When Gerald Kelly went to war in Vietnam in 1968 he was a young Army 1st. lieutenant with little or no experience. By the time he retired from the service two decades later he was a light colonel, Latin American expert, Green Beret and an Airborne Ranger who served in Special Forces in the Americas.
“My title was: United States Delegate to the Inter-American Defense Board,” the 74-year-old Venetian Golf and River Club resident said. “At the time I was serving as a lieutenant colonel with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon.”
Although Kelly spent a considerable amount of time in the early 1960s as the commander of a military police company in Vietnam, his real love in the service was his tours in Central American as a Green Beret and member of a Special Forces unit serving south of the border.
In 1968 he was the commander of a B-Team at the 8th Special Forces Group training camp in the Panama Canal Zone.
It was Kelly’s team who taught the Bolivian Special Forces unit that captured and executed Che Guevara. He was a Marxist revolutionary leader charged with sowing the seeds of revolution throughout Central and South America, his detractors say.
“He was Fidel Castro’s right hand man. They wanted to take the Communist operation in Cuba over time to parts of Latin America,” Kelly explained. “Originally Guevara had been an Argentina medical student.
“Guevara planned to overthrow the Bolivian government. The Bolivians asked the United States for help. We decided that we needed to let the Bolivians deal with Che in Bolivia,” Kelly said. “We ended up training the Bolivian Army battalion that caught and killed him.”
Kelly was not personally involved in the Che Guevara incident. It happened a couple of years before he arrived at the 8th Special Forces Group in Panama.
However, the retired Green Beret officer was up to his neck in activities involving President Anastasia Somoza and the Contras and President Ronald Reagan who were all fighting the Marxist Sandinistas and Denial Ortega in Nicaragua 30 years ago. He was an American advisor to Somoza who he said was a “benevolent dictator.”
Kelly worked with Col. Oliver North, the American officer who linked President Reagan to some potentially illegal activities involving the Contras and Nicaragua. Kelly had little to say about the flamboyant colonel except: “He was an opportunist.”
In those days, Kelly was a friend of Moises Hassan who eventually became one of the leaders of the Sandinista regime that took over the country in 1979 and ran Somoza out.
“He was a brilliant, young university student,” Kelly recalls. “He became one of the original Sandinista leaders along with Ortega. He was also an author and a physicist.
“Hassan became disenchanted with the Sandinistas. He ran for president of Nicaragua against Ortega and lost,” Kelly explained.
Before the Contra Affair in Nicaragua, he was directly involved in the “Succer War” that broke out in 1969 between Honduras and El Salvador for a few weeks.
“I was working for the Organization of American States as a Green Beret. A small group of us was sent to Honduras to patrol the boarder. We were there as a peace keeping force,” Kelly said.
Mounted on a mule, protected only by his black and white “OEA” armband, the former soldier looked more like Don Quixote astride a scraggly steed. Seated on the mule decked out in his dark beret he looked a bit out of place.
“When Special Forces go into an area like this we’re trained to live off the land. I didn’t have any place to stay so I went looking,” Kelly said. “I heard some church bells ringing and walked up to the front door of what I later learned was a monastery. I knocked on the door, it opened and the person in the shadows asked me, in peculiarly accented Spanish, what I wanted?
He was invited in and learned that two Capuchin priests. Father Welsh and Father Brennan were in charge of the Catholic monestary, orphanage and clinic. Father Walsh, who had been there 22-years, was from New York City.
“After breaking open a bottle of Scotch and talking for a long time they decided to let me have a room in the monastery,” Kelly recalled with satisfaction.
During the six months he worked with the OAS on this assignment, he set up his short wave radio antenna atop the church’s steeple. He talked almost every day to the Pentagon keeping it informed on what was happening on the ground in Honduras during the Soccer War.
“I just got a letter from the OAS after 40 years thanking me for the work I did in 1969 during the Soccer War,” Kelly said. He also has a yellowed copy of La Prensa , a Salvadoran newspaper, from that era. On the back page is a large picture of a half dozen or so Green Berets in their fatigue uniforms. The information under the picture says they patrolled the border during the six-week war. Kelly is at the far right in the photograph.
A few weeks ago he returned from a sentimental journey he took back to Nicaragua as part of a 16-person faith-based group called Forward Edge International. Their mission was to improve the lot of 2,000 families who called the huge dump outside Managua, the capital city, their home.
“We worked to repair two schools and two churches while we were down there,” he said. “We also fed lots of children who didn’t have much to eat while we were there.”
Kelly tip-toed around the government’s view of their efforts. About all he would say is, “They didn’t interfere with what we were doing.”
The high point of his trip was the visit arranged by a friend at the American Embassy between his long ago former friend – Moises Hassan, the scientist, writer and political leader.
“What an emotional experience it was to see my friend from long ago once again. I went to his home and spent a half a day with him. Before I left he gave me a copy of his book,” Kelly said. “He wrote something in Spanish to me I’d like to read: ‘I dedicate this example of my reflections about our history to my good friend Gerald Kelly. I am confident this will provoke some new idea about my Nicaragua. Cordially, Moises Hassan.’”
Looking at the broader picture of relations between nations Kelly has a few thoughts.
“The United States has no nation-building goals. However, we do it anyway because we align ourselves with governments that are not democratically elected,” he said. “Then we become idealistic and end up supporting the other side in some cases.
“What we need to do is work with a friendly government to steer it in the right direction toward a more democratic state instead of waiting for the revolution where the poor people take over the country and the situation becomes worse.”
Kelly says Nicaragua is a good example. It’s been 31 years since the revolution and the ouster of Somoza, but little has improved for most of the people in the country despite all the promises.
“Right now we need to look at how we can build a bridge between the Middle East and the Western World. They can’t kill all of us and we can’t kill all of them,” he observed. “We have to find some common ground.”
After 22 years in the military, Kelly retired. Because he had a degree from the University of Southern California at Los Angeles in pre-medicine he went to work as a hospital administrator in California. His last position was as director of services at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
In 2005 he and his wife, Seemal, who is branch manager of Sun Trust Bank in Nokomis, and their two teenage boys, Alex and Nikolas, moved to Venice.
Name: Gerald Kelly
D.O.B: December 22, 1935
Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio
Current: Venice, Fla.
Entered Service: June 1962
Discharged: October September 1982
Rank: Lieutenant Colonel
Unit: 1st Airborne Corps, Special Forces, Green Beret, Ranger
Commendations: Legion of Merit, Bronze Star with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters, Meritorious Service Medal with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters, Army Commendation Medal, Ranger Tab, Special Forces, Army Ranger, Parachutist, Linguist, Foreign Area Expert.
Children: Alex and Nicholas
This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, August 30, 2010 and is republished with permission.