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At ceremony in his honor, retired veterans leader will keep giving back

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  May 12, 2011 09:30 AM

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Tom Kelley, DoD.jpg

(Courtesy: Johnny Bivera for the Department of Defense)

At Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia in late March, Thomas G. Kelley attends an annual remembrance ceremony held by the Military Health System for family and service members to honor 262 fallen medical service members who died in battle.

Thomas G. Kelley spent the last four decades heroically dedicated to his country, fellow veterans and their families. And he will continue to give back at a special event this week.

The occasion is meant to thank and honor Kelley and is being held on his 72nd birthday.

Tom Kelley High Res 1.jpg
(Courtesy: Kelley family)
Tom Kelley retires as Navy Captain, 1990.
When asked for his thoughts on the upcoming salute to his lifelong service, Kelley didn’t dwell on personal accomplishments during his 30 years of active duty service – including how he earned the nation’s highest military decoration. He didn’t discuss all those he helped during his 11 years leading the state’s veterans’ services department that oversees 400,000 Massachusetts veterans or how politics may have played a role in his departure from the post.

Instead, he humbly described this coming Friday evening as a chance to spend time with family, reconnect with old military and high school pals, and “to fund-raise – that’s the best part really.”

In fact, organizers said the Dorchester native who grew up in West Roxbury only agreed to be recognized if the event helped raise money for one of the many causes he’s advocated for during his career.

More than 1,000 people, including a cast of local celebrities and politicians, have been invited to the ceremonies at the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center.

The night will benefit a program that provides educational support to young children of fallen Massachusetts soldiers, including 5-year-old Grace and 4-year-old Tristan whose father Marine 2nd Lieutenant Joshua L. Booth of Sturbridge was killed by a sniper in Iraq during 2006.

“It means the world to me,” Joshua’s mother, Debra Booth said of the Massachusetts Soldiers Legacy Fund (MSLF). “It’s a way I feel Josh is able to give to his children without being here. It’s an emotion I can hardly describe.”

Tom Kelley High Res 2.jpg
(Courtesy: Kelley family)
Tom Kelley receives Medal of Honor, 1970.
She said Kelley became her son’s mentor after the two met while Joshua was in high school. Kelley kept in close contact with her son throughout his studies in military college and eventual deployment.

“Josh was just so in awe of him,” Booth said. “You couldn’t have asked for a better role model. He’s so genuine and one-of-a-kind. Tom represents everything that is good in that arena, and not just at the military level, but as a human being.”

When the 23-year-old died, Joshua left behind his 1-year-old daughter and wife Erica, then 21 and pregnant with his son. Kelley became a source of support for the family.

“To have someone like Tom actually know Josh and understand what our family was going through was a huge comfort,” said Booth. “I can’t even imagine my life after Josh’s death without him. He’s just been a godsend for us.”

Peter Trovato founded the MSLF in 2004 while studying at UMass Amherst. The North Attleboro native said he was honored when Kelley singled out his organization as the beneficiary of Friday’s event.

“Tom Kelley is certainly a hero, and [the event] will shed some light on his career and how important he has been to Massachusetts,” said Trovato, who lives in Allston where he attends Harvard Business School. “It also allows us to showcase how painful of a sacrifice some families have made and how we show them our support.”

Kelley said he met Trovato and colleagues at a breakfast several years ago and “was totally impressed” by the organization.

“I had a great privilege and honor to serve the veterans over the past 10 years,” said Kelley. “The veterans and their families being taken care of – that’s what matters to me.”

tomkelleythmb1970.jpg
(Globe file)
Thomas G. Kelley, 1970
And Kelley wants to make sure one veteran in particular is taken care of this weekend – Richard “Doc” Nelson, whom Kelley credits with saving his life during Vietnam in June of 1969.

The 80-year-old Nelson, who lives alone in a countryside home two hours outside Atlanta, said Kelley recently called to invite him to stay at his Somerville home and attend this Friday’s ceremony.

Soon thereafter, Nelson said he received a mailed invitation from Kelley along with plane tickets.

“He’s earned it,” said Nelson of the upcoming tribute. “I’ve never met a man who didn’t like Tom Kelley. What a guy he was. He had a heavy Boston accent and was a real Irish man. He had a great personality. He was what we called an enlisted man’s officer. He would do anything for us and we would do anything for him.”

Nelson remembered Kelley’s action that earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor, during an ambush while traveling down a river in Vietnam. Kelley put his boat in front of another disabled vessel to protect it from enemy fire. He saved about six soldiers on board the stranded ship from all-but-certain death.

“A lot of officers wouldn’t have done that,” Nelson said. “He sacrificed his boat’s safety and himself to save that other boat. He was heroic, but it was part of his nature to help. He did it all his life. He put others above himself.”

tomkelleymoh1970.jpgNelson recalled how a rocket then whizzed past Kelley within inches of his head, before exploding and sending shrapnel that cost Kelley an eye and badly injured the area around it. Nelson bandaged his fellow service member’s wounded face, preventing infection and also kept the Navy lieutenant from going into fatal shock.

“I owe him my life,” Kelley said. And, the former medic said he’s received a Christmas card from Kelley every year since that reads: “Thank you, Doc, for saving my life.”

Meanwhile, though unable to stand or speak clearly, Kelley continued giving orders to the other soldiers, all of whom survived.

Following the attack, Kelley convinced his superiors to remain on active duty despite his injuries until 1990, when he retired as a Captain. And, Nelson described just how dire Kelley’s condition had been in the midst of battle.

“I told others he probably will die in secondary shock,” he remembered. “But he did make it and the rest is history.”

E-mail Matt Rocheleau at mjrochele@gmail.com.

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