We got a new name today. Instead of COT Class 11-02, we’re now known as Kelly Class.
One of the first tasks we were given by our flight commanders was to come up with a flight exemplar – someone who we thought exemplified who we were and who we wanted to be as officers in the Air Force. We chose Maj. Dick Winters, the officer in charge of Easy Company, the WWII unit made famous by the Band of Brothers miniseries.
We then had to choose a squadron exemplar by voting on the three class exemplars in our squadron, and eventually we had to choose a class exemplar by voting on the three exemplars chosen by the squadrons. Our exemplar made it to the final three, along with Brigadier General Billy Mitchell and Staff Sergeant John Kelly. Mitchell was the easy pick. He is considered the father of the Air Force because, as an officer in the Army Air Corps, he predicted the rise of air power and the need for a permanent Air Force. He also predicted the attack on Pearl Harbor, recognizing our vulnerability to a sneak attack by air. But he was almost too easy. Our Dick Winters choice was more outside the box.
|Maj. Richard Winters|
As for Staff Sergeant John Kelly, I had no idea who that was. He served from 1976 to 1994. After he served on a joint task force to clean up the Marshall Bikini Islands, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease, and he beat it. He later was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He survived. His Hodgkin’s Disease then came back, and he beat it back into submission. In 2007 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months to live. He battled the disease for three and a half years before succumbing in 2010. The VA now admits that SSgt Kelly’s exposure to radiation in the Bikini Islands lead to his four cancers.
I didn’t know what to make of this choice. It was truly a sad story, and I’m sure that Kelly was a man to be honored and admired but I didn’t know how he fit in to the class exemplar mold. I voted for Dick Winters.
At our first hall call, Lt Col Ackerman told us that we would be known from that point on as “Kelly Class.” I was floored. Kelly Class? It has a nice ring, but Dick Winters was the man. Lt Col Ackerman then launched into the story of SSgt Kelly, which I had read quickly over email but hadn’t really absorbed. I knew the guy had contracted, and fought, four kinds of cancer and had a rough go of it, to say the least, before dying last year. But as I listened to the story, some puzzle pieces in my brain started to fall into place. SSgt Kelly. Kelly. The name sounded familiar. And then Lt Col Ackerman turned on the proverbial light bulb for me: And we are honored to have Sergeant Kelly’s son here with us as a member of Kelly Class. First Lieutenant Jerred Kelly, please stand up. A blonde guy a few years younger than me about twenty feet away stood up. People craned their necks to look at him. I knew Kelly. A JAG like me, we’d spoken a few times. He is a bright and personable guy, and I instantly liked him when we met. Lieutenant Kelly, your father exemplified the perseverance, dedication, and resolve that the Air Force values so greatly. So it is fitting that your classmates have chosen him as the class exemplar. I was choking up a bit. The guy recently lost his father, an Air Force vet of almost 20 years, and here we were naming our class after him. I could see that Kelly was struggling to keep his military bearing through it all. I probably would have been bawling. We are honored to look to him as our guide, and we will do our best to live up to his example. COT Class 11-02, from this point forward you are no longer COT Class 11-02. You will be known as Kelly Class.
After we were dismissed, I went up to Kelly, grabbed his shoulder, and shook his hand. I didn’t really know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I just looked him in the eye, and he looked back and nodded. And I felt like he was my brother.