Archives For War

Yesterday, I wrote about my cousin Shane’s Combat Parachute Jump into Iraq during OPERATION Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Today, I ask him a few questions about his experience in the military.

Shane and team after Afghanistan

Shane (far right) and team after returning from Afghanistan (courtesy of Major Shane Kelley)

What made you want to join the military? Why Army?

This is always a two-part answer. The reason that I initially joined the Army was simply because they funded my college degree. I earned an ROTC scholarship while in high school, which earned me a commission into the Army upon completion of the program, so that got me in. The reasons why I continue to serve in the Army are because I believe there are few other jobs that present the types of challenges experienced through military service and combat, I take great pride in adding to the positive lineage of the American Soldier, and most of all I thoroughly enjoy sharing in the camaraderie of working with some exceptional men and women in uniform.> Reflecting on your Army life from 10 years ago, what have you learned since then?>

Just when I think I know everything, I learn a valuable lesson. The Army life, especially during a time of war, is ever-changing and evolving. The only thing that is consistent in the Army is change, which has impacted me in two significant ways. First, I have learned to approach unknown situations or environments fluidly with an open but focused mindset for what may come. This is not just a mindset that is needed in nearly any combat situation, but also helps me make the best out of almost any situation in all aspects of life. Second, I have grown as a leader significantly in the last 10 years by connecting with Soldiers and finding various methods to motivate them in their accomplishing their duties. 10 years ago, I would run around barking orders to make things move. Now I provide guidance and motivation and am always impressed by what Soldiers are capable of accomplishing.

What are you presently doing?

I am now a Military Intelligence Officer and most recently earned my M.S. in Strategic Intelligence. In my current job, I help support policymakers and military leaders with intelligence products concerning some of our national adversaries.

Were you scared during the jump into Iraq?

I should have been. The Soldiers on my plane heading to the jump were displaying a gambit of emotions. Some were sleeping, some were crying, some were talking to themselves to psych themselves up. I kept reviewing in my head all of the details for our plan on the ground, rehearsing through my mind over and over the tasks that my platoon needed to accomplish. I was so focused on what I had to do on the ground that I didn’t pay enough attention to what I had to do to get out the door, which is why I smacked my head twice on the side of the plane. Before you can conquer the day, you have to get up out of bed successfully.

How did your first experience in Iraq compare to your subsequent tours in Afghanistan and again in Iraq?

There are far too many differences between the locations, people, times, and even objectives when comparing my three deployments, but I will focus on two key differences. The first one was the redeployment frame of mind. What I mean is that we jumped into the dark abyss with no idea of when we would return during the first deployment, so my mindset was “one thing at a time” and “this will end at some point.” However, I went into the second and third deployments with an expected end date, which changed the mindset a little bit to “let’s see how much I am able to accomplish or cram into 12 or 15 months.” The other major difference, especially when compared in order, was the evolution of the threat/counter-threat cycle. I think it is very commendable for an enormous and generally slow changing organization like the Army to adapt to the fast paced insurgent environments in both countries and relatively quickly provide resources to counter the greatest threats on the battlefield. I’m sure this issue will be debated for many years to come, but I witnessed the evolution of resources and techniques in the Army firsthand over the course of my deployments and believe that the Army’s ability to evolve quickly attributes to much of the successes that can be claimed in both countries.

Your wife Tiffany served in the Army. Tell me about her role, how you served together, and what she is doing now.

My wife and I met while we were both in training at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. She deployed to Iraq as an Intelligence Officer initially in her Army career and then finished her time working for a Wounded Warrior unit helping Soldiers receive care for a wide range of physical and mental issues. Now, she is attending law school and working at a law firm while amazingly raising two young boys.

What advice do you have for anyone wanting to serve in the military today? 

Military service comes with sacrifices and benefits. Talk to multiple men and women that have served to gain a variety of perspectives on the positive and negative aspects of a military career. Like any decision, learn as much as you can about both the good and the bad and weigh them for your own situation. Don’t forget to include the intangible aspects of serving your country when weighing your options because they are some of the greatest benefits of all.

What do you want to share with your kids when they are older?

