March 26th, 2013 marks the 10th Anniversary of the Airborne assault during OPERATION Iraqi Freedom to establish the northern front. That invasion was the first sortie in a conflict of a different kind than those that came before. For one, today’s military is made purely of volunteers. Therefore, unlike previous wars, it is harder to personally know someone who fought in it. For another, the Iraq War changed how we understood wars to be fought. The demarcated battle lines of World War II or the Cold War were replaced by an invisible enemy. Even the name “The War on Terror,” suggest a combat of ideas more than adversaries.
I am thankful to come from a family of many whom have proudly served our military. As I’ve written before, although I have not served, I believe it is a mission of mine to tell their stories. That’s why I would like to introduce you to my cousin, the young 2nd Lieutenant Shane Kelley, and share a piece of his story.
I was blessed to see my cousin Shane just a couple of weeks before he left for Italy to join the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The war in Iraq was looming, and after 9/11 some called the men and women insane who volunteered to be the first in harm’s way. Yet, he was determined to take on this new challenge in life. It was inevitable that Shane would face combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Shane had finished college earlier in 2002 and was in Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) at Radford University. He was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the Infantry after graduation, and attended Officer Basic Course, Ranger School, and Airborne School before heading to the 173rd Airborne. In a conversation before he left, we spoke a lot about what was ahead in the Army. He had been training for four years, and he told me, “Dave, we are ready to go. We just need a mission.” Soldiers aren’t meant to be idle. They are created to fight and protect. And my cousin was ready to go. A few weeks later, he boarded a plane for Italy; he was on his way. I’d read enough books and watched enough movies to know that our conversation may have been the last conversation we ever had.
The first words Shane heard from his first Company Commander were,
“Welcome to Italy, we’re jumping into Iraq.”
It was time and immediately he and his fellow soldiers went into preparation. They were about to embark on the largest combat airborne operation since World War II (1000 troops). The jump was also the longest combat operation in airborne history, over 1800 miles from Vicenzia to Iraq.
I remember sitting at my desk at work when the invasion of Iraq began. What a dichotomy between what I was reading in the comfort of my warm office and my cousin literally stuck in the mud in Northern Iraq!
Later, Shane was asked to keep a blog. He recorded his jump experience in the post The Six Jump Chump. I think it is one of his most fascinating stories. Shane recounted,
…this five-hour flight seemed to last a month. Some slept. Some reviewed notes. Some even cried. I spent the time envisioning the mission on the ground and reviewing all of my tasks in my head. Eventually we snapped every snap, buttoned every button, hooked every hook and tightened every strap of our equipment; each of us now weighing an additional 140 lbs. on average.
It was Shane’s first jump from a C-17, and he stumbled and hit the side of the plane on the way out.
I slowly began to spin… and then quickly began to spin, until my risers freed up and I was now ready to control my decent to the ground. I looked up and checked my canopy, thankfully seeing a fully open parachute above me. Now time to look below me and… PLOP! My feet sank into the mud below me… I was already on the ground.
Next up was finding everyone in his platoon while carrying over 100 lbs of gear through the mud. With that jump and those steps, Shane’s war, and his military career, had begun.
I still have the letter that Shane wrote to me from Northern Iraq describing the jump, and I will cherish it and share with my own girls when they are older.
I am thankful for my cousin Shane as well as all of those who have sacrificed careers, families, limbs, and even their lives to protect us. We live in a complicated and gray political world, but I am inspired today by his words to me before he left for war.
“We are ready. Just give us a mission.” He went on to serve two more combat tours: one in Afghanistan (2006) and once more in Iraq (2009).
Eternal thanks to my cousin Shane as well as the multiple others, including his lovely wife Tiffany, who have served to protect us. It has been a joy to play together with Shane as children and as adults see each other find our ways.
*****Tomorrow, I will be posting an interview with my cousin, now Major Shane Kelley. You will hear from him directly and learn more about his experience.*********