By FRED KRONER
When Mike Kessel speaks, it is from experience.
The Mahomet resident is retired military. He served 21 years in the Army and had two tours of combat duty, one as a commander.
He retired as a Major.
On Memorial Day, he will be the honored speaker at Riverside Cemetery’s annual service, which starts at 11 a.m.
Two questions stand at the top of the list of ones Kessel is most frequently asked.
“What was it like, and did you kill anyone,” he said, relating the common queries.
He has plenty of stories about what it was like.
As for the other question, there’s not a yes/no answer.
“I honestly don’t believe so,” Kessel said. “I was not in that many fire fights. Sometimes they were at night and you can’t tell (if someone was hit).”
However, as the person in charge, he realizes his decisions had an impact.
“Did my orders help someone find a meeting with Allah,” Kessel asked. “Yes. I’m sure they did.”
Kessel and his soldiers operated under a principle he called “the three P’s.”
He elaborated: “Be polite, be professional and be prepared to kill.
“The first two are on us. The third one is their choice. If they engage us, we are more than happy to oblige.”
And yet, Kessel emphasizes that he — and those in his unit — would serve again.
“Some of my soldiers were 19, barely out of high school,” Kessel said. “Some of us had grown up with each other. Some of us had not (previously) known each other.
“All of us, to this day, would say we’d go again in a heartbeat. It’s a pride above and beyond. It’s an ideal we are fighting for. We were willing to put it on the line for what we believe in.
“It’s more than just about you. It becomes part of your life.”
Of the 120 members in Kessel’s unit, which was based out of Fort Hood, Texas, four are now deceased. When the most recent one passed away, Kessel said, “At the funeral and visitation, 90 of us were there.
“We stay in contact and are still close as a unit.”
One part of Kessel’s beliefs have changed over the years.
The Chester native thought he had his career path in mind as a teen-ager.
“At the time I graduated high school, my goal was to go to medical school and be a doctor,” Kessel said.
He enlisted in the Army for a purpose.
“Money to go to college,” he said. “I was going to do three years and get out.
“It turned out I liked it, and when I got out, I joined the Guard.”
He did eventually go to college, earning a bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University and a master’s degree from Eastern Illinois University.
He now works as a financial advisor for Edward Jones, where he has been employed for 16 years.
Kessel’s Memorial Day address at Riverside will be his first at that site, but his fourth overall.
Each of his speeches are different, Last weekend, he started working on his comments for next week’s service.
“One thing I want to get across is that it’s fine to have a bar-be-cue,” Kessel said, “but we need to pause and remember what people died for.
“Society in general, doesn’t know or understand.”
Now 51 years old, he remembers the reverence for the day that existed during his younger years.
“When I was in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, we would march from the VFW Hall to the cemetery in the Memorial Day parade,” Kessel said. “It was a very solemn occasion.
“When the band hit the cemetery, the music stopped except for the drums.”
Kessel said some of his worst days as a soldier or an officer were ones that provided reminders of the importance of the job at hand.
“There were two suicide bombers one day,” he recalled. “The first was 50 yards in front of me.
“Thirty minutes later, there was another 500 yards to our rear.”
When he gathered the troops that night, his message touched on the day’s events.
“It’s far better for us in Baghdad to do this than to bring it to Main Street in Mahomet,” Kessel said. “Keep it as far away as possible.”
Following Monday’s ceremony, guests are invited to the Mahomet Legion Post, on Main Street, for refreshments.