The reasons why it is important to contribute to the greater good and why it is important for some to sacrifice on behalf of the many.

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Shane standing for his ceremony in Iraq to be promoted to Captain (courtesy of Major Shane Kelley)

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Shane giving a toast for a fallen member of his platoon during a memorial event held shortly after his death at our compound in Iraq (courtesy of Major Shane Kelley)

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.

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Meet my cousin, Major Shane Kelley. In this picture he is being promoted to Captain in Afghanistan (courtesy of Major Shane Kelley)

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.

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Preparation for the jump in Aviano (photo by Sean LaFrenier)

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.

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C-17s lined up at the airfield (courtesy of the 173rd Airborne)

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Soldiers seated on their C-17 during their long flight to Iraq (courtesy of the 173rd Airborne)

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.

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A soldier from Shane’s company in the 173rd Airborne taking a kneel in Northern Iraq the morning after the jump (courtesy of the 173rd Airborne)

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).

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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.*********

My Brothers in Arms

July 9, 2012 — 6 Comments

This past week my men’s group had an emotion-filled time spending our last night together at our friend’s house. We have been meeting at his house, primarily his porch, for the past two and a half years. My friend is getting married, moving and off on a new adventure so we can only be happy for him. There is a little sadness in leaving his porch for it has been a place full of great memories, some of joy, some sad but ultimately it was a place of encouragement. It is a place where you are reminded that you never have to walk alone. Our group is moving to a new house with a new story to be told and I’m excited to see what God will do through it. These past years have been special and I’ll never forget them.

My wife knows I need other men like those in my group and I’m thankful she can see how beneficial it is to have these friendships. In my life experience, every man needs a fighting friend or more to navigate life.

The famed Sergeant Bill Guarnere in the book and HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers said it best,

Once we get into combat, they only people you can trust is yourself and the fella next to you.

I don’t have a natural brother so God has instilled something special in me that helps me grab tightly to those like in my men’s group. Throughout the pages in my life story, I have been blessed to have many great friends whom I call brothers. The life chapters have been wonderful with my friends growing up in Kansas City, my Young Life brothers in Christ in St. Louis, my brothers in college in Evansville and this group now. We are brothers in arms, united always fighting through life, celebrating our successes and failures, joy and pain, adversity and adventures.

My brothers, I thank you for fighting with me. As it says in Hebrews 13:1 (ESV), “Let brotherly love continue.” My feelings for you can only be expressed through the Dire Straits song, Brothers in Arms,

Through these fields of destruction
Baptisms of fire
I’ve witnessed your suffering
As the battles raged higher

And though we were hurt so bad
In the fear and alarm
You did not desert me
My brothers in arms

If you have not seen the movie, Taking Chance (2009), it is a must for any American to get a unique perspective on how to treat military who are lost through the eyes of a funeral escort. Based on the true story, Kevin Bacon plays a Marine Colonel who served in Desert Storm in 1991 but for several reasons, mainly having a young family and served so long in the military, decided to focus on serving  in 2003-4 in the mainland. He felt guilty not going over to Iraq or Afghanistan and made the decision to escort this young man who perished, Chance Phelps, to his family. It was highly uncommon for a high-ranking officer like him to escort a PFC. Along the way he witnesses many things that helped him understand why he needed to do this and honor those who fought in his place. It was as if a parade of honor opened up on the week-long trip to take Chance home. Kevin Bacon’s character was the escort of a hero.

Today I am 34 and amazed at the drive and sacrifice of friends and so many others younger than me who have fought and in some cases died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Regardless of your political thoughts on war, there is something special about serving your country, especially the military. I come from a long line of family that have served in the military and as a writer I am always interested in listening to them and helping tell their story.

Previously, I have written my thoughts on the military and why I did not serve. I recognize that I’m not off the hook. Neither are you if you did not serve.

