Observer | November 9, 2003
Nine years of healing. Six months of training. It comes down to this cold October morning. Michael Kelley versus the obstacle course.
He reaches down to take off his sweatshirt. The hand with the two missing fingers pulls the sweatshirt up over the missing ear.
He bends to touch the ground. The T-shirt sleeve draws back to expose a raw and twisted arm. The Band-Aid stretches across the elbow where there’s not enough skin to cover the bone.
He braces both hands against a concrete pipe. Under the camouflage pants are the legs covered with skin grafts. Under the gray running shoes are the Achilles tendons that had to be split and the foot bones that had to be fused.
He looks out onto the obstacle course.
One recruit is sprinting across a field. Another is climbing slick stairs. Their arms hang limp with fatigue. Their sneakers are soaked with cold dew. The ones who went out first are crouched off to the side, sucking in air or heaving up breakfast.
There are 18 Charlotte-Mecklenburg police recruits out here this morning. They quit good jobs, worried their families, even moved from other states for a shot at wearing a badge. They gambled six months of their lives on the mandatory training.
Now they have to beat the obstacle course.
Its official title is the Police Officer Physical Abilities Test. Everyone who wants to be a law enforcement officer in North Carolina has to pass it. There are 11 tasks. You get seven minutes and 20 seconds. If you fail, you turn in your gear and go home.
The stopwatch doesn’t care how bad Michael Kelley was hurt that day nine years ago.
The stopwatch doesn’t care how long it took him to walk again, how much longer it took him to run. All that matters is now. He wipes the sweat from the side of his head.
Officer Bobby Buening, the head trainer, marks down the time for the recruit who just finished. Then Buening shouts:
“Let’s go, Mr. Kelley!”
Michael jogs over to the starting point, stiff-legged, limping.
Buening pulls out a fresh score sheet, the one with Michael’s name on it.
He sets the stopwatch to zero.
If he had been standing in another spot. If he had been looking in the right direction. If they had trained another day. No sense dwelling on it. He was there, that spot, that day, that moment.
On March 23, 1994, Michael Kelley and 500 other Army paratroopers gathered at a staging area called Green Ramp on Pope Air Force Base. The group from the 82nd Airborne had come over from Fort Bragg. They were planning to jump that day.
Michael had 11 years in the Army and more than 60 jumps behind him. While he waited for a briefing, he practiced off a 3-foot-high platform. It was just after 2 in the afternoon.
He noticed an odd movement out of the corner of his eye.
A cargo plane and a fighter jet had tried to land on the same runway. They clipped each other in the air. The cargo plane landed safely, and the jet pilots ejected. But the empty jet crashed into a third aircraft on the ground — a C-141 transport that was waiting to take the paratroopers on their jump.
The giant plane had just been filled with fuel.
A ball of fire as big as a two-story house shot out from the explosion. No one in its path had time to move.
Michael got hit from behind. The impact knocked him down. As he got up and turned he could see over his shoulder. His back was on fire.
He spun, but the fire curled around to his front. He rolled, but the ground was soaked with fuel. By the time rescuers found him, he was burned everywhere but his left shoulder and part of his left side.
Rescue teams had to deal with dozens of injured soldiers. In the chaos the medics hurried the soldiers into groups, depending on the level of injury and pain.
Military triage guidelines include a category called “expectant.” That means the patient should be made comfortable, because he is about to die.
The medics took one look at Michael and moved him to the expectant group.
He was the only one in the group who lived. Twenty-four soldiers died from the explosion. More than 100 were wounded.
Michael’s wife, Lisa, saw the report on the news. Those with the worst injuries were flown to the Army’s burn center in San Antonio. Lisa caught a flight right behind Michael’s.
She remembers being led into the intensive care unit. She thought the soldiers would be covered in bandages. But instead they were naked except for a square of gauze over their private parts. Their arms were stretched wide and strapped down to keep the muscles from drawing up.
She thought: They’ve been crucified.
