Retired and still serving. It’s a motto that Julia Kelly lives by since retiring as a command sergeant major in 2010. Kelly is an ammunition test coordinator at the Redstone Test Center.
As a Native-American female veteran, Kelly has incorporated her heritage as a volunteer in many ways since retiring. She helped start up several nonprofit Native American female veterans organizations over the years and she volunteers in the Huntsville area an average of four to six hours a week at the Downtown Rescue Mission, Women’s Veterans Interactive Huntsville Chapter and the Redstone Arsenal Sergeants Major Association, among others.
Kelly comes from a long line of veterans, but growing up in Pryor, Montana, she didn’t necessarily think a career in the Army was in her future. But at the time it was a safe way out of a bad situation.
“I joined the Army so I wouldn’t die,” she said. “I was in a domestic violence situation and the Army was a way out. I actually went with my brother to a recruiter because he was planning to join as well.”
A move made out of desperation set her on a path to serving as a proud Native American female in the Army. Kelly entered as an ammunition specialist in 1981 and ultimately became the command sergeant major for the 299th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division.
Since retiring Kelly has been invited to many events as a speaker on veteran issues and domestic violence/sexual assault issues. As a descendent of the Apsaalooke (Crow) Tribe of Montana, she served on the color guard with Native American women veterans and participated in the Veteran Special at the 44th annual Denver March Pow Wow earlier this year. Although she reaches out to women in particular, she’s been called to help quite a few male veterans over the years as well.
On more than one occasion she’s spotted and helped suicidal veterans.
“I don’t know how I’ve done it,” Kelly said. “It’s just been a gut feeling. I start chatting with them and find out they are in a bad spot. There have been times when I’ve called security and a case where I helped a suicidal guy sitting in the parking lot of a VA hospital. He was mad at me for a while, but I told him I would have done the same thing again. I do this because I love you.”
Mother of five and grandmother of nine, Kelly, who wears her long hair uncolored with a natural wave, might be passed up in a crowd of male veterans who may assume she is not a veteran. But Kelly usually wears a veteran’s shirt or hat in addition to a Native American dress or shawl she made. She’s never afraid to speak up for herself and others, and she’s learned over the years that one of the most important things she can do is listen.
“Going through everything I’ve been through in my life and being older now, my journey and path I’ve walked made me the helper I am today,” she said. “If each human being sat and listened to their gut instinct, the other voice that’s there with everybody, you would be surprised at what you would have to do to help others.”