“I crashed, twice.” That’s Brett Kelley telling me the interesting story of how he flat-lined after an infection attacked his heart a few years ago. Brett Kelley was dead for all intents and purposes, but that wasn’t about to stop him.
He had worked too hard and accomplished too much of his dream to let something like a straight line on a heart monitor stop him. He had graduated from St. Thomas Academy; he’d graduated from the New Mexico Military Institute Summa Cum Laude, then graduated from Colgate and finished with a 3.22 GPA. Then he would enlist in the United States Army and finish both the Army’s vaunted Ranger and Airborne schools. After 10 years in uniform, in Afghanistan and at Fort Carson, Colo., Capt. Brett Kelley has decided to try something else.
Last week he started classes at the University of St. Thomas Law School. He wants to be a lawyer like his father.
“The old man never came out and said he wanted me to be a lawyer,” says Brett. “In fact, he never came out and said he wanted me to be an airborne ranger.”
The old man didn’t have to say anything at all. His father is Doug Kelley, former Assistant U.S. Attorney, prosecutor of mob figures, current court-appointed trustee in the Tom Petters case, and one of the foremost lawyers in Minnesota. His father is also a former Green Beret officer. Army Ranger blood flows in Kelleys young and old.
Brett knew soldiering was a legacy. Going back as far as the records allow, his ancestors have been soldiers. Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam. Brett’s grandfather was in the Marines, the Air Force, and the Army.
“Dad never looked at me and said, ‘You should join the service.’ It was just so clear to me that he was so proud of serving that I knew when I was a sophomore at Bloomington Jefferson that I would be a soldier. And, I wanted to be an officer. I wanted to lead.”
Back to the flat-line. Brett’s dad remembers the day well. He was at a lake cabin in northern Minnesota when the phone rang. Doug Kelley answered the phone. The call was from the commanding officer of Brett’s training unit at Ft. Sill, Okla.
“Sir,” he said to Doug, “Brett is very sick."
Doug was given the number of a doctor at the base and within minutes he was talking to a doctor in the intensive care unit. The doctor said, “You should come right away.”
Then Doug heard something in the background. An insistent, high-pitched tone. Doug said, “Is that what I think it is?” Doug heard loud voices and the sound of chaos and the phone went dead.
Doug thought, “Had I just witnessed the death of my son, live, by telephone?” What followed was what Doug Kelley called "the longest 15 minutes in my life.”
It took a quarter of an hour for the doctor to call Doug back. “Yes, Mr. Kelley. That is what you thought it was. We started compressions immediately. His heart is beating again. It was stopped for less than a minute. Please come as soon as you can.”
Brett’s heart would stop again before his dad and mom and sister Erin could get to Ft. Sill. Brett was in a drug-induced coma. Brett’s chances were slim and Doug admits he began thinking of a eulogy. "Then," says Doug, "I realized it was Father's Day. I just couldn’t believe God would take my son on Father’s Day.”
They seldom left his bedside, and when Brett was strong enough, and the antibiotics had done their miracle work, he was moved to a regular hospital room. Doug slept in a chair next to the bed. Doug remembers a pulmonary therapist coming into the room and saying, “You the solider they brought in from Fort Sill?” Brett nodded. “Congratulations,” said the therapist. “We all thought you were toast.”
Brett was put on nine months of convalescence. Military officials told him that he could easily get an honorable medical discharge. He laughed at them. Brett had things to do. Once he was well, Brett graduated both Ranger and Airborne schools and was deployed to Afghanistan between Kandahar and the Helmand Province, one of the most dangerous parts of the war zone. He would lead a rifle platoon. He did it with distinction. I have a copy of a letter of recommendation from his last commanding officer. It is typed, but at the bottom of the letter in the commander’s handwriting is this notation: “Absolutely the best.”
Last night I asked Brett what qualities his service career would best serve him in the civilian world. He said, “We are trained to solve problems. Big problems.”
Now, he’s enlisted in the cause of justice. “Law school is supposed to be a scary place,” Brett says. Then he adds, without a hint of conceit or irony, “I’m not afraid.”
I shouldn’t wonder.
Don Shelby is a veteran Twin Cities journalist and a radio newscaster for BringMeTheNews. He worked for 32 years as anchor, investigative reporter and environmental correspondent for WCCO-TV, and for 10 years as a radio personality for WCCO-AM. He has won numerous professional awards, including two George Foster Peabody awards.