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Hanscom gives family last contact with fallen soldier

HANSCOM AFB, Mass. -- Hanscom was scarce with people the week between the Christmas and New Year's holiday in 2006.

But because of a decision made by a Hanscom Airman to make a half-day trip to his office just to take care of a few things, a Stafford, Va., family was able to make final contact with their deployed soldier -- a husband, father, brother, uncle and friend -- before he was killed in Iraq when his helicopter crashed.

Col. Paul Kelly, 45, was in Baghdad commanding the Army National Guard liaison team that coordinates site visits and monitors Guard Soldiers' needs, according to Harvey Browne, the family's casualty affairs officer in Virginia.

His wife, Maria, and two sons, Paul David and J.J., were visiting his brother, John Kelly, who lives in Hopkinton, Mass., when they requested the use of Hanscom's video teleconferencing through the Airman and Family Readiness Center to make contact with Colonel Kelly. VTCs are a morale service for families of deployed servicemembers.

Master Sgt. Donald Gonsalves, family readiness coordinator, received the voicemail request from Maria on Dec. 27.

After he made contact with Maria, he began to call around the base to find an open VTC room.

Making the request difficult was that manning at Hanscom was down because of the holidays. Adding to the challenge was that only a secure-signal VTC would suffice, since Camp Victory in Baghdad only had secure-signal capability, Sergeant Gonsalves said.

Despite those obstacles, Sergeant Gonsalves was able to contact Everett Langley, a Lockheed-Martin Corporation information technician, who only had access to non-secure VTC equipment but was able to refer the sergeant to Walter Santos, 66th Mission Support Group multi-media manager. Mr. Santos set up Sergeant Gonsalves with Lance Beebe, a graphic illustrator and a VTC technician at the multi-media center.

With all the right people ready to help, Sergeant Gonsalves was able to set up the secure-line conference for 3:30 p.m. local time on Dec. 29 in the O' Neil building, and 11:30 p.m. Baghdad time the same day.

Sergeant Gonsalves said the family was very appreciative of the 30 minutes they spent talking with Colonel Kelly.

Since Maria, a former Air Force nurse, knew the importance of notifying supervisors of their troops' good work, she intended to send letters of appreciation to supervisors of Sergeant Gonsalves and Mr. Beebe for their efforts in setting up this trans-world VTC.

Mr. Browne also noted the work Sergeant Gonsalves did to bring this family closer. "He did a super job bringing it all together," he said. "He was just great in supporting this."

Colonel Kelly himself even contacted Sergeant Gonsalves about the VTC. "He told me 'it meant the world to us,'" Sergeant Gonsalves said. "I told him, 'Sir, that's what we do.'"

Colonel Kelly left his family in Virginia in September 2006; this VTC was originally planned to help the family get through the holidays without him and re-charge them for the final stretch before his return in early March, Sergeant Gonsalves said from his talks with the family.

The VTC took on a greater significance to the family and everyone who knew Colonel Kelly when news broke of his fatal helicopter crash Jan. 20 northeast of Baghdad.

He, along with 11 other Soldiers, died in the crash when their UH-60 Black Hawk was believed to have been struck by hostile fire. The accident is still under investigation, Mr. Browne said.

"When I heard the news, it was tough," Sergeant Gonsalves said.

When asked if he was able to take anything positive away from the fact that he provided the last contact between the colonel and his family, he said, "I feel kind of good, but it still feels like I was hit in the gut with a punch."

Before Maria received the news of the crash, she sent a card to Sergeant Gonsalves, which still sits on his desk, thanking him for his efforts that brought her family closer to Colonel Kelly:

"Dear Sergeant Gonsalves, Thank you very much for making this holiday special. Thanks for everything, God bless and have a prosperous New Year. Sincerely yours, Col. Paul Kelly and Family."