Grisamore: The reminders of Kelley Courtney

May 24, 2014 

The memorials are everywhere.

Time has captured them in framed photographs. They stand at attention in a corner of the house where he grew up.

The memories live on in the “nature sanctuary” he carved with a chain saw from pine trees on the property in south Bibb County that has been in his family for six generations.

They can be found in the heart-shaped leaves and rocks his parents often find at their feet when they walk. They are reminders of the heartfelt letter he wrote from boot camp.

The most visible memorials are the road signs at Hartley Bridge Road and Interstate 75, the interchange named in memory of Macon Marine Sgt. Kelley Courtney, who was killed in Iraq 10 years ago this fall.

“It has been 10 years on the calendar, but it was like yesterday to us,” said his mother, Gena Courtney. “Some people have told us we’ve got to move on, like we are supposed to forget our son. That’s not ever going to happen.”

Courtney was a 28-year-old counterintelligence officer who was one of eight Marines killed when a convoy truck was struck by a suicide bomber outside of Fallujah on Oct. 30, 2004. He was the first serviceman from Macon to die in action since the Vietnam War. He left behind his wife and childhood sweetheart, Cindy, and young children Kellie Marie, 4, and Logan, 1.

In April 2006, the new Marines counterintelligence building at Camp Hansen in Okinawa, Japan, was named Courtney Hall. Eighteen months later, the I-75 interchange at Hartley Bridge Road (Exit 155) was dedicated in his honor.

There are signs on the northbound and southbound ramps, east on Hartley Bridge in front of Kroger and on the west side near Zaxby’s. According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, more than 71,000 cars and trucks travel past the interchange each day.

Every Memorial Day -- as well as the Fourth of July, Veterans Day, Courtney’s birthday (Aug. 13) and other holidays -- his parents hang red, white and blue streamers on each sign post. At first, they took a step ladder with them. Now, Bob Courtney places them “as high as I can reach.”

“I’ve had some people tell me they have never noticed the signs,” Bob said. “Others don’t know he grew up out here and walked across those bridges. It’s just a name on a sign. When I introduce myself, I sometimes get asked if I’m kin to the Courtney on the sign. Gena and I wonder after we’re gone, if he is going to be forgotten.”

Gena calls her son’s name every time she passes one of the signs. It helps her find strength for the day.

“I can’t ride by without saying his name,” she said. “We put him on a plane to Okinawa on March 31, 2004. We hugged him, kissed him and were so excited for him. And we never saw him again.”

* * *

Kelley Lance Courtney was born on Aug. 13, 1976. It was a Friday the 13th during the same summer America was celebrating its bicentennial. As a child, he memorized the words of songs on the radio and jingles on TV commercials.

He loved the outdoors. He wrote poems and songs. He was an artist, like his mom. He also was very spiritual. At one time, he talked about becoming a minister.

After earning his GED, he took classes at Central Georgia Tech. His father had been in the Air Force, and Kelley made an appointment to see a recruiter. But the Air Force officer didn’t show up. A Marine recruiter noticed Kelley standing outside and invited him into his office. Not only did Kelley join the Marines, but he also convinced his younger brother, Donny, and a friend to enlist, too. Semper Fi.

He married Cindy in 1999. Their daughter, Kellie Marie, was born when he was stationed in Barstow, California. On New Year’s Day 2001, his Marine unit marched in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.

He became interested in counterintelligence and went through training in Beaufort, South Carolina, and Dam Neck, Virginia. When his son, Logan, was born, everyone said he was a chip off the old block. Kelley even called him “Mini Me.”

In 2004, Kelley came home for a few months, waiting on his orders. To occupy his mind, he built a nature sanctuary in the woods behind his parents’ home. He cut down pines and formed 12 stools in a circle, representing the 12 disciples of Jesus. He placed two benches near a wooden cross. It resembled the ancient Stonehenge, so his family named it “PineHinge.”

Kelley had only been in Iraq for six weeks when he wrote his family that he would be taking part in an extensive, weeklong mission. The American forces had not been in Fallujah in six months, when the insurgent activity was at its peak. He confided in his family it would be like going into a “hornet’s nest.”

Gena was watching the evening news on Saturday, Oct. 30, when the news broke that eight Marines had been killed outside of Fallujah. There were images of black smoke on the TV. Gena knew all she could do was pray.

The next day, there was no black smoke. But the smoke alarm went off in Kelley’s old bedroom for no apparent reason. They couldn’t get it to stop and had to remove the battery.

Bob was working on the porch, and Gena was in the kitchen when she noticed a gray, U.S. government car in the driveway. A Marine was standing near the garage. Three notification officers had arrived to bring the sad news.

“I could hear them talking, but I was numb,” Bob said. “It was like being thrown into a fire pit.”

Gena had been an artist in residence for the Bibb County schools, and she taught art classes through the continuing education program at Macon State College.

The grief crushed her spirit.

“I didn’t see color for a long time,” she said.

* * *

There were two funerals. The first was on Nov. 14, 2004, just three days after Veterans Day, at Glen Haven Memorial Gardens on Houston Road. The procession was lined with people waving flags and holding up “God Bless America” signs. There was a flag-draped casket and a 21-gun salute.

A second memorial service was held the next March, when his remains were returned from Iraq.

Kelley’s faith was important to him. He read the Bible. His favorite saying was “Do the right thing.” His priorities were “God, family and country.”

“If anybody is in heaven, Kelley is in heaven,” Gena said. “He wasn’t perfect, but he was as good as they come. We are trying to live the kind of life to honor him.”

They often place flowers on his grave at Glen Haven. In 2006, when his name was misspelled “Kelly” on a monument honoring fallen heroes near the Macon Coliseum, his parents insisted it be corrected.

Gena has been involved with Gold Star Mothers. In September, she hopes to attend the Fifth Annual Lt. Dan Weekend in Charleston and Beaufort, South Carolina, along with the mothers of the other Marines killed that day in Iraq.

There is another way Gena is remembering her son. She is telling his story.

“The first cognitive thought I had after we lost him was that I have to write his book,” she said. “He cannot be forgotten. All these things he left behind are his footprint.”

In 1971, a young man from her neighborhood was killed in Vietnam. His name was Bartow Potts Jr. He was a Marine and had been in Vietnam only a week when his helicopter was shot down.

“He was a nice boy,” Gena said. She never forgot him.

Years later, she volunteered as a chaperone with her son Donny’s school field trip to Washington, D.C. When they visited the Vietnam Memorial Wall, she watched people take paper and etch the names of loved ones memorialized on the wall.

“I remembered the name of Bartow Potts from my childhood, and I found his name,” she said. “I took that piece of paper home with me.”

On the day the Courtney family was getting ready for visitation before the funeral, Gena heard a knock on the door.

“It was a man I had never seen before in my life,” she said. “He introduced himself as Bartow Potts Sr. He said he didn’t know why he had been led here, but he had come to express his condolences.

“I went to my cabinet, found that piece of paper and showed him the name of his son.”

Contact Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.

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