RICHMOND, Va. –
Twenty years after his parents got married and 10 years after losing his father in an Iraq helicopter shoot down, Pvt. Paul David Kelly, 19, raised his right hand and enlisted into the Virginia National Guard July 26, 2017. Col. James Ring, chief of staff for the Virginia National Guard, administered Kelly’s oath in front of his mother, his grandmother, younger brother, a few friends and his recruiters.
“We are honored and proud for my son to be part of the Guard family,” Pvt. Kelly’s mother, Maria, said. “I thank God for all the support and love and I know my husband is looking down to us and I know in my heart that he will protect our son.”
Serving in the military was always one of Kelly’s goals. For as long as he can remember, that’s what he wanted to do. Both his parents served; his father, Col. Paul M. Kelly, in the Virginia National Guard, and his mother, Maria, in the Air Force. Photos of Paul as a child show him dressed up in a uniform just like the one his dad would wear to work everyday. He’d stick his legs into his father’s boots and stomp around the house, playing Soldier, just like his dad.
When Pvt. Kelly was nine, the helicopter his father was traveling in was shot down north of Baghdad and Col. Kelly, along with 11 other Soldiers, including fellow Virginia National Guardsman Sgt. 1st Class Darryl D. Booker, died. For Pvt. Kelly, this only strengthened his resolve. He was sure that he would serve, just like his father.
“When he was killed in Iraq, it had a huge impact on me,” Pvt. Kelly said. “I remember when I was nine years old I decided then that I wanted to pursue something in the military.”
Ten years later, at the Military Entry Processing Station located on Fort Lee, Virginia, Pvt. Kelly fulfilled that goal by enlisting as an infantry Soldier assigned to the Christiansburg-based Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
Over those ten years, Pvt. Kelly’s mother worked hard to keep the memory of Col. Kelly alive for her sons.
“Every single day we talk about him,” Maria said. “He’s always there for us and in my house, every single corner of my house, we have a family picture. His dad’s picture is there and he knows, Dad is here.”
Pvt. Kelly’s enlistment falling on his parent’s 20th wedding anniversary felt meant to be, according to Maria. Plus, she knew without a doubt that Col. Kelly was there with her to celebrate Pvt. Kelly’s enlistment. Col. Kelly left Maria a sign after his death, she explained, a symbol to let her know that he was there, and still with her. On the day of Pvt. Kelly’s enlistment, Maria saw that sign twice on the way to MEPS.
“I know he’s saying it’s ok,” Maria said.
Growing up, Pvt. Kelly explained that part of what made him feel close to his father was his family’s involvement with the military and with other Gold Star families. Col. Kelly, an aviation officer, commanded the Virginia National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment a few years before his death and the Virginia Guard aviation community rallied around both the Kelly and Booker families in the days, months and years that followed their deaths.
“We were very active with the military and with all my dad’s friends,” Pvt. Kelly said. “They never forgot my dad.”
Ring, who administered the oath for Pvt. Kelly, was one of those friends. He counted Col. Kelly as both a mentor and a friend, and served under him during the unit’s deployment to Bosnia in 2002.
“The greatest memory I have is his leadership style,” Ring said of Col. Kelly. “He was known to be a tremendous leader, a tremendous people person. We often gave him the nickname of “The Senator” because he walked around always shaking hands and always had a smile on his face.”
Ring has a daughter near Pvt. Kelly’s age and his children have grown up alongside the Kelly children. He watched Pvt. Kelly grow from a child to a young man and recognizes the leadership style of Col. Kelly in Pvt. Kelly. He explained that Pvt. Kelly was an active participant in programs for Gold Star families and helped mentor other children who had lost a parent.
Enlisting his friend’s son into the Virginia National Guard was a “privilege” for Ring. He described the feeling as “absolute pride.”
“When we take the oath, we enjoin our families in that process as well,” Ring said. “It’s a privilege to swear in a member of a Gold Star family because they know full well what that oath means.”
Maria was thankful that Ring accepted her invitation to be there for her son. She said it was “beautiful,” that after 10 years, he was still supporting her family.
“I think the man he mentored, I think he’s following my husband’s footsteps,” Maria said of Ring. She said so many of the Soldiers her husband served with have told her over the years that her husband is the reason for their continued service. “When I hear that, it’s just beautiful.”
The Kelly family is comprised of patriots. War took the patriarch of their family, but each member of that family talks openly about the debt they owe their country, about how much it has given them and how thankful they are.
“It’s a great country,” Paul’s mother said. “There’s no other country like this country and we are so blessed to have a country like this.”
Pvt. Kelly echoed his mother’s sentiment, saying, “I feel like I owe my country service. The least I can do is give a little bit of service.”
In a way, Maria feels like her son’s service is a continuation of her husband’s.
“It’s a sad moment for my husband that he passed, but it’s a happy moment for my son who will continue the legacy for my husband,” she said. As a mom, she’s nervous about her son entering the military but said, “I know, in my heart, he’ll be ok. His dad will be proud of him, is looking down on him, and I raised him right.”
Pvt. Kelly is currently studying sports medicine at Radford University and will attend basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, next summer.