A Lifelong Dream of Flight: Vincent J. Kelly

 

A Lifelong Dream of Flight

by Patricia Kelly

VINCENT J. KELLY died as a result of his service in Vietnam in 1970 and was honored through VVMF’s In Memory Program in 2006. Heis remembered through the In Memory Honor Roll, which pays tribute to those who died as a result of the Vietnam War, but who do not meet Department of Defense criteria to have their names added to The Wall.

 

Vincent J. Kelly was born Sept. 30, 1937 in Buffalo, N.Y., to Leo and Estella (Graff) Kelly. He was the second of six children.

During his youth, his dream was to become a pilot, so his father would take him to watch planes flying in and out of the Buffalo Airport. Vince graduated from high school and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in June 1955, where he became a jet aircraft mechanic. When he was discharged in 1959, he applied for and was accepted into the cadet pilot training program at Reese Air Force Base in Texas.

Vince and I met at a wedding in Phoenix, Ariz., when one of his classmates married a friend of mine. Our courtship was long distance, as Vince was now stationed at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, and I lived in Phoenix. We married in August 1963 during his leave between Cannon and his new assignment to the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, England.

At first, his principal duty was as an alert officer. But in March 1964, he was assigned to the 493rd Squadron, and oh, was he happy! He could be a fighter pilot. He reveled in this job, as it was fulfilling his lifelong dream. He just wanted to fly, fly, fly! He was always happy when the squadron went to Wheelus (Libya), Aviano (Italy), Madrid (Spain) or anywhere that the good weather meant more flying.

I think his one unhappiness was that he didn’t own a sports car anymore. He had sold his beloved 1963 Corvette Stingray before leaving the United States. Maybe that was a good thing, because he’d probably drive it like he flew his F-100. As it was, he drove our little Volkswagen Bug almost like a sports car.

Our life in England was good. We met many wonderful English people and took occasional trips to London and a tour to Ireland.  In June 1966, when Vince had a temporary assignment as a forward air controller for the Army, we drove through Belgium and around Germany. Our daughters were born during that time, too, in 1964 and 1966.

The Vietnam conflict was heating up, and in March 1967, Vince was assigned as a fighter pilot to Phan Rang Air Force Base and to the 614th Tactical Fighter Squadron, “B” Flight.  I think Vince’s tour in Vietnam, which lasted from March 1967 to March 1968, must have been exhilarating for him. He earned the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with oak leaf clusters. He flew an F-100 Super Sabre jet in 340 combat missions, totaling 526 combat hours. All of this flying couldn’t help but fulfill his boyhood dream.

Stateside, Vince was an instructor pilot at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. As he was adjusting to this new job, he started feeling ill and was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer originating in the white blood cells that spreads through the lymph nodes. His condition was treated with chemotherapy, but as it progressed, he needed continuous chemotherapy and close medical follow-up. He retired in March 1969 because of what was considered a service-connected disability. After being in the U.S. Air Force for 12 years and flying over 2,000 hours, he was now given a new military classification: 4-F. He was crushed.

Vince fought the cancer valiantly, but on March 12, 1970, the Hodgkin’s disease won. Capt. Vincent Kelly passed away while in the Veterans Hospital in Phoenix, Ariz. He left behind his wife and two daughters, loving parents, siblings and many close relatives and friends.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that I heard about Agent Orange and the health ramifications it had for Vietnam veterans. After submitting his medical records in 1994, I received notification that his Hodgkin’s disease and subsequent death were attributed to Agent Orange exposure.

 

PATRICIA C. KELLY lives in Phoenix, Ariz.