VVH staff, residents pull together to help family trapped in flood
by The Press and Standard | September 27, 2018 5:00 am
Last Updated: September 26, 2018 at 9:14 am
By MATT MARDELL
This past Thursday was not unlike many of those this summer, filled with work, blue skies and raging humidity. At least for most.
One of the Veterans Victory House’s most loved residents, Major James O’Kelley, departed on his final journey into eternal rest. O’Kelley’s 83-year life was one dedicated to service as a “Triple Tab:” serving his country for 28 years, 60 years with his wife Joyce and numerous years in the Salvation Army. His time had come to be served by others in this great community, many of whom did not even know him.
In the early hours of Wednesday Sept. 19th, O’Kelley passed away quietly and under the cover of darkness — perhaps a nod to his days as a Green Beret in Special Ops. At daybreak his wife Joyce and his dearest friend of many years, Bette Bryson, received the call: “For four-and-a-half years, Nurse Wendy Kizer would call us and keep us informed. We don’t know what we would have done without her.”
Surrounded by the ever-rising floodwaters of the Waccamaw River left in the wake of Hurricane Florence, the two were struck by the sudden realization that they and O’Kelley’s son Patrick (also a Special Forces veteran), wife and three beloved granddaughters were stranded by the same storm. They would miss the powerful “Farewell Ceremony” that every veteran receives on their departure from the Victory House. Every veteran receives the dignified, yet celebratory, farewell — leaving through the front door, draped in the nation’s flag followed by family, friends and the staff who have cared for them while residents and staff line the hallways and hold American flags. It is a powerful, moving ceremony and one that was important to Major O’Kelley and his family.
The staff realized this predicament. “What happened next was extremely important as it allowed us all to participate,” exclaimed Bette. Holly Mardell, the director of pharmacy, kept in close contact with Joyce and Bette, relaying the preparations that were being made and how they were not going to miss this powerful, final moment. Staff members and Patriot Hospice began coordinating friends and contacts in order to see that Major James O’Kelley received the farewell he so rightfully deserved. Herndon’s funeral home took care of preparing O’Kelley and his procession from the Victory House to the funeral home.
Kay Lewis, an employee and motorcycle enthusiast, tearfully remarked, “It just hit my heart, nobody needs to be alone at this time.” She pulled together some fellow Patriot Guard Riders, headed by Harold Murray of Johns Island, and bolstered by 11 local volunteer riders to form the escort. Marching at the front and rear of Major O’Kelley’s flag-draped coffin, they stopped only briefly to salute while an emotional “Last Post” bugle call was made.
The corridors were lined with dozens of residents who turned out to pay their respects, with about as many staff in attendance. It’s at this point, and only for this moment, that you will witness many of these veterans, some wheelchair bound, rise to their feet, remove their hat and salute as strongly as they did on their first day in service.
The procession was then followed by O’Kelley’s closest caretakers and Mr. Eckert, his close friend and roommate of four years, while the remaining staff and residents sung a powerful rendition of “Amazing Grace” as he passed by them one final time.
Major O’Kelley was transferred to the hearse, his large escort of 14 motorcycles led by off-duty Cottageville Police Officer Frankie Thompson, who graciously volunteered to start his shift early and organized Walterboro Police Department support for the short ride to the funeral home.
Thanks to our small community — from an off-duty police officer and a local funeral home, to a handful of local motorcycle enthusiasts and the Patriot Guard Riders— Jim O’Kelley got the send off he rightfully deserved for his sacrifice, and his family will be able to relive the moment through video and photographs taken by multiple staff members.
As Joyce paid tribute: “To all those staff of the Veterans Victory House and Patriot Hospice, you made the quality of life for Jim these past four-and-a-half years, very special. God Bless You.”
Four years ago, Major James O’Kelley had told me sternly, “World War II was the last time this country was together, as one.” Maybe he is right about that, but on this day a small group in our community proved him wrong and set a fine example to us all in the process.
Rest In Peace, Major James O’Kelley, U.S. Army.
The following story was published in The Press and Standard in October 2014
Few things can be more intimidating than meeting a Special Forces veteran. Jim O’Kelley was a paratrooper and then an Army Ranger as the precursor to getting his Green Beret. But when you see the honors proudly hung on his Victory House wall with the gold oak leaf at the top, you know you are in the presence of someone special, a major. The bar is raised to an astronomical level.
O’Kelley, grew up in Asheville, N.C. A mountain man, “a proud Southerner and a patriot,” it’s no surprise he ended up in service. He accurately recalled the date he signed up for the paratroopers as June 20, 1950. Astonishingly, he was just 15 years old. I asked him, “What drives a 15-year-old kid to do such a thing with the Korean War happening and unrest along the Iron Curtain in post-war Germany?” He replied, “I was too late to be a cowboy, and I watched too many World War II movies.” The movies of the time portrayed a great victory and togetherness that he wanted to be a part of. Both romantic images became jaded in his two tours of Vietnam.
“I spent my first six years in Germany at the Iron Curtain on high alert because the Russians were becoming unpredictable. Had something happened, my first mission would be to jump into Hungary, behind enemy lines, and coax and teach local rebels to fight the enemy with us.”
O’Kelley’s view of the Austrian Alps from his quarters reminded him of home. “You can take the boy out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the boy” he exclaimed.
When his tour of Vietnam came round, he placed more emphasis on that point. “It was not like home or Germany for that matter. The jungle was a terrible place — it was hot and wet. Our big issue was trying to keep our feet dry. You could have the strength and skill to fight a war, but that wouldn’t matter if your feet couldn’t carry you.”
In 1969, O’Kelley was hit by shrapnel from a Vietnamese grenade. He received a Purple Heart. Without considering the steely resolve of the man I asked, “So you were obviously medivaced? How long were you out of action?” O’Kelley quickly corrected me, “I ordered my medic to pull out the shrapnel and repair me on the spot. I ordered no medivac.”
With a Purple Heart, two Bronze Stars and some 65 parachute jumps completed, O’Kelley returned home. His return to the public realm was one of discomfort after Vietnam, and he battled his resentment of the general public. “What people forgot was that I signed up to serve my country. I’m a patriot. I didn’t choose where I went or what I did. That was engrained as a Green Beret, but I will say this — World War II was the last time this country was together, as one.”
After 28 years of service, O’Kelley retired honorably with the rank of major. He became an ordained minister in the Salvation Army and reflected on his seven years with them with a relaxed smile. His sons both followed in service, one as a Marine, the other as a “Triple-Tab” like his father. To add to his pride, O’Kelley had the honor of baptizing his own grandchildren.
O’Kelley holds the staff at the Victory House in high regard and enjoys time on the porch with a cigar on occasions. “I love a cigar. I never smoked cigarettes, but when they were rationed to us in war time, I used mine to trade off.”
I readied to leave when Jim decided to deliver his most poignant statement: “Veteran’s Day shouldn’t be just one day. We should be thankful to those who served every day.”
It’s not because he’s a Green Beret that I’ll say he is right, but he is.