Months after initial honor, Kelley joined fellow recipients at the State House.
Tom Kelley considered it a “thrill” to walk on the historic TD Garden parquet last October during the middle of a Boston Celtics home contest against the San Antonio Spurs.
Standing at center court during a timeout, the Somerville resident waved proudly to the devoted Celtics fan base as they rose to their feet to applaud and salute him for being named one of last season’s first “Heroes Among Us” program honorees.
“The night I was honored, I was the man,” said Kelley, a devoted Boston sports fan that grew up in Dorchester and moved to Somerville in 2005.
The Heroes Among Us program, which was established in 1997, is one of the premiere community outreach programs in professional sports. It honors individuals who have made an overwhelming impact on the lives of others, as noted on the Boston Celtics’ website.
Presented by the Mass. State Lottery, the special honor has been bestowed on more than 700 individuals since it was first introduced 21 years ago.
On this particular evening, Kelley was being recognized for his 30 years of service in the U.S. Navy, specifically a mission he led during Vietnam War when his convoy came under attack. One of Kelley’s boats suffered a mechanical failure, but that didn’t stop the Massachusetts native from finding a way to lead his convoy to safety despite suffering a severe head wound that resulted in the loss of his eye.
“I was the guy in charge (when the attack occurred),” said Kelley, “so I had to do something. It was just a result of previous training.
“By that time, I had been in (the Navy) for about eight or nine years, so I was somewhat seasoned, but we had trained for situations like this one. So when a casualty to this boat had occurred we went into standard operating procedure to try and protect the boat, while we tried to get the problem fixed.
“Unfortunately, the Vietcong decided at that time to open fire on the boat, so we had to scramble to, number one, protect the boat and the men that were on the boat and, number two, to stop the enemy fire from coming in.”
Kelley would eventually recover from this horrific episode and earn a Medal of Honor before serving an additional 21 years as a Naval officer.
Support of veterans
His commitment to serving his country continued shortly afterward for “about a dozen (more)” years when he led the Mass. Department of Veteran Services by overseeing what he believes were some “really good programs” for veterans that still remain in place today.
“If you’re a veteran and you live in Massachusetts, then I think you’re very fortunate,” he said.
Kelley believes veterans are treated much better than they were during and after the Vietnam War – he believes more Americans are “more aware of the contributions of veterans” and what they have done for the country, but thinks our current civilization is somewhat “isolated and divorced” from what is truly happening, both locally and abroad.
“Less than 1 percent of the American people have any connection to anyone in the military, whereas years ago during World War II, Vietnam (and the Korean War), everybody had a family member that was serving or about to serve. So there was a very close relationship with the American people and the military (back then), but nowadays it seems to have disappeared,” said Kelley.
Asked if Americans today should be required to serve or give back in some capacity, Kelley answered in the affirmative saying, “A lot of countries have public service and it doesn’t have to be in the military. It could be in so many other things. I think we would be well-blessed to direct something like that to all kids growing up.”
Kelley is certainly not afraid to share his story – or at least his motivation as to why he joined the Navy after graduating from the College of Holy Cross in Worcester in 1960. He says it’s less about sharing his brief experience in Vietnam when he suffered his head wound, and more about explaining to young sailors and Marines the valuable lessons he learned about leadership.
“I generally talk to them about what motivated me to stay in the Navy, what are my keys to success as a leader and how they should be following in the footsteps of a leader – how they should take care of your people and be a model of integrity and honesty – instead of dwelling on what I specifically did myself,” said Kelley.
Months have passed since Kelley was honored during a Celtics game, and just two months ago, he had the privilege of being invited to the Statehouse to meet other “Heroes Among Us” recipients. A majority of the group was ordinary citizens, according to Kelley.
“I got to meet a bunch of them and there were probably one or two military guys in the crowd, but the rest were ordinary folks that started programs to assistant disadvantaged people or help the troops, or law enforcement folks that went out of the way to save somebody else, so it was just a great mixture and eye-opener to me of what ordinary people are doing to serve their community and fellow Americans.”