Later on, the Army advised her to sign a paper on Michael’s behalf, changing his status from active to retired. That way she’d get better benefits when he died.
She didn’t sign.
Michael spent much of the next three years in hospitals.
He normally weighed 140 pounds. Fluid from the burns swelled him to 190. Then his withering muscles dropped him all the way to 83.
He went into surgery 37 times. Sometimes two or three doctors worked on different parts of his body while he was under.
For months he wore Ilizarov frames — metal cages around his legs attached with pins that went all the way through.
Skin from his thigh was grafted onto his neck. Skin from his hips went onto his shoulder. Skin from his back went onto his arms.
Back home at Fort Bragg, he crawled from room to room. He pulled a towel behind him to drag a snack from the kitchen.
It was nearly a year after the accident before he could walk.
Two years after that he put an end to the surgery. He didn’t care about a new right ear or a reconstructed nose. He could get up and move around. That was enough.
In 1997 he took a medical retirement from the Army, leaving with the rank of staff sergeant. He had a wife, two kids, a full pension and no idea what he’d be able to do.
“But I did know what I didn’t want to do,” he said. “I never wanted to just glide through life.”
Fort Bragg found that out. One day some paratroopers were going over the roster for an upcoming flight. One of them noticed a name he hadn’t seen in a while.
On one of his last days on base, Michael Kelley came that close to sneaking onto the plane.
He wanted one last jump.
Two: Stakes in the dirt
Four years out of the Army, eight years after the crash, Michael was safe and healthy and restless.
By this point he had moved the family to Charlotte. He grew up here, graduated from Charlotte Catholic. His mom and dad still lived in town. He could hang out with them and know the accident wouldn't be the first thing that came up.
He had spent a lot more time with the kids, Michael (who’s now 17) and Mary (who’s now 15). They barely remember what their dad used to look like.
Right after the accident, they learned not to hug him hard. But as he got better they could tease him about the hairless patch on the back of his scalp. They think it looks like a cat.
He took classes at Central Piedmont Community College, then transferred to UNC Charlotte and majored in psychology. He got his degree in May 2002. He looked around at graduate schools. He realized he didn't care if he got into one or not.
He tried to figure out what he did care about.
Just about all the Kelley men were soldiers or cops. His brother had also been in the 82nd Airborne, and their grandfather had served in the 82nd in World War II. His other grandfather had been a U.S. marshal. His dad and uncle had been on the Charlotte police force. Michael didn’t like being compared to anyone else. But he couldn’t deny the pull.
The same things he loved about the military, he saw in the police. He needed to serve. To be part of a team. To do something intense, even dangerous.
Most of all he needed to do something he thought was important. Something to say he did his part for the world.
One day in the fall of ’02 he took Mary to the library. While she looked up things for class, he logged onto a computer. He called up the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's Web site.
He found the description for the physical skills pretest, a stripped-down version of the obstacle course. He’d have to do 30 sit-ups, 30 push-ups, 40 reps on an aerobic step.
He would have to run a total of 400 yards.
He hadn’t run at all since the day of the accident.
A couple of days later he found his wife in her work room, where she teaches classes in doll making. He waited until she turned around.
Let’s talk about me, he said.
A day or two later he stood on the street in his neighborhood off Albemarle Road. He had mapped out a route with his truck. Three-quarters of a mile. He figured he’d jog a few steps and walk the rest.
He was slow. His feet wouldn’t bend and so he clopped like a horse. His elbows swung out high. Every step rippled with pain.
He ran the whole way.
The pretest required running between two cones 50 feet apart. Michael drove two stakes into the ground in his back yard. He had never heard of an aerobic step. He stacked two railroad ties.
Every day he ran between the stakes and stepped up on the railroad ties and did sit-ups until he couldn’t move.
Michael took the pretest in December, after two months of practice. He passed with a minute to spare.
The Police Department gets 300 applicants for every 20 people selected as recruits. Michael went through the interview, the psychological exam, the polygraph test. He was accepted in April. He was 38 years old and starting over.
