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Carrying Her Own Weight

Third-generation soldier glad to be home from Iraq

Navajo Times, News Feature, Marley Shebala Posted: Jan 14, 2009

T he Purple Heart, Silver Star, Bronze Star and other military medals that Vietnam veteran Andrew Kelly Jr. of Tuba City wore are proof that Kelly knows what war means.

And it was that knowledge that sparked his anger and fear when his daughter Sarah came to him five years ago and told him that she had enlisted in the Army.

Sarah was 19 and a year out of high school when she enlisted on March 3, 2004.

"I didn't like it," recalled Kelly, an Army veteran. "I was very upset with her for not letting me know that she was signing up. I knew no one is given a safe trip home. We lost a dear woman, Lori, and I didn't want Sarah to be another Lori."

Andrew was referring to Army Pfc. Lori Piestewa of Tuba City, who at age 23 had died during the 2003 invasion of Baghdad, becoming the first Native American woman to die in combat for the U.S. government.

The heavy frown on his face suddenly softened as he sighed and added, "But, I had to live with it."

Praying for her safety as Sgt. Sarah Kelly served two tours in Iraq got him through each day, he said.

But Sarah's stepmother, Vanessa Brown-Kelly, says otherwise: "It took a toll on her father. He had many prayers for her to return home. And a lot of times we had ceremonies too."

She noted that the ceremonies always included prayers for everyone in Iraq.

On Sunday, Brown-Kelly smiled as she looked inside the Tuba City Community Center, where men were sitting around a large drum loudly singing gourd dance songs as part of Sarah's welcome-home celebration.

"It's so comforting to know she's home now," Brown-Kelly said of Sarah, who completed her deployment and returned to Fort Bragg, N.C., in October.

On Dec. 25, she returned home to Tuba City and became her father's Christmas gift.

Sarah laughed as she remembered their reunion and said military duty kept her from spending Christmas with her family for the previous two years.

But now she's home and waiting for her official discharge later this month.

On Jan. 25, she'll start her nursing education at the Community College of Denver, where she plans to spend a year and then transfer to the University of Colorado.

Sarah said she enlisted in the Army because of family tradition. Her father served in Vietnam, her grandfather, Andrew Kelly Sr., served in World War II and was a prisoner of war, and her great-grandfather, Charles Kelly, served in World War I.

She recalled her first tour in Iraq as a private first class specialist and supply driver/gunner. She brushed over her 12-month assignment and the times that she and her unit were fired on.

Sarah, who is 5-foot-3 and weighs 135 pounds, noted, "We took hits but due to the armor (on the military transport trucks) there were no casualties."

Before her second deployment, she went through a series of drills that earned her the rank of sergeant. Among the skills she had to demonstrate was the ability to carry her own weight in gear.

Then she returned to Iraq for a second tour, which was for 15 months, and led a gun crew of three soldiers, all male and all bigger than her.

"I had to carry my own weight and the weight of my solders," Sarah said of her training. "They teach equal opportunity but it's still more of a struggle for women. Women have to work harder. Men are naturally born stronger than women and seen as leaders.

"But women can be just as strong, if not stronger and become leaders," she said. "My dad raised me to be strong and independent."

Sarah said her team respected and trusted her because she did everything that she expected of them, including manning the gun for 13 to 14 hours at a stretch.

They were the target of both improvised explosive devices and EFPs, or explosively formed projectiles, she said.

According to CNN, the EFP is a new type of roadside bomb that, unlike an IED, can be focused on a target. It can penetrate four inches of armor from 300 feet.

Sarah said she and her team ran security missions, all at night, from out of Kuwait Naval Base to areas all over Iraq. They slept during the day, when temperatures soared between 125 degrees and 135 degrees.

"I'm enjoying the cold weather," she said, looking through the doors of the community center where a cold winter shower blanketed the area.

It's not easy trying to sleep on cots in a tent during the day in Iraq, she said.

As part of Sgt. Sarah Kelly's welcome home celebration, motorcycle riders from across the Navajo and Hopi reservations escorted her from Cameron, Ariz., to Tuba City, where a gourd dance and a feast were held in her honor.

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