Most would say that a writer’s dream is realized when his or her work is published.
But Ryan Kelly can’t bear to read “Operation Homecoming,” the book where his experiences were captured. The memories are still too raw.
A Company Commander and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot, Kelly spent a year in Iraq. The 37-year-old was born in Cheyenne and reared in Littleton, and joined the Army in 1992 at the age of 22. But he did not embark on his first deployment to a war zone until twelve years later, last Thanksgiving.
While at war, Kelly, wrote numerous letters home to his wife and mother. Two of his letters, as well as short stories, eye witness accounts, poems and even lyrics written by other soldiers and their family members, appear in “Operation Homecoming” a literary work created by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Kelly’s letters embody two central themes of the book – the diversity of the troops and the true costs of war says editor Andrew Carroll.
“I see all these kids playing war-related video games because this war is so distant and remote that it seems like a game,” Carroll says. “Kelly’s letter shows the real people impacted by these conflicts and the physical and emotional sacrifices they endured.”
Kelly was responsible for more than 70 soldiers in his company, the 1-150th General Support Aviation Battalion 42 Infantry Division (Mechanized), New Jersey Army National Guard: The immigrant troops not born in America but fighting for us anyway; the motor cross stunt man who begged to have his motorcycle shipped to the desert; the newly married couple who could only express their love through tender glances and shared water bottles.
All of them came home. It is now one year later.
How beneficial was it for you and your family members to stay in contact through letters?
Any time you receive a letter from someone in an awful or dangerous situation, you appreciate it regardless of what the letter actually says. For me, writing was a way to release some of the stress I had in the war. It kept out the craziness and helped me fight the isolation and fear. I’d write about the things that scared the hell out of me or the most mundane things. I didn’t pull any punches, and I did that for a reason. I wrote about things that were bothering me at the time, and I wanted to convey that to my family. They said they were glad I did because it allowed them to share in that emotion or experience with me, albeit, a little bit.
What was your most harrowing experience?
We would have to send soldiers off to go on these security detail mission escorting convoys to and from Kuwait and back again. (In one of his letters, Kelly describes the missions as “a perilous 600-mile, one-way trip with roadside bombs, RPG attacks, ambushes and small arms fire.) I would have to be the one who would pick out the team. Who could I potentially lose? Whose job was not essential to me? You go through all these calculations of what happens if they get hit, if you lose them. It’s an awful selecting process. But some of these guys would volunteer, refusing to let anyone else go. That sense of bravery is really inspiring.
How hard was it to transition to life back in Colorado?
I felt displaced and detached. What makes it terrible is that it feels different to be home. Sometimes I feel like I should still be over there, especially when I see the news and I know there are men and women still fighting. I want to do something to help. Somedays you start thinking about what happened over there and you get depressed, but then you look around and think ‘Hey, I’m home. Thank God, what a great day it is.”
I needed to talk to people, to have the understanding of my family. Sometimes I just needed to be left alone. Sometimes I would go to the mall and walk around where I could be around a lot of people who didn’t know me, where I could feel normal. And sometimes I just wanted to sit in my house, not see anyone and stare at the wall.
What do you think is the proper course of action regarding the war?
I think we need to win the war, but part of our problem is the definition of victory. The president wants to create a free and stable Iraq that can govern itself. My question is how long is that actually going to take? I do think that having the army and asking soldiers to do two and three tours in a combat zone is asking too much. Should we bring them home immediately? I don’t think we can. We have invested the time and the money and the blood in Iraq, and I want to see it as a free and stable government. But how long will it take and is America ready to pay that cost?
How can we continue to show support for our troops still overseas?
You do it by voting for whatever party you belong to. Those men and women are dying over there so Iraqis can vote. If people here don’t vote or get impatient because of terrible lines, my answer is, ‘So What!’ Vote anyway.
Communication is also important regardless of how people feel about the war. Especially when these guys are rolling into their seventh or eighth month over there, they start to question why they are there. I had troops not getting any mail. When groups would contact me asking what they could do to help, I would get them to send care packages to these lonely men and women who needed something to believe they were still doing the right thing.
What were the holidays like in the war zone?
