Sgt. Pam Kelly struggles to remember the details of her former life, other than it was everything she wanted.
Kelly, a Glenolden, Pennsylvania native and die-hard Eagles fan, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1989 after a recruiter offered her more money to leave the police academy. She conducted her basic training at nearby Joint Base McGuire–Dix–Lakehurst in New Jersey and was darn good at what she did, earning the Soldier of the Cycle as the best in her company.
The camaraderie and structure of the military inspired Kelly to devote her entire career to serving her country. She was dutifully on that path, working in sling-load operations for 13 years until 2002. During a training exercise while preparing to go to Iraq, a cable broke off of the helicopter that was being loaded. The heavy equipment fell directly on her. Devastating injuries to her head, shoulders, and spine left her paralyzed at 37 years old with just movement in her head and left arm. She spent the better part of the next decade in medical care. Memories of her world before the accident are foggy, at best.
"Sometimes I feel like a deserter because I didn't finish my mission," Kelly said. "It's something that I feel inside. I made it a career. I didn't want to disappoint, I think myself."
Kelly struggled to adapt to her new normal. Not only was she now a civilian. But one in a wheelchair.
"People don't see me. They see a chair," she said.
She admitted to trying to take her life twice.
"There has got to be a better way than just hiding from the world," Kelly added.
Kelly eventually moved to Florida and was introduced to adaptive cycling by airmen from the U.S. Special Operations Command out of Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base.
Sports brought Kelly out of "that suicide factor."
Once again, Kelly found something she was darn good at, winning multiple medals in adaptive cycling, swimming, and archery.
She didn't want to just compete. She wanted to be a champion, even with just one working arm.
Kelly completed several long-distance bike rides, including a cross-country trek from San Diego to South Carolina in 2015.
The extensive mileage began to take a toll on Kelly. Nerve damage in her left arm required a series of surgeries in 2016. At one point, Kelly had lost the use of her left arm, but reclaimed partial use after five operations.
"Can I just be the disabled body and not go through anymore? Unfortunately, it just doesn't work that way," Kelly said. "My body's failing. I just try to help out where I can and do what I can."
Kelly aims to get back in the pool, but her priority is to preserve her arm since it's the only way she can remain independent. Kelly was introduced to Marie Bogdonoff, the founder and president of Villagers for Veterans, a non-profit based in The Villages, Florida, whose mission is to ensure veterans receive assistance. The Villagers for Veterans community rallied around Sgt. Kelly. She did not qualify for certain grants from other organizations since her injury was not incurred in combat. They raised $300,000 to build a smart home in The Villages – the site of the largest military population without a base. The residence, specifically designed to meet Kelly's needs, was presented to her in June 2020. Kelly serves today as an ambassador for the group, aiding veterans struggling with the transition to civilian life, especially if it's as drastic a change as hers.
"She's like a second mom to me now," Kelly says of Bogdonoff.
Known to everyone in The Villages as THE Eagles fan, Kelly can't wait for football season to roll around each year.
"It gives me joy every Sunday," she says, typically wearing her Eagles gear around town. "I get up. I have my tea. I get relaxed. I read my Bible, and then it's like, 'Let's go!' I get to watch football! I feel like I'm at peace with that."
This past Sunday, Kelly accomplished another milestone as she attended her first Eagles game and witnessed firsthand the win over the Cowboys. Sgt. Kelly was acknowledged during the game and treated to a well-deserved standing ovation by the sold-out crowd of nearly 70,000 fans who saw her for exactly who she is – a hero.
The Eagles celebrated Salute to Service, presented by Toyota, with a Gold Star Gamers event, Military Movie Night, a visit to the VA hospital, and a Gold Star Family meet-and-greet with Lane Johnson. Check out the best photos from the week's festivities and game day action.