The application papers give fair warning:
Applicants should continue to prepare themselves to be challenged physically.
The 142nd Recruit Training Class gathered for the first time on May 19, a Monday.
By Thursday, someone had already quit.
Three: From Bubba to Stonehenge
They meet every morning in the same classroom and sit at the same desks with the same name cards.
But nobody uses the names on the cards. Everyone has a nickname.
Over here is Sean Parker, thick and strong. He’s Bulldog.
Over there is Lisa Speas, the only woman in the class. She’s Queen Bee.
Ben West throws up after long runs. He’s Upchuck. Scott Zay moved from West Virginia to be here. He’s Hardcore.
“The Fire Department is testing today,” Bobby Buening says as the class does sit-ups in the grass. “Mr. Zay, you wanna go over there?”
“I didn’t move 400 miles to polish chrome for 30 years, sir!”
Michael Kelley has a reporter and photographer following him around.
Even the landmarks have names. A steep hill on the way to the firing range is Bubba. The area scattered with concrete blocks by the pull-up bars is Stonehenge.
The criminals of the world go by one name: Joe.
“Joe’s out there doing one-armed push-ups,” Buening says as the recruits strain on exercise machines. “Joe don’t care if you’re tired. Joe hopes you quit.”
It is Buening’s job to make sure the recruits are ready for Joe. He’s 44, a 19-year vet with the department, in triathlon shape.
He has known Michael since they were kids — Buening was a few years ahead of him at Charlotte Catholic. In his heart he roots for Michael. In his mind he knows it is up to the grade on the test and the time on the clock.
So he pushes. He makes everybody do 142 sit-ups in the wet grass because they are the 142nd Class. He takes them out to Stonehenge for round after round of dips — vertical push-ups on a set of parallel bars. The class does them until their arms tremble.
“Some of these guys, they think they’re hurting after a five-mile run,” he says. “I tell them, ‘You think about what Mr. Kelley went through. You don’t know what pain is.’ ”
On the first day of class, they all told their life stories. Everyone knows what happened to Michael. Most of the other recruits are younger. Several are ex-military. They treat him with respect.
“Mike, I’m telling you, the way you’ve turned your life around, the way you’ve made it back ,” says Billy Kiley. “I’m so proud of you.”
“You know, the six years in jail and all.”
Chris Ireland jumps in: “Yeah, and coming out of the closet must have been hard.”
Everybody laughing now.
“Well, there was the meth lab explosion,” Kelley says. “I don’t know if I mentioned that one.”
They know one another’s soft spots. They know that Quentin Blakeney would rather shrug than talk, that Ben West sometimes zones out in the middle of class.
They know that Buening makes Billy Vang yell “STOP! POLICE!” over and over because his Hmong accent makes it sound like “STOP! PLEASE!”
But Lisa Speas knows who’s struggling with the classwork and she helps. Class president Jeff Williams knows who needs to be spotted on the bench press and he’s there.
One morning they go out for a timed run, three laps around two cones set on the road, a mile and a half in all.
Williams is always the fastest in the class. He finishes in 8:18. A few others cross the line soon after. Nearly everybody has finished all three laps when Michael makes the turn on his second. He is fighting shin splints. The burn marks on his face are glowing red.
Michael runs around the curve, out of sight. Bulldog, next to last, is already coming back toward the finish. He finishes at 12:50. Michael doesn’t appear for nearly a minute. He is alone on the road.
Jeff Williams turns to the other recruits: “Let’s go get him.”
They jog back down the sides of the road, spreading out until they make a human tunnel.
As Michael passes the first two, they fall in beside him.
Two more, two more, two more.
The ones up ahead shout as they wait.
Fifty steps from the finish, the last two runners join the pack. They holler his name. They make a knot behind him.
The whole class runs him in.
Four: A call from Spruce Pine
In the old photos of Joe Kelley you see his youngest son.
His bucket-handle chin is Michael’s chin. His thin lips, Michael’s lips. His even stare, Michael’s stare.
