If you asked Brigadier General Jason Kelly what he had planned for his life, the military would not be in the discussion.
Kelly, a native of the blue-collar town Flint, Michigan, had early success as an athlete. He played running back for former powerhouse Flint Northwestern High School, an athletic program that included the likes of NFL wide receiver Andre Rison and NBA All-Star Glen Rice.
Kelly went on to play football at the United States Military Academy, but it was at the beginning of his third season at West Point when he realized the gridiron was not in his future.
“As I went into my third year, I was coming off of an injury,” Kelly said. “There were some kids that were better football players than I was. What I had to do was just realize that I’d taken that as far as I could go.”
At that time, the 20-year-old Kelly decided that it was time to put football behind him and take the opportunity to continue being a scholar and a better soldier.
“Life, quite frankly, is a series of transitions,” he said. “Football brought me to the Army, I did that as long as I could, and after that, sort of transitioned.”
After graduating from West Point with a degree in Mathematical Sciences, Kelly went on to secure four master’s degrees, including a master’s in Statistics from Georgia Tech. Now, after almost 30 years of service and working his way through the ranks, Kelly was promoted to Brigadier General on June 7, 2021.
“I kept experiencing success as a young officer,” Kelly explained. “Learning, growing, kept getting better and here I am.”
Kelly’s responsibilities as Brigadier General include leading the South Atlantic Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one of nine regions. There are five subordinate districts, all under his command, and they handle various projects, from civil water resource development to constructing facilities for active duty.
“Delivering quality projects on time and within the allocated budget safely is what they’re doing at the district level,” Kelly said about the division structure. “We sit in the middle because we interact with the district and we interact with the headquarters in (Washington) D.C. when it comes to policy.”
Of the nine Major Subordinate Command General Officers, Kelly is one of only two that are African American, a fact that he does not overlook.
“I think about many of the rooms I enter, there aren’t a lot of folks that look like me,” Kelly said. “I’m dark-skinned; I cannot deny my lineage and what I am. It’s very clear when I come into the room.”
He is well aware of his position and how his status and journey may seem improbable, but the one thing Kelly wants to emphasize is that he is not the exception, but an example others can follow.
“I want that to be known, and every time I’m afforded the opportunity to share, I’ll do that,” he said.
Kelly was emphatic in how he wanted to be an example, especially for young men, and how what he has done is “repeatable.”
The Brigadier General also explained the numerous aspects that go into his success, including his interpersonal relationships with others.
“You’re raised and become proficient in weapons, tactics and war,” he touched on. “But you learn over time that it’s about people.”
Kelly went on to say how working with people is something he continually works on, including his toughest challenge: being a husband and a father.
“I’m able to do what I do because of the strength of my wife, because of the support that I know I have each day, and also the resilience of my children,” Kelly said. “What I’d like them to know is it’s not lost on me, the sacrifice that they’ve made that has enabled my service to the nation.”
After being in Atlanta for over a year now, Kelly’s youngest son is a rising junior at Maynard Jackson High School and he hopes that the assignment here in Atlanta is long enough to see his son through his final two years of high school in Atlanta. Wherever the Army takes him, however, the 49-year-old Kelly is looking forward to the next transition.
“I’m going to continue to seek opportunities to be impactful, stay focused on people,” he said. “When the day comes that I have to take off the uniform, I’ll continue to focus on people, to refute limitations. Sometimes, folks read my bio and will think that ‘you’re a mathematician’, and will sort of put me in a category and not see what I’ve done as repeatable. I’ll continue to push back and say that what I’ve done is repeatable. It may not come easy, you may not get it right away, but right back to what I said about discipline and hard work, you can do it.”