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A century later, Fountain doughboy recognized as World War I hero

August 5, 2017 Updated: August 5, 2017 at 8:57 pm
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A cardboard cutout shows Sgt. Keith N. Lacey, who earned a Silver Star Medal for his service in World War I, Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017, at Fort Carson. Photo by James Wooldridge, The Gazette

Sgt. Keith "Kize" Lacey went to his grave in 1977 never knowing he was a hero.

That was probably no big deal for the Fountain father of eight. He seldom talked about the war. He'd rather chat about playing pool or something he'd read in the Gazette, which he methodically consumed from cover to cover each day.

"We grew up with an American hero, but we did not recognize it at the time," said Lacey's youngest son, retired Air Force Col. Nick Lacey.

But on Saturday, a century after Lacey arrived in France to fight in World War I, the story of his heroism in the trenches was told as leaders awarded his Silver Star, America's third-highest award for combat valor. It's a tale that awes modern combat veterans like Fort Carson's Lt. Col. Kevin Bolke.

"It's phenomenal to think of his intestinal fortitude," Bolke said at a ceremony on the post to honor Lacey.

The medal recognizes the 222 days Lacey spent in combat and how he overcame injuries suffered in a gas attack to lead his rifle squad against German enemies.

Born in Indiana, Lacey graduated from high school in 1914, the year the war began, with Germany, the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire battling England France and Italy to a bloody standstill.

Lacey signed up shortly after America joined Britain and France in the war in 1917. He was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, America's first division-sized unit and the first large American formation to deploy to war.

Lacey served with the 16th Infantry Regiment, an outfit that had fought in the Philippine insurrection and later battled Pancho Villa along the Mexican border.

Though he was surrounded by veteran troops, leaders still saw something special in Lacey, rapidly promoting him and putting him atop a squad of riflemen.

The 16th's arrival in France during the summer of 1917 was celebrated by beleaguered Parisians who turned out in droves to cheer the regiment as it marched through the city on July 4.

The regiment was in the trenches in the spring of 1918 when soldiers including Lacey repulsed a German offensive. On May 3, 1918, Lacey and the rest of his squad were hit with mustard gas shells.

Nick Lacey said his father suffered lung injuries from inhaled gas that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

But Sgt. Lacey refused medical attention.

"He stayed in the fight until the end of the war," Nick Lacey said.

At one point in the battles that followed, Lacey wrote a letter home marveling at his survival in the hell World War I soldiers called "no-man's land" where machine gun bullets and shrapnel mowed down men like a bloody harvesting machine.

"All of my squad was wounded," he wrote his sister.

Officers marveled at Lacey's determination to stay in the trenches despite his gas injuries and wrote him up for a medal he never received.

Lacey was promoted to sergeant and fought on through the war's end on Nov. 11, 1918. His division suffered 5,000 soldiers killed and another 17,000 injured.

After his lung problems from the gas attack increased, Lacey was sent from occupation duty in Germany to France for treatment.

Records of his heroism never caught up with him.

He arrived home in 1919 with no medals on his chest.

Nick Lacey said his father didn't spend time thinking about the honors he was missing.

"He was just happy to be home," he said.

The legacy of heroism stayed hidden until recently when some of Lacey's 92 descendants in the Pikes Peak region pulled the sergeant's military records and found records of the medals he had never received.

The family takes pride in its military accomplishments.

Four of Lacey's eight children followed him into the service. Nick Lacey earned the Silver Star Medal while flying missions over Vietnam. Another son, retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Pat Lacey, served in wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Last fall, the Army rectified the century-old mistake. Army Secretary Eric Fanning signed paperwork awarding Lacey the Silver Star and the Purple Heart for wounds on Oct. 10.

On Saturday, the Army sent a colonel from the 1st Infantry Division to hand the medals to Lacey's descendants at a Fort Carson ceremony packed with Lacey's kin.

Lt. Col. John Meredith who commands the division's 1st Battalion of the 16th Infantry Regiment told the family that Lacey's heroism was lost, but now won't be forgotten.

Soldiers in his unit at Fort Riley, Kan., are regularly told about the heroes of World War I and those lessons now include tales of Sgt. Lacey.

And a century later, the humble, laconic man from Fountain is officially a hero.

"The legacy of Sgt. Lacey is alive today," Meredith said.

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

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