Mass. Family Mourns Son Killed in Afghanistan

National Guard Spec. Michael Kelley was 26 when he was died in a rocket attack in Afghanistan. He grew up in Scituate, Mass., where Audie Cornish of member station WBUR went to learn more about his life.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Since the US-led invasion began in 2003, at least 1,712 American military personnel have died in Iraq. Of those, the Pentagon says that 1,316 were killed in action; another 12,900 soldiers, sailors and Marines have been wounded in action in Iraq. Fighting in nearby Afghanistan has killed 80 American military personnel; another 114 have died in non-hostile circumstances. More than 450 American military men and women have been wounded in Afghanistan.

Earlier this month the fighting in Afghanistan took the life of Specialist Michael Jason Kelley. He died in combat just two months into his second tour in Afghanistan. Specialist Kelley had a stateside assignment but chose instead to go to Afghanistan to relieve his fellow guardsmen. From member station WBUR, Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Michael Jason Kelley was 26 years old. He lived all his life with his family in Scituate, a coastal town 20 miles south of Boston. Shawn Kelley laughs now when he looks out the window at the tall, sandy marsh near his parents' home, and thinks of how his brother didn't like to swim.

Mr. SHAWN KELLEY: It was the funniest thing. He did not like the water. It's unbelievable. Like, I love the water. And Michael was total opposite. You couldn't get him to go.

CORNISH: His father, Joseph Kelley, pores over the dozens of photos covering their dining room table. Some images are framed, others are curved at the edges and dusty from their home in the attic. A glass vase of blue and purple hydrangeas stands vigil over them.

Mr. JOSEPH KELLEY: Just about every photograph was a big smile from the littlest. You know, you ask him to do something, and he would do it, without any, you know, guff. And--just a great part of our family. And there's a huge, huge void there now.

CORNISH: Shawn Kelley drove down from Vermont the night he heard the news. He spends much of his time in the dining room hovered over his laptop. He's re-reading the last e-mails he sent his brother, double-checking to see if he remembered to say, `I love you.' And he's searching the Internet for reports on his brother's death.

Mr. S. KELLEY: I just need to know more and I need to know details, and I don't know why that is. I don't know if that's human nature or something. Some people might think it's morbid. But I need to know. Why did my brother die? How did he die? And could there have been something done differently at the time?

CORNISH: National Guard officials say Specialist Kelley was part of a mobile radar unit charged with scanning the skies for incoming fire along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. But at the moment of his death on June 8th, Michael Kelley wasn't scanning the skies. He was unloading a Chinook helicopter when rocket fire struck the Special Forces base where he was stationed. His father, Joseph, says he's stunned at how just a few days before he and his son were chatting on the phone.

Mr. J. KELLEY: I love all my children. But to lose a son that way, in a foreign land, fighting for freedom, it's tough to take.

CORNISH: Joseph Kelley says he's proud of his son for making the decision to join the war, but on the refrigerator in the Kelley kitchen is a small banner that reads `Freedom isn't free.' And today Kelley says he truly understands what that means. For NPR News, I'm Audie Cornish in Boston.

HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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