Decorated Vietnam veteran from Tuba City honored by Navajo Hopi Honor Riders
Andrew Kelly Jr. shares his journey
Editor's Note: Geri Hongeva, a member of the Navajo Hopi Honor Riders shares an interview conducted with Tuba City veteran and rider Andrew Kelly Jr.
One of the most decorated Native American veterans I have ever ridden with while being a part of the Navajo Hopi Honor Riders is a humble man named Andrew Kelly Jr. from Tuba City, Arizona.
He rides with a variety of motorcycle groups — all with a purpose he strongly believes in — supporting military families and other veterans.
At first glance, Andrew Kelly Jr., 71, appears to be an average biker wearing a Harley Davidson t-shirt, leathers and a veteran cap.
As I have gotten to know him over the years, I started to see all the accomplishments he has done for his country, his community and his family. He is a family man, loves his children and grandchildren deeply. He has five daughters and two sons, 25 grandchildren and one great grandchild. He has seven siblings and is the third oldest in his family.
His clans are Honágháahnii (One-walks-around clan), born for Tsé deeshgizhnii (Rock Gap People), maternal grandfather is Naakai dine’é (Mexican clan) and paternal grandfather is T ł ‘ízí lání (Manygoats clan).
As a young boy, Kelly grew up in Sanders, Arizona, with his grandmother, who only spoke Navajo. He remembers learning how to be independent at a young age.
“Just like herding sheep as a youth. You didn’t have a bunch of people around you, you did that alone, just you and the sheep,” Kelly said.
As a teenager, Kelly later moved to Tuba City, where his father is from.
Kelly’s mother was a teacher and was one of the first Navajo women to receive her college degree in education from the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. She dedicated her time teaching at Tuba City Boarding School until she retired.
His father was a veteran and skilled carpenter, who later started his own construction company with his son, which continues to thrive in the Phoenix area.
Kelly gives credit to his parents, who never gave up on him.
He explained that as a young boy, he would run away from boarding school and as a teenager, he was frequently in trouble. Kelly said his parents eventually sat him down and suggested he enlist in the military. He never graduated high school but did receive his GED and enlisted into the U.S. Army.
Kelly is from a military family — his father, Andrew Kelly Sr. was in U.S. Army during WWII and survived Omaha Beach. His grandfather, Charles Kelly served in WWI.
“Most of the men in my family have served in the military one way or the other. Protecting our relatives, our homeland. I’m not scared to die. I have been shot and stabbed. You learn to try and survive,” Kelly said.
Kelly enlisted into the Army in August 1969. He served in the 1st Air Cavalry Division as an Army Medic with the rank of SPC4.
While serving, he earned a number of medals and awards including the Silver Star, Bronze Star with combat V, Purple Heart, two Air Medals, Army Commendation Medal with combat V, National Defense Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, and also the Air Assault Badge and Combat Infantry Badge.
“I am very proud of Andrew. We almost lost him in Vietnam due to injuries, fighting, and rescuing the men in his unit. The song that spoke to him the night before the big fight was “Spirit in the Sky,’” said his younger sister Victoria Kelly Curry. “Upon listening to the song, he knew something was going to happen and that he needed to pray. Our family believes and practices praying daily and praying for others. Our masani (maternal grandmother) raised him most of his early childhood. That is where he learned his traditional ways.”
It was not until recently that Kelly began to talk about his service in the military.
“When Andrew first came back from the Army, he would have nightmares and for several years after, he didn’t talk about his service,” his older sister Prestine K. James explained.
After the military, Kelly became involved with the American Indian Movement (AIM) chapter in Denver, becoming friends with Vernon Bellecourt and Robert Burnette. They still keep in contact today.
Kelly continued to excel and attended Grand Canyon College in Phoenix, where he received his bachelors in 1986.
When I asked Kelly about his first motorcycle. He told me the story of when he was 16-years-old, he rode his Harley Davidson to Salt Lake City, Utah and almost froze. It was his first time riding long distance. He still enjoys riding his Heritage Harley Davidson, but riding long distance has taken a toll on his body.
Kelly currently resides in Tuba City where he is working on completing a home build.
He has been requesting for assistance from the Navajo Veterans Office, but with COVID-19 closing most of the Navajo Nation Administration offices, it’s been very challenging for him.
He enjoys his time with his children and grandchildren. He said he is proud of their accomplishments.
As I finished my conversation with him, he was very optimistic about life. Kelly practices a healthy diet and remains active the best he can.
“Enjoy life, don’t worry about what other people think of you, just treat them good,” Kelly said.
Kelly reminded me so much of my father, who was a Vietnam Veteran who died of Agent Orange in 1999.
I must admit, while talking with Kelly, I imagined by father, they would have been the same age.
“We have our traditions that we can lean on,” Kelly said.
The Navajo Hopi Honor Riders expressed their appreciation to Kelly by presenting him with a shadow box to display his medals and ribbons that he so selflessly earned to protect our freedom, his country and his people.
I look forward to riding with Kelly and enjoyed our conversation. I thank him for trusting me to share his story with me. Thank you for your service and welcome home brother.
More information is available at www.navajohopihonorriders.com.