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NHF Member Spotlight: Kelly Helm

(Left) Kelly and Father in Groton, CT, 1981; (Right) Kelly at her current position at Washington & Jefferson College, 2017 (Sirles Family Photo)

By Matthew T. Eng

NHF Membership Spotlight is an ongoing segment for the Naval Historical Foundation blog where we showcase our loyal members. It’s important that we let our members know that they are as integral a part of naval history as the ships and sailors that continue to protect and serve today. If you are interested in becoming the next individual of our Membership Spotlight, please email Matthew Eng, NHF Digital Content Developer, at [email protected].

Our third Membership Spotlight is for Ms. Kelly Helm, a former NHF volunteer who worked with our staff during the Rediscovering USS Independence project last year. She became a teacher member last week (just $35 for qualifying teachers!).

Growing Up Navy

I was fortunate enough to get a private lesson in growing up in a military family from NHF member Kelly Helm.

“I moved around a lot growing up, which was a natural consequence of having a parent in the Navy,” she told me earlier this week via a text exchange. Kelly and her parents, whose father is MMCM (SS/AW) James A. Sirles, USN (Ret.), moved from Groton and Bangor in the United States to Yokosuka and Pearl Harbor before settling down for several of her formidable childhood years in Virginia Beach.

I made the mistake of asking her if that made her a “Navy brat:” the familiar moniker given to kids who moved around as a military family. As a kid who also grew up in the Hampton Roads area, that’s what kids like me from the outside looking in called the military migrants who appeared and disappeared on school rosters throughout my K-12 experience.

“No, I wasn’t a military brat,” she said. She simply explained what it was: she “grew up Navy.” When asked why she told me the age old colloquial slang did a disservice to what incredible opportunities occurred for her because her dad served in the Navy. “Growing up in all these places helped shape me into who I am, and garner respect for the military and military families I still hold dear to this day.”

“The Navy Has Always Been There” 

For Kelly, growing up Navy had many of its perks. They are the cherished kind of experiences that only individuals in her situation can experience. For most, a bonding day between a daughter and her father might mean anything from a trip to the ballpark or picnic in the park. Life was no picnic for Kelly and her father…literally. Her childhood was anything BUT that. She recalled spending one such “daddy-daughter” submarine day at the Trident Training Facility in Bangor. “Dad would sit and tell us what to do,” she said. “I remember sitting at a giant screen with buttons and trying to dive. There was even a periscope in the middle that looked up and out of the facility.”

Trying on Dad’s hat, 1981 (Sirles Family Photo)

Every new duty station meant dozens of exciting opportunities. In Yokosuka, Kelly and her family were treated to a private advanced screening of The Hunt for Red October with RADM Jesse J. Hernandez, former commander, U.S. Naval Forces Japan, to check for authenticity. At the time, Kelly’s father was the Command Master Chief, U.S. Naval Force Japan. She also recalled talking to World War II veterans and Pearl Harbor survivors during her time in Hawaii. Her most vivid memory of her stay in Pearl involved her and her brother sneaking up to a hotel suite after the Senior Enlisted party at the Sub Ball and eating all the leftovers the junior enlisted were cleaning up.

In 1995, her family was chosen to represent the U.S. Navy for President Clinton’s Address to the Troops in the Bosnian Conflict, which included a trip to the White House and Oval Office on Christmas Eve. All the while, Kelly soaked up the history and heritage of the organization that gave her and her family so much opportunity. “I never forgot that,” she said, “and never will.”

Master Chief Sirles ended his Navy career as the last CMC of USS America before a brief stint aboard Dwight D. Eisenhower. He retired in 1998. Kelly couldn’t be prouder of her father and their time spent as a Navy family. That Navy tradition instilled in her youth stuck with Kelly throughout her adolescence and adulthood. “To me,” Kelly told me frankly, “the Navy has always been there.”

Kelly’s “tour of duty” in school and education had her as transient as her days moving around with her family. She completed a BA in English from Pacific University in Oregon in 2008. She then moved across the country to Pennsylvania’s Arcadia University the following year, completing her Master’s Degree in English Lit in 2011. Her focus then shifted to library science and archival work after that, with a Masters of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from Long Island University in New York soon following.

Her love of the military and history translated in an opportunity in creating original content for last year’s “Rediscovering USS Independence” project in August. After talking a bit with her last July, then an Adjunct Professor at Widener University, she jumped at the opportunity to discuss the aftermath of nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll and the results in popular culture. Her previous experience living in Japan and soaking up the culture and lore of giant monsters like Godzilla certainly helped her research—all thanks to the Navy. “I was able to use my hobby, she explained, “it was perfect!” Her article, “Godzilla: The ‘Lucky Dragon’ of Bikini Atoll,” was one of the most read and shared articles from our Rediscovering USS Independence web pages.

Kelly and Daughter Joie (Kelly Helm Photo)

Currently residing as an archivist at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA, Kelly enjoys pouring over historical documents and library archives while spending her free time goofing off and getting nerdy with her daughter, Joie. W&J has a strong military connection and includes several historical documents and letters in its manuscript files with a Navy connection. Kelly has agreed to write a future article on one such letter written by Commander Preble discussing the movements of Constitution to Tripoli in their archives. Stay tuned for more on that.

Why is Naval History Important?

This is the question we will ask every NHF Member profiled in this series. It is important for members, readers, and prospective members to understand why these men and women help preserve naval history on a daily basis.

“Being part of NHF makes me feel like I’m supporting an organization that helps preserve not only the history of the Navy but the families as well. We’re not talking about ‘just ships.’ There are men, women—families—who have served since the inception. I value that. Out of all the things I remember growing up Navy, it’s not the ships or based. It’s attending Change of Command or Retirement Ceremonies and hearing the legacy of the sailors involved.”

You can see the article she posted for last year’s Independence dive HERE.

Want to be in the next NHF Member Spotlight? If you’re a member in good standing, that could be you! Send an email to me at [email protected] with the subject line “NHF Member Spotlight.”

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  1. James A Sirles Jr, MMCM (SS/AW) USN, ret

    What a wonderful reflection of the time our family spent in the service of our nation. One thing that stands out was that trip to The White House. I was deployed aboard USS America in the Adriatic. Our aircrews were flying missions over Bosnia in support of IFOR. Our skipper, Captain Benny Suggs, called me on the radio and asked that I come up to the bridge. When I got up there, he asked if I had been watching CNN, that there was interesting news. I looked up at the bridge TV in time to see President Clinton straightening my son’s tie! What a wonderful Christmas present that was!

    • Admin

      Thank you, Master Chief! It has been a real pleasure hearing Kelly’s stories and working with her on NHF projects.

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