COMBAT OUTPOST KOSHTAY, Helmand province, Afghanistan --
The call, echoing from one HESCO barrier to the next, is answered instantly by the ‘crunch, crunch’ cadence of a Marine jogging toward his senior. Short muffled bits of conversation escape between boxes of military rations, and the senior walks away, his heavy chevrons drawn by the gravity of another task.
Cpl. Michael Kelley glances at the sea of rations baking in the plus-100-degree sun, walks away and returns with several more Marines. He smiles congenially to the group – says, “It’s not so bad” -- and spends the rest of the day as the foreman of the impromptu working party, moving boxes out of the sun and into the shade.
Such is deployed life for Kelley. The walls echo his name every day, and every time, he answers with a smile and ‘can do’ attitude.
Kelley, a native of Philadelphia, could be called the oil that keeps Koshtay’s parts moving. As the police sergeant for Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, he is responsible for supplying the company infantryman and taking care of miscellaneous tasks around the combat outpost. Whatever the task, Kelley never quits.
“Koshtay is like the grand central station of all the supplies for Bravo Company,” Kelley said. “We receive all the supplies and send them out to the patrol bases.”
Kelley doesn’t patrol or stand post. He rarely puts on his kevlar, but his importance isn’t measured by what he does ‘outside the wire.’ He has the vital responsibility of equipping the patrolling Marine, who’s clad in body armor and ambles along the arid Helmand landscape, rifle in hand. Kelly ensures that food, water, bullets, uniforms and mail -- the essentials to stay in the fight – make it to that Marine.
It’s not as if Kelley hasn’t already proven himself in combat. In fact, he served as a point man during 1/3’s previous deployment.
Since then, he has been promoted to corporal and progressed in his career. Now, he is experiencing the logistical side of deployment, which he believes will make him a more complete Marine.
“I really think having this billet is going to help me out in my career, because it lets me see the other side of the Marine Corps most infantry Marines don’t get to see,” said Kelley.
While supplying front-line Marines with the essentials they need to stay in the fight, Kelley supplies Koshtay Marines with the motivation they need to continue their hard work. He interacts with everyone assigned to Koshtay and those who come to drop off provisions, infecting all with his contagious smile and enthusiasm.
“Getting fellow Marines to smile helps them do their job because it helps them feel good about what they are doing,” Kelley said. “I try hard and I try my best, and while I am doing that, I try to make people feel good because they should feel good. We’re working all the time, and Marines should feel good about what we are doing in Afghanistan.”
No matter what, Kelley’s charismatic smile never stops gleaming, spreading to other Marines faster than anxious rumors of the battalion commander’s next visit.
Kelley’s belief in working with a smile doesn’t come from giddiness; he knows a good attitude goes a long way toward leading his Marines.
And lead he must. As a corporal, he holds the first non-commissioned officer rank and is expected to take charge of those with lesser rank. Everyone watches him to see how he will handle this responsibility. Seniors scrutinize his effectiveness as a supervisor, and juniors pay attention to the example he sets.
“A lot of my friends who are lance corporals look at me differently, and all the staff non-commissioned officers look at me differently, because both of them expect more out of me since I am a corporal,” Kelley said. “I just have to raise the bar for myself above all the expectations people have of me, because it’s my responsibility as a non-commissioned officer to achieve the best I can.”
The rank of corporal makes Kelley a middleman between senior NCOs and the beehive of lance corporals and privates first class at Koshtay. He relays the mission to the junior Marines and lets his supervisors know how the Marines are doing. In the process, elicits ear-to-ear smiles from both.
“I keep both sides of the spectrum informed,” Kelley said. “I let the staff non-commissioned officers know how the privates, Pfcs., and lance corporals are doing and, at the same time, I make sure what the SNCO’s expect of the junior Marines is being accomplished.”
“It’s not always easy; you just have to find a medium and get the job done,” Kelley added.
The lines of Kelley’s well-worn smile crease when he proudly reflects on his work. His irrepressible enthusiasm – his greatest leadership asset -- spreads to lance corporals hauling trash during 4-hour working parties.
Kelley’s fastidious attitude toward work wasn’t born in the Marine Corps. The 32-year-old joined the Navy in 2003 and served as a boatswains mate. While chipping paint and mopping the deck aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, he learned that maintaining a positive perspective, regardless of the circumstances, goes a long way.
Kelley left the Navy in 2007, worked for a year outside of the military with his brother in Philadelphia, and came back in as a Marine in 2008.
‘Why the military?’ is a no-brainer for Kelley. Motivated by a sense of patriotism, he plans to stay in for 20 or more years.
“The lifestyle of the military, in general, is a good lifestyle,” Kelley said. “It teaches you a lot about life. You come into the military by yourself, not knowing anyone and that is when you find out who you are. Then, you start to build upon who you are, and the military is a great place to be able to do that because the opportunities offered to you are endless in the military.”
An eligible bachelor, Kelley has his mother and married brother keeping tabs on him back home. Now that he’s been ‘out of the nest’ for a while, he pines for home less than before. Though he misses his family, he’s comforted by the knowledge that they think of him just as much. He knows that even though they aren’t in Afghanistan, they work just as hard at their professions, with the trademark ‘Kelley Smile.’
“I know my family is doing good things, and they know I am doing good things,” Kelley said. “It’s not like I just sit around missing my family, I know they are just as busy as me. But we talk and understand that we have to live our own lives the best we can. Knowing that makes it easier for me.”
'Through the Ranks' is a series of feature articles about a day in the life of a deployed Marine from 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. Each article will highlight an individual’s personal experience through the perspective of his rank. This is the third article of the series.