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.
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
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.
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,"
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.
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,
and a student
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.
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.
worked on a steady effort to try to help the Iraqi people gain stability
in their country and help them understand a healthier lifestyle."
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
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
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
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
the big deal?" Kelly asked. The interpreter calmly informed
him that they'd never seen clear, "blue" water.
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.
and a father
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.
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.
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."
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!'"
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."
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
another valuable lesson while overseas: The Yank left this area
thinking it was hot in Mississippi. That's until he visited Iraq.
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.