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From Vietnam valor to life of squalor

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Top, Kelley at his home in Baskerville. Above, Sgt. Kelly / March 14, 2018
Federal estimates suggest that 70 percent of service members make the successful transition to civilian life once their time in the military is over. Of the rest, some who need help and don’t receive it struggle with day-to-day existence — with dismaying results.

Retired U.S. Army Drill Sgt.Thomas Kelley of Baskerville is one such person.

Kelley, a decorated war hero who served three tours of duty in Vietnam, lives in squalor and lacks the physical ability to care for himself. He is only now receiving assistance because of the caring and kindness of a stranger.

Agencies tasked with providing support for struggling veterans, including the Veterans Administration and Social Services, have failed him, says a friend.

Chris Thomas says he does not want this account to be about him, but the chronicle of Kelley’s recent life cannot be told without him.

Thomas first met Kelley in October. He kept seeing Kelley’s dogs at the convenience store near the intersection of U.S. 58 and Route 4 east of Boydton, where Thomas would often stop for gas. A dog lover himself, Thomas worried that the animals were in danger of being hit by a passing vehicle.

His fears prompted him to ask the store clerk about the dogs. She said they probably belonged to an elderly man who lived down the road. She thought he might be in the hospital and that the dogs had no one to care for them or feed them.

Before heading off to find Kelley’s house, Thomas stopped at his own home to get food for the dogs and to pick up his wife.

When the two arrived at Kelley’s residence, Thomas said he noticed the front door and living room windows were open and there were lights on inside. As he approached the porch, he was greeted by Kelley’s barking dogs. Undeterred, Thomas said he stuck his head inside the door “only to see an elderly gentleman, who was supposed to be in the hospital, lying on his couch.”

The stench of human and dog excrement was overwhelming. Thomas says he still gets nauseated upon thinking back to their first meeting. The living room floor and the bottoms of Kelley’s feet were covered in dog feces. A catheter was draining Kelley’s urine into a five-gallon bucket placed on the floor near the couch, precariously close to Kelley’s head. Unable to move from the couch, Kelley was lying in his own feces.

Thomas introduced himself to Kelley and explained why he’d come to the house. In return, Kelley told Thomas that he been lying in his living room for an indeterminate amount of time, without food or water. Despite his condition, Kelley was more concerned about the welfare of his dogs then his own well-being.

The retired Army sergeant asked Thomas to empty the urine bucket, which Thomas did. “It was the [worst] smell I have ever smelled and at least an inch and a half of grey sludge remained in the bottom of the bucket.” Thomas believed the contents in the bucket were an indication of a serious health problem.

Thomas asked about Kelley’s family and why he was left unattended in his home. He learned that Kelley had no family here, and that he had refused help from Mecklenburg County Social Services out of fear that they would take his dogs from him. He recounted that he had had no contact with the Veterans Administration for more than three decades.

By his own account, Kelley first joined the Marine Corps, but when his enlistment ended he joined the U.S. Army. After three tours in Vietnam, Kelley was stationed stateside. He retired from his last post in Fort Dix, New Jersey in 1982, and for some time afterward he drove big rigs for a living.

Before leaving Kelley for the day, Thomas and his wife purchased a couple of sandwiches and some drinks from a nearby store and brought them back for Kelley to consume. Thomas promised to return.

The next business day, Thomas said he began making calls on Kelley’s behalf, first to the Veterans Administration and then to Mecklenburg County Social Services and to the Sheriff’s Office. He shared his frustration with these agencies in a social media post from November, asking why agencies charged with helping the aged, infirmed, and veterans are not more responsive to situations such as Kelley’s.

He said he was initially heartened by a conversation he had with Ben Shaw, Regional Director for the Virginia Department of Veterans Services for the Central Region. Thomas said Shaw confirmed that “Sgt. Kelley is a highly decorated Vietnam War hero who has many commendations.” Kelley received his second Oak Leaf Cluster for meritorious service in 1970. Shaw promised Thomas that a team was coming to visit with the sergeant personally and were bringing a virtual caravan.

A month went by, and no team or caravan came to Kelley’s aid, Thomas says. Prior to publication, Thomas said no one from the Veterans Administration has come to check on or assist Kelley, despite repeated promises to do so.

Thomas says he was equally frustrated by the Department of Social Services. Though Kelley has refused the agency’s help, Social Services did assign him a caseworker. Kelley shared with Thomas that the caseworker had been to his home on more than one occasion, but the visits left him “extremely worried.” He lives for his dogs and feared they would have the dogs euthanized, Thomas said.

While neither the caseworker nor Sandra Gregory, who heads the Department of Social Services, responded to Thomas’ request for a meeting, he said someone in the agency took steps to have service restored to Kelley’s phone and have his propane tank filled so there would be heat, though Kelley paid for the propane.

The driver of the propane truck was later overheard complaining to Kelley’s caseworker about the condition of Kelley’s house, according to Thomas. Aside from a demand that Kelley fix his front steps and install a wheelchair ramp, nothing more was done for the man.

The Sun reached out to Sandra Gregory for comment, but received no response from her prior to publication.

This story is not without its heroes, according to Thomas, but the list is short: he cites Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative, which sent a technician to restore electric power to Kelley’s home after it, too, was cut off. Thomas said the cooperative waived its standard reconnection fee after learning that Kelley was a veteran. Thomas also praises George Bower, a taxi driver who refused to leave Kelley alone at his home after he was forced to leave Chase City Health and Rehab because he lacked insurance and did not qualify for Medicaid. Deputy Clayton with the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office who regularly makes welfare checks on Kelley, Thomas notes.

Thomas says he is not giving up. He regularly checks on Kelley and his dogs, brings in the mail, makes certain Kelley pays his bills, and keeps in contact with social service agencies. His most recent conversations have been with a staff member of the Veterans Administration. She’s promised Thomas that help is coming, but did not say when.

While there is no documented evidence that Kelley lacks the mental acuity to make decisions for himself, Thomas points to a recent incident as proof that Sgt. Kelley cannot continue to live by himself.

This past weekend, Thomas said a couple driving a silver Dodge van came to Kelley’s home. They claimed to be friends of Thomas and said they were there to install a wheelchair ramp at the front door. Kelley paid the couple $300 and they left. So far, neither Thomas nor Kelley have subsequently seen or heard from the couple.

Thomas does not want to see Kelley to suffer. He wants help for someone who “gave so much of himself for his country,” referring to the Baskerville veteran. Thomas has even reached out to people via Facebook asking them to press Social Services and the Veterans Administration to take action on behalf of Kelley.

Sadly, he was forced to remove his social media post call for help when, he said, the comments devolved into a political debate rather than offers to help. He perseveres, praying that one day soon Kelley will receive the support he needs and deserves.

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this message is for chris Thomas and his wife I want to praise u both for everything you all are doing for this gentleman. I know god has your question is? is there any local churches that would help out. and is there any way to do a fund raiser for him. I would love to help out im not sure how to get my information to you. please contack me if you can. thanks again for all your kindness for a vet. my husband is a two time vet as well

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