Keckler also picked up a cell phone for Rogers and pays for the minutes.

Rogers said he felt bad about the money Keckler was spending. Around Christmas, he wanted to settle up. Keckler said $5,000 would really help him out. The old man wrote a check, although he was more than a little surprised by the amount.

“He was kind,” Rogers said. “He would show up with anything I needed.”

The VA let Keckler know at the end of January that they planned to discharge Rogers on Feb. 3. The officer took to Facebook, where he posted photos of Rogers and his decrepit trailer, writing: “They said if (Rogers) refused to leave they would have him escorted off the property (b)y the VA Police and have him trespassed. I scrambled to get things together for him and was able to find a decent nursing home to help him with his physical therapy.

“It's not a long term care center so we will have to find something else in 20 days. I'm less than happy with the VA right now. With the exception of a friend who tried to help extend his stay in the event that he needed more time to find something, most of the people there seem to really care less what happens and refused to answer most of my questions . . . ”

Rogers longs to move back to Texas. Keckler thinks the veteran would be better off in assisted living. Keckler willingly talked to the Sun Herald for a story on his friendship with the veteran, but it was the veteran who first mentioned the check he had written the officer and their arrangements regarding his finances.

After those initial interviews with the Sun Herald, Keckler checked back in with his supervisors. He had gone to an attorney to have legal papers drawn up regarding Rogers’ estate and financial affairs. At the suggestion of his supervisors, Keckler has now contacted a second attorney who is redoubling the police officer’s efforts to find any relatives the veteran might have, and either extricate Keckler from his legal responsibilities or make sure they are monitored.

“It’s scary for me,” Keckler said. “I don’t want that responsibility, but at the same time, I want him taken care of.”

Rogers is unaccustomed to feeling so weak and frail. He loved his freedom. He liked to go when and where he wanted. He’s fought all his life to be free, and that won’t change at the end.

“When they say it’s time to go,” he said, “they’re going to take me kicking and screaming.” A little later, he caught his breath, winced, and pressed his hand to his chest a couple of times until he could speak.

“Don’t get old,” he said. “I tell you, it ain’t for sissies, baby.”

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