Nancy Lee Kelley made a special point to save as keepsakes the photos and letters her son, Capt. Christopher Scott Cash, sent home from Iraq.
But the mementos she collected in scrapbooks to present to him when his tour of duty ended are now Kelley’s final and most tangible memories of her son.
Cash was killed in battle on June 24, 2004, in Baqubah, Iraq.
The day before Cash died, he had e-mailed Kelley a photo that showed him standing with some Iraqi children in front of their school. He looked happy and well.
Kelley, 62, refers to the photo and her son’s dedication to military service, when speaking before groups as a Gold Star Mother. The term refers to American women whose military sons and daughters lost their lives in the line of duty. Cash died while leading soldiers in battle; he had served 18 years in the Army, most recently in the North Carolina National Guard.
American Gold Star Mothers also is the name of a historic national organization, dating back to World War I, that recognizes and provides support for women grieving the loss of children who died while serving in the Armed Forces.
Kelley is chaplain of the Maine chapter of Gold Star Mothers. Although she says it has been an honor to serve in the nonprofit service organization, she said that she hopes none of her friends or relatives ever has reason to join.
“It’s a sad organization to belong to but it also is a wonderful support system,” said Kelley, of Old Orchard Beach. “We are able to honor our sons and daughters. I do a lot of speaking on behalf of my son.”
Kelley said that she and her husband, Robert – who is Cash’s stepfather – have dedicated a lot of their lives since 2004 to volunteer work on behalf of Cash.
“My husband describes Chris an ‘all American kid.’ He was a moral person and a positive thinker.”
Kelley said that she hopes her volunteerism reflects the spirit and character of her son, a strong advocate of education and military service.
On April 25, Kelley is scheduled to speak at the 3rd Annual Spring Ride for the Troops, hosted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6977 of York. It is sponsored by the Patriot Riders of New England.
Nancy and Robert also organize Hugs of Love – Remember Our Troops Support Group, a nonprofit group that holds special flag ceremonies and helps schoolchildren send “we care” packages to soldiers.
In 2005, they started Run for Cash, an annual 5k-race and fun run in Old Orchard Beach that raises college scholarship money in memory of their son.
This year’s race is on June 26, close to the anniversary of his death. It includes a breakfast at Old Orchard Beach High School.
The Kelleys so far have given away $14,500 in scholarships to high school seniors in Old Orchard Beach and at Thornton Academy.
If the race continues to grow, Kelley hopes to expand the scholarship program to include Biddeford students, since her son had many friends from the neighboring community.
One of the participants has been Army Capt. Andrew Roberts of New York, who served with Cash and filled his post after his death. Roberts shared with Kelley some of his final memories of her son.
Kelley says she feels blessed to know the circumstances of her son’s death, which does not always happen for parents and relatives whose loved ones served in foreign countries. The soldiers may be abducted or events murky in the chaos of battle.
Kelley even has an artist’s depiction of the Battle of Baqubah, where her son died. The large, framed print hangs on her living room wall.
Artist Don Stivers recreates war battles from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kelley said it took her a long time to decide whether to display the painting. But after talking with her two grandsons, she felt certain that her son would want her to show the painting. She says that it honors his service and the sacrifice he made for his country.
“My husband said, ‘Why no, Nancy? We are so proud of Chris. This is nothing to be ashamed of. He was fighting a battle and protecting his men.’”
Kelley said that Cash was ordering soldiers to take cover when he was killed by two bullets to the head.
The title of the artwork is “Old Hickory at Baqubah,” referring to the nickname of Cash’s unit, which was out of Jacksonville, N.C., where he lived with his wife and two sons. Cash grew up in Old Orchard Beach but later moved south after joining the military.
A 1985 Old Orchard Beach High School graduate, Cash was raised in the two-story red house on Cascade Road where Nancy and Robert still live.
It is the same house where two military officers arrived late on June 24, 2004, to inform Nancy Lee and Robert Kelley that 36-year-old Christopher Scott Cash had died in battle that morning. Kelley said she felt confused and then numbed by the news.
She did not join Gold Star Mothers immediately, and there was no pressure for her to be a member. But the group was there for Kelley when she felt it was time to move on and show the same courage and strength that her son displayed.
“I loved Chris more than life itself,” Kelley said. “He lived his life in the most positive way. Everyone who knew him said that.
“He was not out there to set the world on fire. He just tried to do the right thing. A mom could not ask for anything more.”
A Closer Look
For more information on American Gold Star Mothers, see www.goldstarmoms.com/index.htm.
For information on Run for Cash 5k Memory Race, see www.runforcash.org.
Nancy Lee Kelley, shown marching in this undated file photo, is chaplain of the Maine chapter of Gold Star Mothers, an organization she hopes none of her friends or relatives ever has reason to join. “It’s a sad organization to belong to but it also is a wonderful support system,” she says. This photo of Capt. Christopher Scott Cash with Iraqi school children was taken the day before his death in Iraq, according to his mother, Nancy Lee Kelley, a Gold Star Mother.