Kelly’s military experience animates every page of her compelling debut book, They Fought For Each Other, an account of the hardest-hit American unit since the Vietnam War.
A reporter for the Army Times, Kelly developed the book from Blood Brothers, an award-winning multi-media series she did for the paper about the second platoon of I-26, a unit that was stationed in Adhamiya, Iraq. She spent time with the troops in Iraq in 2007, and continued to follow the unit during the following two years.
They years were bloody ones.
Kelly writes in unflinching detail about Ross McInnis, an amiable prankster who gave his life to save other men in the unit, about Jeff McKinney, a first sergeant who killed himself in front of his troops, about Erik Osterman, who appoints himself the onerous task of cleaning tanks of his comrades’ blood every time they shed it, and about Capt. Michael Baka, whose heart aches as he is removed from his command mid-mission.
In addition to these individual soldiers, though, Kelly writes about the bone-deep love these men develop for each other, the fierce pride they take in their work, and their roiling emotional journey as more and more of their comrades are killed or have their bodies and, in some cases, spirits, destroyed by the unceasing combat, the constant exposure to danger, and the emotional toll of being away from their families.
While based in Iraq, They Fought For Each Other also has extensive material on the troops’ being in Germany as a way station to or from combat, and about the soldiers’ home lives. Cathy Baka is just one of the wives who is an important character in the book. Kelly shows how Baka strikes a delicate balance between working to keep her own, her husband’s and other wives’ emotional states in a positive place.
Communication is a key element in this process, and Kelly writes about how the immediacy of phone technology and email also can have its downsides.
A day of no communication from a soldier can lead to increasingly anxious feelings for the soldiers’ families and other loved ones.
The sections about the soldiers’ homes lives are powerful in their own right and because they give a fuller cost of the war’s toll. Kelly shows convincingly that the physical wounds are just part of the damage the war inflicts, and that, in some case, death may be preferable to survival.
Her description of Ian Newland’s physical and brain injuries sustained when shrapnel riddled his body, the utter absence of any meaningful treatment and the toll his return takes on his family is utterly heartbreaking.
Kelly received a prestigious Rosalyn Carter Mental Health Fellowship to work on the project, and any time and information she received as a result of that opportunity is secondary to the soldiers’ and their families’ obvious trust in her as a witness to their experiences.
David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers has more overtly acidic commentary on the war than They Fought For Each Other. Each chapter in his book is framed with a quote by former President George W. Bush, who Finkel consistently portrays as callow, uninformed and incompetent.
Kelly’s book is less concerned with the macro analysis, but with the forging of daily bonds, the jokes the men play on each and the resilience they show under the devastating toll they endure.
At the same time, she does raise profound questions about the war’s prosecution when the men refuse to go out on a mission because they recognize their emotional numbness and the murderous rampage they would surely inflict.
Unsurprisingly, the military command does not support the soldiers’ action and works to prevent further decoration of soldiers in the unit, even when their service preceded the mutiny.
The punishment of soldiers’ efforts to retain their damaged humanity and preserve innocent may be one of the most disturbing aspects of this gripping book.
One can feel in the work Kelly’s profound connection to her life’s purpose of giving meaning to soldiers’ experience through witnessing and writing about them. We are fortunate to be the beneficiaries of her commitment and the fruits of her labor.