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A Veteran Of Life

Before the early 1990s ex-military personnel were given priority when filling the position of custodian. Tom Kelly, now 59, was the first choice of the USDA on the University of Florida campus 15 years ago.

He cleans the bathrooms and takes out the trash, but most of all he buffs the floor.

“I’m more into floor care than anything else,” he said, pointing to the shiny floor. “It’s my favorite. I try to make a pretty floor.”

If he’s not buffing the floor, chances are he’s on a coffee break. One of the highlights of his days, Kelly has coffee with various friends in his building about three or four times a day. He also has two cups at home.

“Drinking coffee is what I do best,” Kelly said. He unwraps a red and white-striped dinner mint after every cup, and has a Ziploc bag full of them.

“Me and Curtis have coffee in five minutes, Tom takes an hour and a half,” said Don Silhacek, who first invited Kelly to join the “coffee club.”

In the room where the coffee is had, Tom takes his seat at the head of the table.

“He’s there interacting with all the scientists,” said Steve Ferkovich, another member of the coffee club. “He tries to put his two cents in about everything.”

Ferkovich said he offers another point of view on issues like the war in Iraq since he is a veteran. But Kelly was playing “war games” long before he ever went to Vietnam. At age 13 he and his brothers and friends dug what they pretended were fox holes in the woods.

“We would hide in there and smoke cigarettes,” he reminisced.

His actual experience with war was of course much different. One morning, before the sun had risen, at “0 six hundred” Kelly’s company was dropped off about five miles from the Cambodian border. Upon arrival they were ambushed by the Vietcong. Kelly watched his best friend being shot to death while he lay still on the ground. He said he tried to, but couldn’t move his leg. He had been shot in the knee with an M16.

Due to his injury he was allowed to return home after two and a half months. He now takes the elevator in the two story building where he works because he has a degenerative joint disease, something he said he was made vulnerable to because of the injury to his knee.

He said being in Vietnam was like a nightmare. He compared himself to a gun-shy horse. “I just wanted to run away.” Although he didn’t really want to be sent to Vietnam, Kelly said, like a lot of the other soldiers, he felt like he was doing a service to his country. Ironically he no longer watches the fireworks on the fourth of July because he is frightened by the explosions.

With his voice slightly cracking and his eyes already glossed over, Kelly said he didn’t want to talk about the details of his Vietnam experience “ because I cry.”

He insisted that he was lucky and that others weren’t quite as fortunate. He sometimes visits one such friend, “Johnny,” who is in the mental ward at the VA hospital.

Betraying the image of the American eagle on his favorite coffee cup, he said regarding Iraq, “I’m not that patriotic anymore.”

He identified the major difference between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq as Vietnam being jungle warfare, whereas the war in Iraq is being fought in the cities.

“It’s pretty much the same thing, the killing,” he said. “I hate the killing.”

He did say that it was good that the US tried to find weapons of mass destruction and evacuate Saddaam Hussein but should have left after they were successful in the latter.

“I’m not for that gung-ho, we’re gonna get those…you know,” he said.

Just as with Vietnam, “They shouldn’t have sent all those troops over there,” he said.

He said Americans would be better protected if the troops were returned home.

Kelley is about to finish writing a book that chronicles the events of his life from when he was a teenager to the present. The book will include stories and details about his time in Vietnam. His friend Curtis Murphy, a technician at the USDA labs, is helping him with his spelling and with transferring what Kelly gives him on sheets of paper to the computer to be printed out. Kelly said he has had to work on coming out of his shell and getting over the fear before he could start writing the book.

“I can’t talk about everything but I can write about it,” Kelly said.

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