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Home : News : State Partnership Program
NEWS | March 8, 2024

Army Flight School Grad Follows in Father’s Footsteps

By Kelly Morris, U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence

FORT NOVOSEL, Ala. – When Warrant Officer Paul D. Kelly walked across the stage and graduated flight school Feb. 8, his silver wings were not the only thing he took away with him.

Also in his tool kit is a sense of connection he found among those who knew and flew with his late father, Col. Paul M. Kelly, a senior Army aviator who served at the National Guard Bureau and Department of the Army Staff levels who was killed in action when the warrant officer was only 9 years old.

At Fort Novosel, WO1 Kelly would notice things like a license plate on a vehicle in the parking lot one day outside a simulator complex.

It was the call sign of the aircraft that his father was a passenger on when it was shot down near Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 20, 2007.

“I saw him drive off. I was like, there’s no way,” he said.

Turns out, the vehicle’s owner not only had crewed an aircraft that was part of the multiship operation that fateful day his father was killed in action in Iraq but also was now one of his instructors.

Other times, he would hear someone talking about a mission and realize, “That’s my dad they’re talking about.”

Back in 2007, his father served as the chief, Reserve Component Division, Multi-National Corps-Iraq, supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was the highest-ranking National Guard member at the time to be killed in a combat theater during the war on terrorism in what was described as one of the deadliest weekends for U.S. forces engaged in OIF.

WO1 Kelly remembers his father as his soccer and football coach. They would hang out at home, do pushups during commercials when they watched television, and go to church every Sunday.

He even has that final memory swiveling in a chair as a child during what turned out to be the last video call his family had with his dad two weeks before he died.

“A big part of my life was him being a pilot,” Kelly said. “Going in to his work and seeing everybody and everything was huge for me.”

His father was a model of selflessness and caring.

“He was always there for all of us. Even talking to his peers and his Soldiers after he died, they always said how good of a mentor and professional, how good of a leader he was. So I definitely aspire to be that way moving forward as an aviator and as a man,” he said.

The military aviation gene in the Kelly family traces back a generation to his grandfather, retired Maj. John Kelly, an Air Force fighter pilot. WO1 Kelly knew from a young age that he wanted to pursue aviation.

“I remember being a little kid running around the hangar, climbing all over the Black Hawk helicopter. I even remember one time at school he flew a couple Hueys and a Black Hawk, I believe, to our school and landed on the soccer field and put on a static display for us and everything. That was really cool,” he said.

Though he intended to become an aviator, he didn’t always believe he was good enough.

“Being a pilot is something I’ve always wanted to do. I got lost a little bit on the way, but thankfully I had a pretty good support system pushing me towards it, really believing in me to get me to where I am now. Dad’s friends and family kind of helped me stay on the path to my goal to ultimately become a pilot. Thank God for them,” he said.

After enlisting in the National Guard as an infantryman and focusing on his college education, he reclassed as a Black Hawk helicopter mechanic. A deployment to Kosovo in 2021 in support of NATO opened his eyes to “how Army Aviation works,” he said.

“I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to become a crew chief while I was over there. That’s when I really fell in love with flying and decided I really wanted to do this the rest of my life,” he said.

He returned to the United States and started Warrant Officer Candidate School at Fort Novosel. He trained in the UH-72 Lakota and then the UH-60 Black Hawk — the same airframe his father flew.

When asked if there were moments during flight school when he especially wished he could talk to his late father, he said, “Every day.”

One moment of flight school he especially wished he could share with his dad was his solo flight in the Lakota helicopter.

“The solo was a huge confidence boost, knowing I’m capable of doing this, and all the training we’ve been doing up to this point is actually paying off,” he said. “It was probably my favorite memory of flight school.”

Kelly said he is grateful for the support of his family, fiance, and mentors, including his father’s friends, who helped guide him into aviation.

At the pinning ceremony Feb. 8, he was flanked by his mother, Maria, a former U.S. Air Force captain, beaming with pride and holding a small photo of Col. Kelly that she takes wherever she goes.

“It’s an unforgettable moment in my life,” Maria said. “(With) what happened to my husband 17 years ago … and here we are, we get to connect with all his friends, people who were there with him when he died. … It’s such a beautiful thing. It’s very emotional. I’m very, very proud,” Maria said.

Also by Kelly’s side was his younger brother, 2nd Lt. John J. Kelly, a newly commissioned active-duty ordnance officer headed to the Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Gregg-Adams, Virginia.

“I’m very proud of him,” 2nd Lt. Kelly said. “It’s surreal seeing my brother getting his wings like my dad did many years ago.”

Retired Lt. Col. David Cooper said he served with WO1 Kelly’s father in multiple assignments, including as his operations chief and his executive officer. When he was a major he was part of the “hero mission” on Jan. 20, 2007, when the remains were transported from the battlefield for mortuary support.

“Over the course of six years he was not only a boss and great mentor, but also a good friend. I knew both his boys from grade school age and, of course, have watched them grow,” Cooper said. “Their daddy was truly a hero.”

He commended the family’s resilience.

“(Col. Kelly’s) bride has been a source of inspiration to me and many of my peers, and also thousands of Gold Star families. Maria is really active with many veterans support organizations and her energy and continued love of her husband is a very special thing. To see her holding his picture today at (WO1 Kelly’s) pinning is something I’ll never forget,” Cooper said.

Joe Roughneen, a Department of the Army UH-60 instructor who served with WO1 Kelly’s father, recalled the difference his leadership made when a deployment order came down and they scrambled to prepare to deploy an entire battalion to Iraq instead of an expected three-ship deployment to Kosovo.

“We had no reason to be as good as we were,” Roughneen said. “If it hadn’t been for men like him —because he was so smart, so dedicated and so hardworking that just by force of will, he made it happen.”

Retired Col. Brett Criqui, former deputy assistant commandant – Army National Guard, said Col. Kelly was an officer he strove to emulate.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him and the impact he had on my life and those that were honored to have served alongside him,” Criqui said. “To see his two boys continue on is just incredible.”

WO1 Kelly said it hasn’t always been easy to understand his father’s absence, but he has a new perspective after becoming an Army aviator.

“Once he died, for a while it was, why me, why did you have to go do that, why did you need to deploy? Now, being here, I understand why he did everything he did, absolutely,” he said. “It has definitely helped, now knowing how much goes into this job, understanding why he always had to be away from home, why he was on that deployment.”

He now understands a sticker on his father’s truck that read: I’D RATHER BE FLYING. Back then, WO1 Kelly thought that was funny.

“Now I get it,” he said.

As WO1 Kelly heads off to 2d Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, a unit his father commanded, his goal is to serve his country full time, like his dad did.