War scribe from Utah returns, reinvents self through insightful blog

Back from Iraq: He kept personal details private, but the quality of Lee Kelley's writing from Iraq caught nation's eye
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He'd been preparing for years. Yet, as it was happening, it didn't feel significant. Nothing stirred inside of him. No joy or fear. No epiphany.

Not much to write about.

And so, on the night Lee Kelley's battalion crossed into Iraq, he unfolded his laptop computer and typed a short note about a rather unremarkable trip into the heart of a war zone.

"It was not unlike waiting for a layover flight" he typed. "Only the Starbucks and Cinna-Bon were missing."

Kelley, a 34-year-old officer in the Utah Army National Guard, since has found plenty to write about. His Web log - http://wordsmithatwar.blog-city.com - has been one of the most popular and acclaimed blogs to come out of the Iraq war.

"It wasn't about me"

During a year in Ramadi, an insurgent stronghold in western Iraq, Kelley found literary fodder in every aspect of his deployment. From a mournful contemplation of how God would treat the suicide bomber who killed his friend to a celebratory description of the smell of rain in the desert, Kelley became a voice for thousands of his comrades.

Yet, in doing so, the Murray resident set an unusual course in the blogging world.

The most popular and publicized military blogs are often intensely personal, grimly detailed and deeply incredulous of U.S. policy. But Kelley rarely mentioned his personal life. He shied away from graphic descriptions of death. And he didn't question the reasons for his deployment.

"I felt I could write something interesting without doing all those things," Kelley said. "I was writing about myself, but in a way I really felt I was speaking for the entire battalion. So while it was personal, it wasn't about me."

Kelley didn't intend his blog to be the online equivalent of a reality television show, even as his life took turns resembling one.

When his eight-year marriage disintegrated while he was away - as thousands of military marriages have done - he didn't bring it up in his blog.

"You get to Iraq, and no matter how good or bad your marriage is, as soon as you get there everything is a white picket fence," Kelley said. "You idealize everything because that is your anchor to reality. And for me, personally, that was taken away, piece by piece, so much so that, when I finally got home, I was divorced within three weeks."

Kelley said he was tempted, as his blog became more popular, to use it as a place to vent his frustrations with his wife, but he refrained.

"It wasn't what people were reading this blog for," he said.

In the same vein, he never revealed his children's names, nor his unit's identity and precise location. And though he ultimately conceded that national attention to his blog would strip away any hope of anonymity, he continued to write under the nom de guerre of "Lieutenant K."

"A literary endeavor"

Despite Kelley's refusal to share intimate details about himself, his family and his unit, traffic to his site grew.

"Lee successfully drew a different kind of attention to his blog when he called it Wordsmith at War. It told you that the writer was not only engaged in a military mission, but in a literary endeavor as well," said Peter Catapano, an editor at The New York Times, which hired Kelley to pen several original posts from Iraq for its Web site. "Lee had a sense of the inherent drama of his role in Iraq and a real desire to write about it in the form of well-told, effective stories."

Readers said those stories often moved them to tears - and impelled them to share Kelley's words with their friends and families. By the time Kelley left Iraq, his blog had been named one of the Top 10 sites on http://milblogging.com, an online compendium of military blogs. More than 220 sites now link to Wordsmith at War, according to http://www.Technorati.

com, which tracks online blog traffic. The success of Kelley's blog has led to involvement in several published collections of military writers' work, most recently The Blog of War by fellow military blogger Matthew Burden.

Burden, who began his writing career as author of the military blog http://www.Blackfive.net, found Kelley's site through his readers after asking for suggestions of good blogs to include in his book.

"Right away I noticed the quality of writing at Wordsmith at War," Burden said. "Lee's ability to convey both emotion and intelligent discourse is very unique."

When Doonesbury comic strip creator - and impassioned G.I. advocate - Gary Trudeau began a Web log devoted to military writers last month, site organizers chose Kelley to pen the inaugural entry.

The National Public Radio program "Day to Day" produced a series of segments on military writers, with Kelley the first invited to record a reading.

The inconspicuous subject of the entry producers asked Kelley to read: The burning of trash at Forward Operating Base Ramadi. The real theme: How awesomely distant Iraq feels from home.

"We live our days in a place of harsh realities," Kelley read in a soft monotone, a single sheet of paper quivering in his hands as he leaned into the giant microphone. "Of danger, of intense heat, of learning the hard way, of brotherhood, of war, of sacrifice, of bold action, of bitter tears, of love, of hate, of regeneration and of history.

"But every once in a while, in the silence of the night, we simply stand around a fire and feed paper into the flames."

"Defeat the hours"

Links from other sites, spots in various books about bloggers and - especially as of late - Kelley's appearance on the Doonesbury blog, have kept a steady flow of traffic coming into the Wordsmith at War site.

But for the most part, visitors are reading old material. He's had little time, lately, to update the site.

Home from one war, Kelley has found a new battle: Learning to juggle single fatherhood with work - he's now "Captain K" and works full-time at the Camp Williams Military Reservation - as he tries to reinvent himself as a professional writer.

"I keep trying to defeat the hours - to carve silent moments out of my days, but it is of no use," he wrote in a recent post. "I generally get the solitude I need to write only before the kids get up (very early) or after they're asleep (when I'm tired, too.)"

Though Kelley insists he loves soldiering, the painful thought of being away from his children for another 18-month deployment is too great to bear. So he plans to resign his commission in the next two years - before his unit is once again called to combat.

But writing is a notoriously poor-paying profession. For all his successes, so far, Kelley has earned less than $2,000 in book royalties and freelance fees.

But recently, having been hired to write the biography of Richard Fisher, a World War II general and engineer who built airports across the world, Kelley is hopeful that the relative prestige - and pay - of his writing assignments is on the rise.

And with that, he hopes, is a new future, one born in the quietness of the desert, the horrors of war, the pain of leaving family - and the gentle, rhythmic tapping of his fingers upon the keyboard of a sand-dusted computer.

mlaplante@sltrib.com