JACKSONVILLE — After 26 years, Jacksonville resident Rodney Kelley will officially hang up his gear at the end of the year as a naval reservist.
Kelley returned home last weekend after a year-long deployment to Afghanistan, working as a Navy corpsman (a health professional) with ISAF, the International Security Assistance Forces, helping to run the Role One Medical Clinic.
“Each year, we had about 2,000 NATO and U.S. Forces that we treated,” said Kelley, a senior chief officer.
He enlisted in the reserves in 1987, inspired by friends who were reservists.
It was, he said, a case of “'join the Navy, see the world,' and well, I did,” he laughed. “I was proud to serve, proud to do my job.”
Several years after enlistment, he married Deborah, a college professor who now teaches at Tyler Junior College.
In the beginning, it didn't faze her that her husband would be deployed away from home.
“She was like, 'Oh, you only do two weeks reserves,'” he recalled, adding that he served in Operation Desert Storm, but that was in 1991, “before we met.
“So who would have thought” his last two deployments would be to the Middle East, Kelley asked.
“When I started, a few years (went by) and nothing happened, then I got called up for to go to Iraq with the Marines – I was there almost a year, then came back.
“I was going to retire last July, when they sent me these orders. And it was like” – he made a confused face before adding, “you know, I've never not done my (duty), so I went to Afghanistan, doing medical support.”
In his civilian life, Kelley was a licensed vocational nurse who had worked at Rusk State Hospital and in Jacksonville as a paramedic and firefighter, then became the local fire chief.
In 2008, he went to work for the State of Texas as a fire consultant.
All the while, his commitment as a military reservist entailed “one weekend a month, or two weeks a year,” he said.
His final assignment came as a total surprise, Kelley admitted.
“I'll never forget – we were sitting at home and the phone rang … and (the caller from his drill center in Waco) said, 'You're on the mobe-list. You've been recalled.' I asked where, and he said, 'I don't know. We just have to notify you and send a message that you've been notified.' When? 'We don't know,'” he recalled being told. “So you can imagine how my wife felt.'
“I'm 60 years old … she was telling me I was too old to go to Iraq, so you can imagine (the response) almost 10 years later I was sent to Afghanistan,” he said.
The Navy gave him six months to wrap up things at home before he was deployed Nov. 20 of last year. Kelley was able to come home on leave in July, in time to celebrate their son's and daughter's birthdays, along with his own before returning to the Middle East.
The hardest part of being away – aside from being apart from his beloved family – has been dealing with the impact of time.
“They say that time never stops, but it's time that you lose when you get back” from deployment,” he observed. “So what happens is when you start thinking about things, and saying, 'Do you remember last summer, when we …' and (get told), 'you weren't here last summer' – and you realize that it was the year before. It's like a time lapse.”
Then there's the coming home to the changes that are permanent … like losing friends.
“People like Tim Smith, who I've known forever,” along with several others, Kelley said sadly.
All things considered, it's been a career choice he is happy with.
“It's been a good career, and I've met a lot of people,” he said. “I get a lot of 'thank you for your service' if someone knows about that.”
The future is wide open for Kelley, who will officially be retired by the end of the year and is kicking around the idea of using the educational benefits from his GI Bill.