With her sterling and mostly anonymous career, Kerry Kelley shows that we rarely know much about the folks we randomly run into each day — they might even be vital to our national security.
Kelley didn’t bring her work home or chat about it, even with her husband. After all, some of it was classified.
“I might point to the newspaper and say, ‘That was something I worked on,’ like arms control or new technology,” she said. “But that was about the extent of it.”
Growing up as the daughter of a line worker at an Illinois nail factory, she never would have predicted her destiny as director of the Joint Cyber Center at the U.S. Strategic Command.
Now, after a 32-year national security career, she has retired as the civilian equivalent of a one-star general.
“I’ve always been in touch with the mission of our national security,” Kelley said. “In going to work every day, I always felt we were doing something for a greater purpose, a greater good.”
Married and the mother of three grown children, she has helped analyze everything from B-2 stealth bomber procurement to arms control to cruise missile reduction to all manner of plans and military budgets.
At Offutt Air Force Base, she frequently worked at the famed underground command post. In recent years, she reported directly to the StratCom commander.
Compared with the Cold War, Kelley said, the “threat environment” today is more complicated, with worries about North Korea, China and others, including our old adversary.
“Russia is flexing its muscles, modernizing its nuclear force, and is very proactive in cyber,” she said. “Russia is definitely kind of pushing our buttons a bit. For what purpose, you can speculate.”
She makes no political statement, noting the military’s longtime nonpartisan, nonpolitical function to provide objective information.
As Kerry Ford, she came to Omaha on an academic scholarship at Creighton University, graduating in 1984 with a degree in mathematics. She then earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University in operations research.
In 1985, she became an operations research analyst with the Strategic Air Command, not planning a career at SAC. But things unfolded.
She began dating Craig Kelley, whose family then owned the old Sunset Speedway. Kerry soon helped out there on weekends, manning the computer, making sure drivers got paid and even bartending.
She had just come off a breakup and was determined not to get serious. But Craig won her over, not just with roses and kindness but also by realizing her car was missing a hubcap.
He went to an auto parts yard, found a matching one and replaced it without telling her — but she noticed. They married in 1987.
Like a lot of couples, they are different personalities.
“Kerry is very humble,” said Craig, an attorney. “She is more introverted, and she takes in a situation and listens before she talks. She’s a true STEM personality.”
That acronym for “science, technology, engineering and math” is more often emphasized today, especially for girls and women, than when Kerry was in school.
Few women took part in her graduate program, she said, and in her career, “I guess sometimes I was the only woman in the room.”
But she soon learned to ignore that, she said, and focus on the work.
She advanced through the civilian ranks, and attended the stirring 1992 stand-down ceremony at Offutt Air Force Base that marked the post-Cold War end of SAC.
An Air Force reorganization created the U.S. Strategic Command, responsible for all nuclear forces.
On 9/11, she wasn’t at the underground command center when President George W. Bush flew in and consulted with generals before Air Force One returned him to Washington, D.C., to address the nation.
Kelley and a colleague, who were in California, rented a car and drove back to Omaha in two days.
By 2007 she had achieved the highest civilian rank in U.S. government, the senior executive service, and soon became director of StratCom’s Joint Cyber Center.
In March, she received a rousing send-off into retirement. Gen. John Hyten, StratCom commander, praised her work through the years, including the early ’90s transition from SAC to StratCom.
Said Hyten: “She provided the analysis that showed the way for our future weapons construct under the new Strategic Command and the structure after the Cold War.”
Kelley said her civilian-military relationships were always respectful. And while military personnel may move on every two or three years, she said, civilians often stay, providing valuable institutional memory.
In retirement, she plans to work as a consultant. The Canton, Illinois, native is now a longtime Omahan, and she is impressed with the number of military retirees who live in the area.
“I’ve often asked people who come here why they’ve stayed,” she said. “Even Navy people — the nearest large body of water is a thousand miles away! But they love the quality of life here and feel that the greater Omaha community is very supportive of the military.”
Maybe, without knowing it, you’ve run into Kerry Kelley waiting at a grocery store checkout, cheering at a Creighton basketball game or pumping gas. Military and civilian folks in important jobs at Offutt are all around us.