by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
July 8, 2010
ANGEL FIRE, N.M., July 8, 2010 -- They laid Bruce Kelly to rest this week at the age of 70.
To those he called friend it seemed impossible to sum up the work of perhaps the greatest humanitarian we had ever met in oou time of service. The preacher's, Rev. Peggy Trott's, story about Vietnam made the impossible possible.
The pews of United Church of Angel Fire were filled. The majestic Sangre de Cristo mountains beyond the Moreno Valley in the high plains of New Mexico lay below us, and the Vietnam Memorial built as a private tribute from one family to their fallen son was nestled in a quiet resting spot not far away.
The Rotarians came from Texas and New Mexico.
The Boy Scout leaders drove from as far away as Kansas.
The international student representatives, the Cimarron River clean-up crew volunteers, the Black Lake, Hidden Lake, and Taos Pines volunteer Fire Wise activists who knew Bruce as coworker and leader came from this heaven-blessed part of New Mexico.
Virtually every political and civic leader from Colfax County came to honor the man who could never say "no" to an individual or a group in need.
Every town needs a Bruce Kelly. Few get the blessing. In five or six years of conversations with Bruce he mentioned his service in Vietnam only once or twice. He called his rank of Warrant Officer and job as helicopter pilot "the best job in the Army" but never elaborated.
Of course we knew about his successful bout with cancer, his total dedication, and months of commuting to Albuquerque hospitals four hours away to be with his wife Beth when she was ill, but we didn't know much about Vietnam.
He raised thousands for school kids. Fed hundreds at Rotary pancake breakfast, and honored his own dad's commitment to the Boy Scouts by living his rank of Eagle Scout with every action each day. Retired as a Realtor, in recent years he was handyman to all, Mr. Fix-It, the guy who brought four pumps to our flooded basement, and dug us out of blizzards.
Last Monday, Beth called and called but he didn't come in for dinner. She maneuvered herself with difficulty to the door and found his body. Past 8 p.m., he was still working on roof trusses on his home office when he apparently fell to his death and died instantly.
The Rotarians were in the church basement putting the final touches on the post-memorial service lasagna lunch for 200-plus worshipers, and folks in business suits, coveralls, cowboy hats, Neiman-Marcus finery, Carhartt vests, and Boy Scouts in shorts with filled merit badge sashes reviewed their own personal Bruce Kelly stories in their mind, when Pastor Trott decided to abridge a life worth telling into one definitive story.
It went something like this: Kelly's job in Vietnam was as a chopper pilot assigned to transporting supplies to the front and beyond. To remote landing zones, or to outposts where troops got hung up in ambushes or stymied operations.
In this job he had clear orders: At any time you can be tapped for emergency search, rescue, medical or other acuations, or combat support even though that might not be your crew's primary mission.
At any time, since he was the absolute captain of that chopper and absolute command at the moment something called for extraordinary action, he was told in advance he could dump all or part of his cargo to lighten the aircraft in order to transport troops in need. Men over crates. Lives over boxes. Period.
As if in a scene of comic relief from any number of war movies, one day he was transporting crates of special-ordered steaks, cases of beer, and bottles of Jack Daniels and other personal favorites of a new general officer reassigned to Vietnam.
As he was hauling the General's private stash, he spotted a squad trying to elude an overpowering force of enemy attackers far below. He watched as the soldiers headed for a clearing. Kelly changed course and swooped down and motioned the men to jump in - fast.
Safely on board, he remarked years later to Beth, the troops were exhausted beyond belief. They had fought long and hard, and perhaps thought it was the Lord himself who had sent Kelly's chopper overhead for a chance and impromptu evacuation.
Now, a personal note. Not only did Bruce have a passion for cooking for friends, clubs, and organizations, but he often carried a full grill with propane tanks and utensils in his packed and beat-up van so he could be a one-man rolling kitchen when needed.
Back to the preacher's Vietnam story: Perhaps most men in Bruce's shoes, or cockpit would have quickly taken the soldiers to their garrison or base. Not Bruce's style. Sorry.
A couple of dozen clicks further along the road he set the helicopter down in a clearing. His crew and the rescued soldiers must have been astounded when he jumped out and started gathering wood. Lots of wood.
An afternoon, and an unreported tale of some unknown location in the Republic of South Vietnam.
It was there that a squad of GI's dined on aged steaks washed down with liquid refreshment.
As the preacher told it: "When Bruce returned to his base and was asked where the General's items where he responded: 'I dumped it. We ran into "a situation" and I did what I had to do.'"
At that moment, we all loved Bruce more than ever. Stay safe, my friend.