Nigel Kelly grew from a kid who couldn’t sit still into a leader of soldiers.
As a boy, he told his father that he would never work behind a desk. His mother had to threaten to keep him off the high school basketball team to persuade him to keep his grade point average at 3.0.
But Kelly loved his dangerous job as an Army combat engineer.
The 26-year-old staff sergeant distinguished himself in an eight-year military career that included two deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. He was twice awarded the Bronze Star for valor, one of the Army’s highest honors. He volunteered for mission after mission and planned to join the Special Forces.
But commanders saw something in the young, noncommissioned officer beyond his evident courage. A “proverbial gentle giant,” as one friend called him, the 6-foot-5 Kelly had a way of taking younger soldiers under his wing.
“More important than what he wore on his uniform was his ability to train and shape young soldiers,” said Maj. Dave Eastburn, a spokesman for the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, based at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Kelly’s unit was part of the division.
The promising career came to an end when Kelly, of the Riverside County city of Menifee, was killed June 25 during a counterinsurgency assault mission in the rugged Watahpur district of eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar province, on the Pakistani border.
Enemy forces attacked Kelly’s unit with small-arms fire. Also killed in the attack was Army 1st Lt. Dimitri A. Del Castillo, 24, of Tampa, Fla.
Even-tempered and serene, Kelly was never a boaster, his relatives said. It was through his wife, Catia, an Army medic Kelly had met on his second tour in Iraq and married in March, a month before he deployed to Afghanistan, that his parents heard what a fine soldier he had become.
Even so, said his father, Kevin Kelly, “we didn’t even know he had medals until he died.” After Kelly’s death, commanders called his parents from Afghanistan to tell them that they should be proud of their son, that he was a great leader and that his legacy would live on in the soldiers he mentored.
Kelly had an unusual childhood. Born in Ontario, Canada, he and his family lived in Saudi Arabia for six years when he was a child because of his father’s work as a geodesist for a Canadian company doing mapping work.
Kelly and his brother ran freely on the American compound where they lived and made trips with their family to many other lands.
One year they vacationed in Kenya and his mother recalled recently that Nigel, then 8, kept giving away his belongings -- clothing, shoes, his watch -- to the local children he played with. “That child pretty much gave away everything in his suitcase,” Sonia Kelly said. It may be that the early travels had given the boy an itch to see the world.
His family moved to Menifee when he was 14 and he soon became a star basketball player at Temescal Canyon High School.
He and his friend Channing Corral talked about how they wanted to get out to see the world. They didn’t want to remain “big fish in a small pond,” Corral said.
When they graduated, Corral convinced his friend to join the Army, and it quickly became clear that Kelly had found his niche.
A few days before Kelly died, he emailed his mother to wish her a happy birthday. He told her he was doing well. He told her he was having fun. “He loved what he was doing -- he was doing everything he was trained to do and he loved it,” she said.
His parents said they are strengthened by their faith as Messianic Jews and by the knowledge that their son died doing what he loved. “To have him die serving our country and doing what he wanted to do, it was honorable,” his father said.
Kelly will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
In addition to his parents, of Menifee, and his wife, who is stationed in Hawaii, his survivors include his brother and sister-in-law, Nathan and Arlene Kelly, of Charlotte, N.C.