Joe Kelley joined the Charlotte police in 1961. He retired 30 years and 30 days later. After that he was head of security for the Bank of America building. As far back as Michael can remember, everybody in town seemed to know his dad.
He taught at the police academy for years. During training, Michael and Joe called or e-mailed almost every day. Nothing special. How you doing, son? Fine. Hard work, but I’m OK.
Back in the ’80s Joe bought an eight-sided cabin up near Spruce Pine. Sometimes the whole family would gather up there. Sometimes Joe and his wife, Lani, went up alone. Joe would piddle around with wood carvings, go for walks, spend all day in a book.
On Sept. 7, seven weeks from the end of Michael’s training, Joe and Lani were spending a beautiful day at the cabin. Joe cut up a fallen tree. He came inside for lunch and the second half of the Panthers’ opener.
He sat down in his favorite chair and had a heart attack and died.
He was 63.
The funeral was three days later in Charlotte at Sacred Heart Catholic Church. The pews were filled with police: officers in the honor guard, detectives on their day off, retired cops with gray hair and stories.
The night Joe died, Sgt. Dave Gehrke — the academy’s training supervisor — told Michael he could have the week off.
Michael came back the day after the funeral. He figured his dad would have done the same.
“We didn’t have deep, long talks about my going to the academy,” he says. “But I know how he felt about what I was doing.”
Michael leans back in his chair.
“I’m going to miss having a chance to get his advice about all this. But if there is a connection from that side to this side, he’ll see how it turns out.”
In the final weeks, Buening eased off on the physical work to help everyone heal. But every day he reminded them about the obstacle course.
The course simulates what an officer might have to do under stress. Run long distances. Drag someone to safety. Crash through a door. Crawl through a tight dark space.
It is designed to wear you out. There are two stops where the recruits have to do 20 push-ups and 20 sit-ups. Each push-up has to end with their chin touching a trainer’s fist on the ground. Each sit-up has to end with their elbows touching their knees. If it's not done right, it doesn’t count.
Everyone had practiced on the course a few weeks before. But that day the only obstacles were the ones they could see.
On test day, pressure becomes an obstacle. Anyone who fails the test gets one more chance. Anyone who fails again can’t come back.
Michael Kelley’s obstacles follow him around. The shins that won’t stop aching. The ankles that won’t get loose. The whole damn awkward apparatus of his body, all those muscles still withered, all that skin in the wrong place.
And now his dad.
If he fails, he doesn’t know if he could go through it again.
All the way up to the day of the test, he swears he’s not nervous. He watches the Panthers on Sunday, same as always. It’s their first loss of the season.
He gets up at 5:30 on Monday morning, Oct. 20. Showers and shaves. Skips breakfast like he always does on physical-training days. Checks his bag to make sure he has extra underwear. He’ll be sweating.
He flips the radio between NPR and “John Boy & Billy.” It’s just another test, he says to himself. I’ve taken a million tests.
But he knows better.
Nine years of healing. Six months of training. It comes down to this cold October morning.
The starting point is the driver’s seat of a police car.
Michael buckles himself in. The first task will be to jump out of the car and run.
Recruit Kris Kodad gets in next to him. Kodad is the designated victim. Later on Michael will have to drag him away from the car, twice.
The running path is in front of him. The rest of the course is off to his right. Michael looks right, then straight ahead. He forces himself to breathe deep.
Buening comes up to the open window.
At the beginning of the test, the trainer calls out two street names. At the end, the recruit has to repeat them in order. Anyone who misses has to run 200 more yards.
“All right, Mr. Kelley,” Buening says. “Maple and Monroe. Repeat it.”
“Maple and Monroe.”
Rush-hour traffic races by. A plane roars overhead. But between the two men there is a silent space. Buening waits. Kelley breathes.
Finally, Buening leans in. His voice is quiet now.
“Leave no doubt, sir.”
Michael grips the steering wheel.
Buening checks his stopwatch. Puts his finger on the button.
Reprinted with permission of the Charlotte Observer.