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Released July 8, 2004

By Angela Cutrer

HATTIESBURG -- Hugh Kelly is a Yankee whose grandfather was stationed at Keesler Air Force Base in the 1930s - an area Kelly's grandmother called full of "liquor, hookers and trouble." Needless to say, she wasn't thrilled about her grandson and his wife moving to the Mississippi Coast 60 years later.

"It'll be OK, Grandma," Kelly assured her at the time. "I'm sure things have changed by now." But she still wasn't convinced. Now, more than a decade after their move, Kelly can confidently say that moving to Biloxi was the best decision they could have made.

It all came about when his wife was first recruited right out of nursing school. She called Kelly, saying she had completed an interview with the Veteran's Administration, accepted a position and had even found an apartment for them.

"What's our new mailing address?" Kelly asked her, thinking it would be in Clearwater, Fla., a location they had discussed. She rattled off the address, which ended with the words "Biloxi, Mississippi," Kelly remembers.

"I just burst out: 'Mississippi?' And when I later told my co-workers, they all said, 'Are you crazy? Mississippi?' But I can now honestly say that we love it here."

That was 13 years ago. It was tough at first for this couple from upstate New York to adapt to the coastal city they now call home. A couple of years, they said they'd stay; now they can't imagine leaving.

Well, except for one 16-month time period where one of them did leave: Hugh Kelly, an Army National Guard member, was called up - not to go home to grandma, but to a foreign country full of poverty, danger and cloudy, dark water.

A soldier and a student

In January 2002, Kelly was working on his master's in social work at The University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast when he got a "warning" letter that the military might need him. Within the month, he was on a plane to Ft. Stewart, Ga., then to Kuwait's Camp Virginia, and then to Camp Anaconda in Balad, Iraq. From there, he went to Camp Ridgeway in Habbariyiah, where he served six months with the 82nd Airborne Division.

Kelly's first impression going into the war-torn area was of the extreme poverty. "It doesn't even register until you are actually there to see it. There is no social economic level and they were hungry, so we threw our rations to them," he said, noting that military authorities had told them not to throw food out for safety reasons.

"We then worked on a steady effort to try to help the Iraqi people gain stability in their country and help them understand a healthier lifestyle."

Kelly, who has been in the guard for the last 14 years, said overall the security level was good during his visit, but violence escalated when they headed to Fallujah. "We lost some soldiers," he said. "There were roadside bombs and our camps were being attacked on a daily basis. There's a threat there, sure, but you put forth your best foot to help the Iraqi people gain their freedom, which is hard for them to understand; they lived under oppression for so long."

Kelly, 33, said he felt they'd accomplished their mission. "I started one of the first weeks going into crowds and yelling 'Who speaks English?' to find interpreters," he said. "That's the best way I knew to find them. We'd employ people this way and work hard to teach them about eight hours of work, about integrity and about responsibility."

Kelly also said that the group built schools to help Iraqis gain a good sense of community, exist in a life without fear and appreciate the gift of freedom. "We wanted to show them a different way to live," he said. "As engineers, that's our job - to make their lives easier."

Many things Americans take for granted are exciting to Iraqis. For example, Kelly was drinking a glass of water that had been filtered due to American military efforts. He noticed a group of watching Iraqis giggling. Kelly's interpreter said the group was laughing at his water.

"What's the big deal?" Kelly asked. The interpreter calmly informed him that they'd never seen clear, "blue" water.

Kelly's group saw continued growth during their visit, building schools and organizing donations while dealing with the threat that comes with being in the Sunni Triangle, a source of opposition to the coalition.

A husband and a father

Kelly's job in the Army National Guard is as Recon NCO with the 890th Engineering Battalion, Combat Heavy. On the Gulf Coast, it's as a trainee employee assistance program specialist with the Department of Labor, Gulfport Job Corps (Desi). Kelly's job at home in Biloxi is husband to Tara, 33, and father to Taylor, 6.

Though e-mail was sometimes available for updates on family events back home, the worst thing about Kelly's tour was being away from Tara and Taylor. "That was the hardest part," he said. "I was missing my family, missing my child. Staying alive day to day was my job, and people say we soldiers are the heroes, but it's harder on the families, our being away.

"Behind every great soldier is a great (spouse). I personally came home to a financially secure and intact family situation, all thanks to my wife, who is simply the best at holding it all together."

For Taylor, a self-described "daddy's girl," the story of a bad man who stole teddy bears helped her understand why her father was away all that time. "I wrote e-mails to my wife and to Taylor," Kelly said. "But before I left, I had told Taylor that Saddam was like a very bad man who stole a little girl's teddy bear and we had to go over there and get that teddy bear back, and make sure he never did it again. She looked at me with these wide eyes and said 'Yeah, Daddy! You get that teddy bear back!'"

Kelly laughed at the memory. "Taylor doesn't like me being away, but she accepts it. We are honest with her and she understands as much as she possibly can. She grasps the idea of having to share daddy with other people, but she still doesn't like it." She's still not happy every time daddy puts on his uniform for drill, Kelly said, even though he's just gone for mere hours.

Kelly has been home about three months now, and he's back in school. He plans to finish his master's degree in social work, and then work toward a doctorate to work with government policy. His experience in Iraq will come in handy. "We went into a hostile community with different language skills, and started projects to help people help themselves," he said. "I'll be able to draw from that experience. It certainly gave me a base to go on - all those hurdles we had to jump."

Colleagues and faculty alike are glad Kelly's back safe and sound. "I'm delighted to welcome Hugh Kelly back to the master of social work program on the Gulf Coast," said Dr. Michael Forster, director of the School of Social Work. "Hugh is just the kind of dedicated social service professional that our extended program is designed to accommodate."

Kelly learned another valuable lesson while overseas: The Yank left this area thinking it was hot in Mississippi. That's until he visited Iraq.

"It was 150 degrees," he said. "No, not heat index - 150 excruciating degrees. Let me put it this way: Take a handful of sand, throw it in your face, and point your hair dryer toward your face. Now turn it on.

"Welcome to Iraq!"


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July 20, 2004 4:53 PM