It sucked during the holidays. Hell, I got attacked on Christmas. It was like “Hello, Merry Christmas, pal, here’s a couple of rockets landing on your base camp.” I found it to be incredibly lonely. It means that you are without your family, without the usual traditions. The chow hall cooks a pretty good turkey, but it’s not your wife’s or your mom’s turkey. You can see on TV and the pictures that seem to show life is just moving on. You are wondering, “Have they forgotten about me?”
What do troops need when they come back home?
People are really going to need a lot of help when they get back. One of the costs of war we are starting to experience is the (emotional) fallout from taking 130,000 men a year and putting them in a situation where everyday they could get killed or maimed. We bring them home and expect them to reintegrate into society without any kind of hangover from that particular duty. We need to understand that pain is part of the deal as well. We need to listen and approach their experiences with an open mind.
What will you do now?
Pick up where the war left off. Before the war, I was a struggling creative writer. I was in Columbia and had just gotten my MFA in playwriting. I am writing again, and I just finished a new play. I’m writing a lot about the war, surprise, surprise, both fiction and what I actually experienced. The hardest thing is what the war means to me personally. I have yet to discover that. I’m getting out of the guard in another six months. But if they called me back, I would go.
Will you ever be able to read “Operation Homecoming?”
I hope so and soon. The book is really important for me to be a part of. I’m honored. I want to read it and I will read it. The soldiers had something to say, and I want to hear and listen. They are America’s best, and we should be proud of them. Take your hat off when you think of them because they deserve that. There are no better in the world. I love every single one of them. Every single one.
Following is an excerpt of a letter from Captain Ryan Kelly, who was preparing for battle at Camp Buehring in Udairi, Kuwait, to his mother:
A quick look around my tent will show you who is fighting this war. There’s Ed, a 58-year-old grandfather from Delaware. He never complains about his age, but his body does, in aches and creaks and in the slowness of his movements on late nights and cold mornings. …
There’s Lindon, a 31-year-old black-as-coal ex-Navy man from Trinidad who speaks every word with a smile. His grandfather owned an animal farm and lived next to his grandmother, who owned an adjacent cocoa field. They met as children.
There’s SGT Lilian, a single mother who left her five-year-old daughter at home with a frail and aging mother because nobody else was there to help.
There’s Melissa and Mike, two sergeants who got married inside the Ft. Dix chapel a month before we deployed – so in love, yet forbidden, because of fraternization policies, even to hold hands in front of other soldiers. But if you watch them closely, you can catch them stealing secret glances at each other. Sometimes I’ll see them sitting together on a box of bottled water tenderly sharing a lunch. They are so focused on each other that the world seems to dissolve around them. …
Captain Ryan Kelly sent a letter to his mother on Jan. 21, 2005, a portion of which is below:
They are called HERO missions. And they are the worst kind.
It’s the body bag in the back that makes the flight hard. No jovial banter among the crew. No jokes of home. No wisecracks about the origin of the meat served at the chow hall, just the noise of the flight – the scream of the engines, the whir of the blades clawing at the air, the voice crackling over the radio and echo of your own thoughts about the boy in the bag in the back. …
Body bags must have been in the stars because later the Colonel announced that the heaters in the medevac helicopters were not working that well. In response, the medics, operating on a “corn husk theory,” started zipping their live patients inside body bags to keep them warm during the flight. It can get very cold in the back of the Blackhawk because the wind seeps in through cracks in the window seals. However, the medics forgot to explain this to their patients who understandably freaked out. It’s kind of funny, in a twisted sort of way. I guess being in a body bag is better than freezing on the way to the hospital. Why is death always so cold? …
Excerpted from Operation Homecoming by Andrew Carroll. Copyright 2006 by Andrew Carroll. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.
Andrew Carroll will be in Denver for a book signing of
“Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families.”
The event will be Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at The Tattered Cover in LoDo, 1628 16th Street.
Carroll will be reading from the book that includes letters, private journals, short stories and other literary works written by the troops and their loved ones. Featured local authors include Capt. Ryan Kelly of Denver, Peter Madsen of Parker, Cpt. James Sosnicky of Castle Rock and SSG Michael Thomas of Colorado Springs.