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An Up Close And Personal Conversation With Brianna Keilar

The CNN anchor shares thoughts on television news success, life as a military spouse, and balancing it all

After she wraps up delivering the day’s most captivating stories to millions of viewers, CNN anchor Brianna Keilar looks forward to retreating to her garage, where her husband, Lt. Col. Fernando Lujan, waits to start a new ritual that Keilar lovingly refers to as “Green Beret Bootcamp.”

During two hours of daily dedication, Lujan, a Special Forces Green Beret, trains Keilar in a home gym he created to help her regain her focus on fitness, something she said she had been neglecting.

“It’s really hard, and for me it’s really taken a family effort,” she said. “I had to sit down with my husband and say, ‘I don’t feel good. I don’t have as much energy as I’d like to have. I feel really stretched thin.’”

Keilar is no stranger to multi-tasking. She balances a high-profile career in television news with her roles as mom to 2-year-old son Antonio and stepson Teddy and wife to an active-duty soldier who has been on two combat deployments since they wed in 2016. One thing she was having trouble fitting in, however — her workouts.

Thankfully, she says, Lujan has stepped up during what Keilar described as a more relaxed year for the Army officer.

“I am not going to lie — there are some small marital spats over this, as you can imagine,” Keilar admitted. “I am not always the best at taking direction, but I have gotten much better at it, and it has been a really good practice for us as a couple.”

Taking the time to connect with her husband in the afternoon has been rewarding, Keilar said, because the rest of her day can be demanding, including the morning “man scramble” of reviewing top stories, a network-wide call, meetings with her executive producer, and making sure she has a live television look before heading to the anchor desk at 1 p.m. EST for “CNN Right Now.”  Evenings are reserved for family time.

It’s not easy, she said, but she has the schedule down pat. And now … it’s all about to change.

Keilar shared that she was preparing to make the switch in mid-April to early mornings, as John Berman’s co-anchor on CNN’s “New Day.” While she said she’s very excited about the move, getting up at 3 a.m. will be an adjustment.

“If you are going to be getting up really early in the morning every day and you are working with someone, you better be excited to work with them, and there is no one I would be more excited to work with than John Berman,” said Keilar, who hopes to now be able to spend more time with her children during the day.

Family life has taught Keilar to adapt to her fast-paced and ever-changing career.

“When you don’t have kids you don’t have to multi-task as much,” she explained. “I used to talk about putting this hat on or putting that hat on, and now I am just a crazy person wearing multiple hats at once.”

She said her desire to put on the journalism hat began at a young age.

A history of truth telling

Keilar recalled acting as a sports reporter when she was in high school and then applying for an internship at KTVU in Oakland, California, after one of their local news anchors came to speak to her class at the University of California, Berkley. After graduating, she landed a job as a reporter in Yakima, Washington. She described her early experiences in news as “like being struck by lightning.”

The sparks continued to fly as she moved on to CBS News and eventually began her 15-year (and counting) stint at CNN, which has included roles as a correspondent for CNN Newsource and the White House, lead Capitol Hill reporter, and anchor.

“I love reporting, and I love the news,” said Keilar, who is motivated by truth telling and the ability to explain important information to a diverse population.

“That’s something that gives me a lot of purpose because there are a lot of things that are complicated or that you really have to break down to explain to people how it is going to impact them. You realize that during a pandemic, that is more essential than ever.”

She said talking to people in their communities and developing a good rapport with her audience also gives her purpose.

“People have become more savvy consumers of the news,” she said. “I think it’s important for journalists to be transparent. Trust is something earned over time. It’s not something you build overnight. It’s like a friendship or relationship.”

Keilar relies on a solid relationship with her viewers, but her most important relationship is one she never expected.

Marrying the military

“It never crossed my mind. I was completely unprepared,” said Keilar about marrying a man in the military. While her father was in the service when she was born in Australia, he got out when Keilar was 2 and her family moved to the U.S. She remembers hearing her mom talk about it being tough, but that didn’t seem to matter much when she met Lujan.

“I met my husband; I fell in love with him. He was in the military. And there you go. Part of my attraction to him were his qualities that brought him to be in the military. He really is someone who sees this country as having given him a lot and he loves his country and wants to pay that back.”

Keilar was so in love that she admits to not even realizing at first that he would deploy at all, let alone what that would feel like.

“The first one is arresting,” she said, especially since she found out she was pregnant two weeks after Lujan left. “There are a few things in life that will surprise the hell out of you. Having a child, getting married, terrible things like losing a loved one, and then a military deployment is truly one of those things that you can try to prepare for, but you really never know until you are in the middle of it.”

Meeting other spouses through her involvement with Blue Star Families helped Keilar sort through the difficulty and loneliness.

“Talking to them, you realize there are things that are true for being a military spouse or military family that look nuts from the outside,” she said.

Holding up the issues for America to see

In an effort to help civilians and service members better understand each other and the challenges of military life, Keilar pitched the idea for her column, Homefront, to CNN to help bridge the divide.

“There are people who do look at this life and they say that it’s really difficult, but then maybe they aren’t absorbing the gifts that come along with it, too,” she said.

The network supported it, and Homefront became cathartic for her and informative for legions of readers. Keilar got to cover what she wanted, what was on her mind, and what she was going through, she said, including planning a family around a war, surviving the pandemic as a military spouse, and remembering military heroes who died by suicide.

“I had lived in Washington for years and years,” Keilar said as she reflected on the inspiration for Homefront. “I had been at CNN for years and years. And I found myself in this very solitary position of being a military spouse with my husband deployed, being pregnant, having a small child (my stepson), and I was exhausted. So for me this was a way to reach out and understand things, and it was personally helpful for me. Now, over time, it’s been just a great way to be part of the military spouse community and to try to hold up these issues so more Americans can see them.”

To combat the issues that come along with military family life, Keilar recommends starting with mental health — counseling for the service member and the family. She encourages them to overlook feelings of pride or fears of negative career ramifications that can be a reflex in the military when it comes to therapy.

“This lifestyle, whether it’s being a veteran or part of an active-duty family, brings challenges that being a civilian does not, so you need that assistance,” she said.

In her family, she found a couple’s counselor before deployment, which she calls a crucial decision for managing challenges and maintaining function.

Also key? Asking for help when you need it.

“It is hard to balance all of these things,” Keilar noted. “You are never going to get more hours in the day. But in addition to mental health, connection is hugely important.”

It all comes back to finding balance. For Keilar, that means getting her fill of connections like Green Beret Bootcamp along with breaking news.

“Being a parent and a military spouse has taught me that you have to prioritize. You can’t do everything. You just have to let some things lie. You have to figure out the things that are essential and focus on those.”

Read Brianna’s story on page 8 of the May issue of the Military Influencer Magazine.
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