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Community remembers soldier who loved to be in worship

KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. (BP)–As flags at public buildings in Oregon were lowered to half-staff in mid-July, prayers at Suburban Heights Baptist Church in Klamath Falls were raised to honor Lance Cpl. Bryan P. Kelly, who died July 16 from wounds sustained by an explosion in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province.

The 21-year-old Marine was the son of Patrick and Joanie Kelly. Patrick Kelly, recently retired from the Klamath Falls police department, is the worship leader and a deacon at the Klamath Falls church.

“Lance Cpl. Kelly’s bravery, commitment and sacrifice will not be forgotten,” Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski said in a public statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and the many other families who still have loved ones away at war.”

Kelly had six weeks remaining on his second tour of duty in Iraq as a combat engineer. Working near Baghdad, Kelly and his fellow Marines routinely patrolled the roads and detonated hidden ordnance caches.

The soldier, who planned to marry his fiancé this November, is among more than 900 Americans killed during military operations in the country.

The Defense Department did not release any details about Kelly’s death, only that it stemmed from “injuries received from enemy action.”

“This was just an exceptional young man,” said Pastor Bill Swartz. “The first day he accepted Jesus Christ, when he was 14, he went and got his best friend and shared with him and he accepted the Lord. Every one of the girls he dated, he led to Christ.”

“Families in these circumstances tend to make saints of their kids,” Patrick Kelly told the Klamath Falls Herald and News. “We don’t have to. You couldn’t ask for a better son.”

Swartz agreed with the father’s assessment: “I couldn’t find anyone in this town who would have a bad thing to say about Bryan.”

Kelly was active in the church’s youth ministry and regularly attended worship services.

“When he was home, he was there in the second pew,” Swartz said. “He loved worship.”

Swartz noted that when Kelly was able to call home, he usually called about 20 minutes before church began on Sunday mornings.

“He knew his mother was getting ready for worship,” Swartz said. “He’d tell his mom, ‘I can feel the prayers. Keep praying.’

“When I would talk to him he’d tell me, ‘Pastor, I miss worship’” Swartz added. “It was almost as if he was calling to encourage us.”

Nine members of the Suburban Heights church have been part of the military campaign in Iraq. Seven of them have arrived home safely and one is still there — Nathan Gushwa, son of High Desert Baptist Association director of missions Aaren Gushwa. Three other members of the church began basic training with the armed forces this summer.

Although young adults living in the economically stressed region find military service benefits attractive, Swartz also attributes the high number of local enlistments to the local culture’s emphasis on duty, honor and traditional values.

That became evident, Swartz said, after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Following 9/11, many of our people in Klamath Falls decided that they knew what God wanted them to do, and they chose to serve their country,” Swartz said.

Kelly was one among them. According to Swartz, he delayed plans to become a firefighter and joined the U.S. Marines in 2002.

“I told him it was a good thing to do,” Patrick Kelly told the local Herald and News. “If I had it to do all over again, I’d tell him the same thing.”

“He was very proud to be a Marine,” Joanie Kelly told the newspaper. “He wore his uniform with great honor.

“When you watch these kids grow up and teach them all their lives that they have to trust God, you had better believe it when they make decisions [to enlist]. I admit I’ve had my moments of anxiety, but I’m incredibly proud of them.”

Swartz praised the efforts of Suburban Heights church members as they ministered to the Kelly family during their loss.

“I have the greatest respect for the people of this church who have done everything they could have to help this family, without even being asked,” Swartz said. “They just went and did it and that’s the heart of what it means to be a family of God. When times like this come, you just are grateful.”

About 100 people participate in the church’s regular activities, so the impact of Kelly’s death is felt by everyone, the pastor noted. “I imagine we’ll have a long process [of healing],” he said.

Kelly is the second Marine from Klamath Falls killed in the region. Back in April, Lance Cpl. Gary Van Leuven also died in action in Al Anbar Province.

The Kelly family held a private graveside service July 27 and a public memorial service the next evening.

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  • Cameron Crabtree