The need us and we need them. Even though we don’t serve, how should we act? Here are seven helpful ways we all can make a difference for those who served:

  1. Help give them purpose. A job is just a job but a purpose in a job can have eternal impact. The group,The Mission Continues is focused on that and I’d love to find ways to help them more. If you are an employer, give each resume or meeting with a veteran a second look. Their skills may not look standard but they most likely understand hard work and leadership better than anyone else.
  2. Listen. I can only imagine what these young men and women have gone through and plenty suffer from PTSD. Engage them and listen to their stories. They may not want to tell you much but give them your all. It is therapy sometimes for them to share and we also show respect by hearing them out.
  3. Donate: Donate to your local VFW, USOWounded Warrior Project, Operation Stand Down, or Operation Homefront. It’s easy and enables you to fund those who are already making a difference.
  4. Plant flags: Plant flags with Boy Scouts during Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Veteran’s Day at National Cemeteries. My father helps The Veterans of The Battle of the Bulge do this and other things to help.
  5. Give up your seat: If you are a traveling businessperson and have a great seat on a plane, especially in 1st Class, give up your seat for a veteran or uniformed soldier.
  6. Give a Homecoming Party: If you aren’t disgusted by the way some Vietnam veterans were treated when coming home, then we have an opportunity as this generation to show what we’re made of and honor them properly. To my knowledge, The Mission Continues was the first major entity to organize an Iraq homecoming parade for soldiers in St. Louis in 2012 and it drew in the hundreds of thousands. Wow.
  7. Teach your kids: If you have children, encourage your kids to find a unique way to help troops. When she was around 10 years old, my cousin Ryan and Mandy’s daughter Victoria asked friends to come to her birthday and instead of bringing presents, give money to supporting troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan with presents and supplies. She raised almost $2,000. What an example and what legacy go give our children.

Last, never stop praying for them.

The victory in serving them well comes with action.

Stand up and serve them as they have served you.

What are some other great ways you see to help veterans? 

You know a good speaker when you see one.

But are you one?

Do you ever wonder exactly why a speech can be so good? It can bring shivers down your back. It can inspire you to change the world.  Sometimes it can be as simple as provoking the feeling that you aren’t alone.  Everyday I have the opportunity to speak in public or watch someone else do it.  I am fascinated by those who do this so well so I try to study and emulate them.

More people fear public speaking over death for example.  It is frequently ranked as the #1 fear for people as a matter of fact.   With so much fear attached to public speaking, often people shy away from trying to better themselves at it.  As Flannery O’Connor put it, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” As it a good speech. I have a long way to become a good orator.

Winston Churchill noted that in each speech,

“There must be character, personality, delivery and occasion,…”

As in all things in life, Sir Winston. Thank you.

I like keeping things simple in life so there are two attributes that can be applied to about anything in life, especially speech:  Planning and Delivery.

Let us study two of my heroes of speech and rhetoric.

PLANNING: Churchill’s “Our Finest Hour” Speech

Churchill grew up with a lisp and had to overcome incredible odds to become the speaker we know him as today.  He was known early on in his political career as a rambler but over the decades, he transformed into a master of public speaking. How did he do it?  Churchill would often say that for every minute in a speech one should prepare an hour.  His work ethic was untouchable and it helped eventually him do best what was needed in the moment.  In Churchill’s preparation, he knew that his pause was his secret weapon.  By intense planning, he knew when to best use the pause.  Churchill has given thousands of speeches that you will neither hear nor read in life but if you could only read one, read his amazing “Our Finest Hour” speech.  Whenever you feel down and frustrated by life’s circumstances, it will uplift your spirit.  If you are in that Dunkirk point of life in retreat as the Allies were; learn from the Brits and regroup, reassess, and get back in the game.  You can read the full speech here.

“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'”

DELIVERY: FDR’s Message to Congress after Pearl Harbor

Draft #1: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in ‘world history’….”

Following the sudden and deliberate attack on the United States, FDR knew this was a moment to capture emotion and reason so in his final draft he changed ‘world history’ to ‘infamy.’  Read the original version a few times and you realize that it doesn’t fully embrace the magnitude of what happened at Pearl Harbor.  It is now one of the most famous opening speech lines ever.  Can you imagine trying to describe the emotion of a nation on the fly like FDR?  He mastered the moment and a nation became united and galvanized for war.

What does this mean to you?  

