Paralyzed vet’s memory lives on through van

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Frances Ford holds a photograph of her grandson, the late Cpl. Steve Kelly.(Melanie Duncan Thortis The Vicksburg Post)

[3/30/04]When her grandson died 12 years after a military training accident left him paralyzed, Vicksburg resident Frances Ford obtained his van that had been customized for disabled passengers.

After some thought, she knew just what to do with it.

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After trying to contact other veterans’ hospitals in the state, Ford gave the vehicle to the Collins State Veterans Home.

“More people will get to use it, and he would be overjoyed at that,” the 85-year-old said of her grandson, Natchez native Cpl. Steve Kelly. “Because he loved the service, and he loved the people in it.”

Kelly was a member of the 20th Special Forces Group of the Mississippi National Guard for three years before a 1993 accident left him paralyzed at age 32.

Kelly was training with the group at Grenada Lake in preparation for Operation Desert Storm. They were jumping without parachutes into the reservoir from helicopters.

“He never blamed the Special Forces; he loved it dearly,” Ford said. “I did some, but the Bible teaches us to forgive as we would want to be forgiven.”

“Steve said it was an accident and never blamed them.”

Kelly could communicate by having those near him read his lips. He could operate an electric wheelchair with his mouth. And he could be driven to places in the van.

He bought a home in Jackson, and after her husband died in 1999, Ford moved in to care for her grandson.

They spent hours talking about Kelly’s favorite things, fast cars and motorcycles, she said.

Kelly died at the G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery Veterans Administration Medical Center in Jackson in 2002, and was buried on Memorial Day. He was 43.

It was after that that Ford obtained his van.

“I thought I would use it,” she said. “But I got to thinking, what do I need with a van? I already have a car and a truck. What in the world am I going to do with that?”

So, almost two years later, the veterans’ home in Collins got a surprise. Ford handed over the title and the keys to the 1993 Ford in January.

“It was a wonderful donation, and we’ll be able to use the van almost daily,” said Dawn Bullock, administrator of the Collins State Veterans Home.

The home, about an hour south of Jackson, has about 140 residents.

Bullock said the van will be used to take patients to and from medical appointments and for activities outside of the home.

The name of the home was painted on the van’s exterior and, as the patients travel around Mississippi, travelers will see something else on the side of the van.

“In Memory of Steve Kelly” is written on the side of the vehicle, a gesture that makes his grandmother smile.

“He was a wonderful person, and I’m not saying that because I’m his grandmother,” Ford said.