Michael “Machine Gun” Kelley, a nationally renowned Vietnam veteran artist and writer, died December 24 at his home in Sacramento, California. He committed suicide. Kelley was 65 years old and had been suffering from physical and emotional problems for several years.
“Mike Kelley was a force of nature, ” said Marc Leepson, The VVA Veteran’ s Arts Editor. “He was severely wounded in Vietnam, but through drive and determination he recovered and became a first-class artist and a forceful writer.
“And he was an untiring advocate for Vietnam veterans. Mike’s legacy will be the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which he helped get built, and his Where We Were in Vietnam , the invaluable book he worked tirelessly on for many years and one that belongs on every shelf of Vietnam War reference books.”
Michael P. Kelley was born in Van Nuys, California, and grew up in Montreal and Sacramento. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with a degree in fine art. After receiving his degree, Kelley volunteered for the draft. He was inducted on June 10, 1969, had Basic Training and Infantry AIT at Fort Ord, and landed in Vietnam on November 10, 1969.
Kelley did an eleven-month Vietnam War tour as a machine-gunner with Company D, 1st Battalion/502nd Infantry of the 101st Airborne Division. His tour ended in September 1970 when Kelley suffered severe injuries—including the loss of a lung—in a landmine explosion.
He was medivaced to Japan, then spent eight months recovering at Letterman Army Medical Center in San Francisco. Kelly was retired on medical disability in May of 1971.
Sometimes calling himself “Machine-gun Kelley, ” he went back to college and received his Masters in Fine Arts. Beginning in the early 1980s, Kelley became one of California’s most forceful and effective Vietnam veterans’ advocates. Among other things, he served as an Associate Member of the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission from 1984-1991. He donated his print “Extraction From a Hot LZ- Leaving Behind a Classic Ford and Our Innocence” (above, top ) to the Commission, which used it as a fund-raising poster.
Mike Kelley’s artwork hangs in museums and private collections throughout the world, including at Vietnam Veterans of America’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland; the Oakland Museum of California ; and the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago.
His articles on Vietnam veterans’ issues appeared in The Washington Post , Boston Globe , Chicago Sun Times , and Vietnam Magazine, among other publications. Where We Were was published in 2002.
“Mike Kelley has done everyone who served in Vietnam a great service with his monumental research for Where We Were , ” the noted Vietnam War correspondent Joe Galloway said of the book. “Veterans and military historians alike will benefit from his Herculean efforts to nail down precisely where everything was and where everything happened in America’s long war in Vietnam. If you can’t find it in these pages, it can’t be found.”
A memorial service was held on January 15 in a most appropriate location, the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Sacramento’s Capitol Park in front of the State Capitol. Contributions to the Michael P. Kelley memorial fund can be sent to 1617 Porter Way, Stockton, CA 95207
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