Part of your planning must be to anticipate the moments that could come.  You must plan for the moment in the same way that you planned how to get there.  Over my years as a history student, I studied Churchill and FDR extensively.  Today, I become discouraged occasionally and think, “I can’t do it like them.  I am not even in a position of ultimate leadership that would require this sort of planning and skill.”  But I then realize that I am wrong.  My team, which includes my family, look to me daily to master these skills of planning and mastering the moment.

Remember that yes you can do it.

Keep it simple. Plan, and plan for the moment.

In a few short weeks we approach the anniversary of a tragedy that most of you reading this remember well.

I didn’t know anyone directly who perished on 9/11.  I still feel for them and pray for their families.  I pray that I am living better because of what we have learned from that day.  I now am married and have two little girls and when the time is right, I will share what happened on that fateful day and what we all have learned from it.  My parents had shared where they were when hearing that JFK was assassinated and their parent’s experience when hearing about Pearl Harbor being attacked.  Each generation had its defining moments.  In my early 20s, I wondered if my generation would have that kind of moment.  Before 9/11 I remember vividly the following events; The Challenging exploding in 1986, Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Black Hawk Down in 1993 (occurred on my birthday), and yes even Bill Clinton’s speech acknowledging his indiscretions with Monica Lewinsky.

I had only been working in my new job out of college for a few months when the 9/11 attack happened.  My routine each day was a 10 mile drive toward downtown St. Louis.  My routine was filled with two cups of coffee, one at home, one for the ride to work and I would listen to talk radio.  On 9/11 the routine was broken.   My car had broken down the day before so I borrowed my parent’s car.  Instead of the daily radio talk, I put in Travis’ new album The Invisible Band and listened. Perhaps nothing for anyone was routine following 9/11.  I would have listened to the live reporting of the attack on my drive in but instead was in some other world.  I learned immediately when I entered the door at work from a colleague that planes had hit the towers.  We had a person from our New York office visiting us that day and she was emotionally distraught not knowing if her loved ones were okay (She learned later that they were).

The next morning, I took a look at lyrics from one of my favorite songs on that album that I listened to that fateful drive to work.  It was the song, Pipe Dreams.  

I read it all, every word
And I still don’t understand a thing
What had you heard?
What had you heard?

Very few things were ordinary about 9/11.  What had you heard on that day? 

The day after 9/11, I like many still went to work.  No music today  as I paid close attention to the talk radio.  It was full of fear, confusion, sadness, full of messages about economic demise, and anger.

My office was a half a mile down the street from the UPS central depot in St. Louis.  If I was just a little late getting to work, I would be stopped by the trucks leaving for their daily delivery route.  On the normal day, I would have been extremely annoyed if getting caught by these trucks.

On 9/12,  I was stopped by those UPS delivery trucks.  I sat in my car cheering for 30 UPS trucks leaving their depot.  I was not alone and saw several others doing the same.  Were we cheering for giving terrorists the finger and that economically we would not slow down?  Not really.  It felt more like a symbolic way that people were willing to keep moving forward even after being knocked down.

Ask any boxer about this feeling.  You get hit.  You get knocked down.  You get back up and fight.

My responsibility as a human being living during such a tumultuous period is to share the lessons we have learned.  I wonder how we will remember 9/11, 50 years from now?  Unfortunately events like these could probably happen again in some fashion.  My daughters’ generation will have defining moments but may they learn from 9/11, JFK, and Pearl Harbor an important lesson I learned as well as my parents.

We must keep going forward. 

After D-Day…

June 7, 2011 — Leave a comment

After D-Day, it wasn’t over.  It took the Allies over a month to finally break through inland.

General Dwight Eisenhower, then Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, wrote two letters to release the morning of June 7th.  Thank God he didn’t have to finish this letter and but send a report of initial victory.

Prior to the invasion, he gave this encouragement knowing well that this was just the beginning.

“Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened, he will fight savagely.”

You can read his full inspiring message here.

In life we have to keep pushing to the end.  The enemy is strong and with God’s help we will achieve victory.

After you secure the beachhead, keep moving forward.   You’re not alone.