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In Memoriam Kevin W. Kelly, 1944-2006

June 29, 2006

Kevin Kelly did a lot of things to take pride in—New York City basketball star, Columbia University grad, Army officer awarded two Silver Stars for heroism in combat lionized by the New York Daily News, MBA from Dartmouth, business entrepreneur in his adopted city of Memphis, a 34-year partnership with his wife, Susan. One of the things he was most proud of, as stated in his obituary, was being a founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

One of Kevin’s disappointments—besides dying at age 62, on June 15—was not being included in a Wall Street Journal profile of VVAW during John Kerry’s campaign for president two years ago. In an email to the Journal’s reporter, Kevin noted that as a VVAW national coordinator in 1969-70 he recruited Kerry to join the vets’ group. Kevin then crafted a business career, he added, that included serving as president of two companies affiliated with the founder of Holiday Inn and as president of The Pentad Group, “my own group of companies primarily involved in low and moderate income multi-family housing and hospitality.”

Kevin noted that he was still active in civic affairs as a national board member and treasurer of United Cerebral Palsy. Characteristically, he did not mention he was sitting in a wheelchair as he typed that email, slowly dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease, which he felt was caused by Agent Orange chemicals used in areas of Vietnam he fought in.

Kevin’s point about the mainstream roots of VVAW was lost on the Wall Street Journal, which skewered the profile to paint John Kerry as flirting with a fringe group of militant radicals. Kevin wanted recognition for the moderate, college-educated former military officers, sergeants and enlisted men he proudly organized before the antiwar group splintered into a dizzying array of factions. He noted that he was not unique, that many VVAW activists forged successful business and civic careers.

A profile that did justice to Kevin’s life and views appeared in The Commercial Appeal in Memphis two summers ago. “In all of his pursuits, whether in business, charitable work or politics, his passion for credibility and leadership is at the forefront, those who know him say,” the article stated. The title of that profile: “Through Struggles and Victories, Kevin Kelly’s Passions Keep Him on Life’s Front Lines.”

On his transformation from model soldier to war protest organizer, Kevin said: “That war was a revolution and we were supporting a dictator. Fifty-five thousand people died for political purposes,” he said of GI losses by 1969. “They were political fodder, and that didn’t seem right to me.”

Returning from Vietnam as a highly decorated first lieutenant, Kevin jumped into working for peace full bore, applying his skills to reorganizing and expanding VVAW, which had fizzled in disgust with American politics after Chicago police during the 1968 Democratic Convention assaulted peace demonstrators, including Vietnam vets in suits and ties who tried to speak to delegates selecting a candidate for president. His energy and dedication revived me from a burnt out state of withdrawal from civic life.

When the revived VVAW turned to issues besides pressing to bring our troops home ASAP, Kevin took his energies elsewhere. That included supporting, as a Republican, John Kerry’s Democratic forays into congressional campaigns. As he forged a business career, Kevin also worked on behalf of a wide array of civic causes.

When the war in Iraq heated up, Kevin sent an op-ed essay to The Commercial Appeal, published May 30, 2004, in the form of a Vietnam vet’s advice to his son, Christopher, about military service in such circumstances.

“I would tell my son that U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war and the Iraq war both began with untruths - about attacks on U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003 - and that neither conflict was justified, regardless of how much we disapprove of Saddam Hussein. I would tell him that we cannot impose our policies and what amounts to pseudo-democracy on another nation without losing our credibility as the world's leader, no matter how much financial gain from oil or other resources is involved.”

And then he switched from a veteran fuming about war to a downtown businessman talking the language of Main Street:

“I would tell my son how sorry I am that his children and grandchildren will be burdened by the debts of this war. One of the first things I learned in an economics class is that you can't have it both ways - guns and butter don't work. I wonder how much support this war would have if it were ‘pay as you go.’ "

Kevin Kelly fought for real peace and a better world right up to the end.

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