Archives For 173rd Airborne

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.

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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.*********