As the son of a former Army paratrooper, it may come as no surprise that Petty Officer 1st Class Hilliard Kelly III joined a military service.
Throughout Kelly’s childhood, he admired his father’s service in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. However, when his father left the military, the changes impacted the entire family.
Jumping out of planes caused the senior Kelly pain, most notably in the knee, making it difficult for him to find work. This eventually led him to drug and alcohol abuse.
Young Kelly’s mother knew she had to get her family out of that environment, so in 1998 they moved from Orange, New Jersey, to Orlando, Florida.
Unfortunately, this move left the family of four financially unstable, but they found shelter at the Orlando Union Rescue Mission.
“It was a women and children shelter, but they accepted six or seven whole families,” said now Petty Officer 1st Class Hilliard Kelly III. “They also gave my father a job. Because of his experience in the Army, they made him the head of security over the property and this gave him a sense of ownership.”
As Kelly entered high school, his family was finally getting back on their feet, and they moved into a home in nearby Winter Park, Florida.
“I was on the wrestling team and my mom and dad went to every meet I had,” said Kelly. “My father also instilled the military structure and lifestyle into us and made my sister and I do Marine Corps ROTC all four years of high school.”
Shortly after getting their lives together, grief struck the Kelly Family again.
“In 2005, my father went to the VA for his knee,” said Kelly. “His doctor wasn’t there, but a nurse prescribed him some medicine. He was misdiagnosed and had a heart attack in his sleep and died.”
Kelly’s reaction, having just turned 16, was to rebel.
“I started to get into trouble and hang out with the wrong crowd,” he said. “I went to jail for one night and I realized this was not who I was.”
Kelly then began to focus on his dream: college football.
“College football was all I wanted to do,” Kelly said. “I got a scholarship to play football, but my test scores weren’t high enough, so they dropped my scholarship.”
“I went to community college, but that wasn’t going too well,” he continued. “I was working odd jobs at the movie theater and as a janitor.”
Kelly thought his next break came when his high school sweetheart’s mother gave him a job for a non-profit business she ran bringing organized sports to impoverished, inner city youth. When that job didn’t go anywhere either, Kelly was left questioning what he should do with his life.
“My girlfriend, Tobia, wanted to join the Navy and she asked me to go with her,” he said. “While I was sitting there, the recruiter started asking what I was doing. He had us both take a practice ASVAB and we both scored well, so now we were joining together.”
Or so they thought…Kelly scored well and was quickly entered into the delayed-entry program. Tobia changed her mind and decided to no longer pursue a career in the Navy. This didn’t change their relationship though, as she later became Mrs. Kelly.
“It was one of my best decisions I ever made to join the Navy,” Kelly said. “Despite everything that happened, I continue to excel. I don’t want to be a statistic and not amount to anything because of where I came from.”
The Kelly Family is now stationed at the Pentagon, with their 3-year-old son Tristan.
“I spoil my son so he doesn’t want for anything, but in the same sense instill in him the integrity and the tools he needs to become a successful young man,” said Kelly, who works for the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps Personnel Service Manager. “Going back, it makes me realize the importance of the smaller things in life and not taking things for granted.”
Kelly’s mother and sister are both doing well and his sister also serves in the Army.