By Paul Wood
MAHOMET — Major Mike Kessel gives God credit for saving him in Iraq after a series of ambushes.
During “the Battle of Holy Week” in April 2004, his unit was under constant ambush, and he needed some spiritual advice. It ended up saving his life, he believes.
Kessel grew up religious and patriotic in southern Illinois. But he’s lived here as a financial adviser for 16 years, since he came to Rantoul to help found Lincoln’s Challenge Academy in the National Guard.
After high school, Kessel joined the Army in 1985 and served three years.
“I decided I liked it,” he said.
So he went to Western Illinois University and joined the ROTC there, then he entered the National Guard for a total service of 21 years.
He was called up for the first Gulf War, Desert Storm, in 1990, just two weeks short of getting his commission as an officer.
So he served as a sergeant in the military police, setting up a POW camp.
It was a very short operation to stop Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.
“They were surrendering faster than we could process them,” Kessel said.
He had a captured general and was putting him in a Humvee, and a soldier had left an M-16 rifle on the seat.
“He hands me the M-16, he says, ‘Here sergeant, I don’t think I need this where I’m going.’ It was very gentlemanly,” Kessel said.
Kessel also served in Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2003 to 2005.
The situation had turned around.
“My big one was getting called up in 2003,” he said. “The unit I now commanded went to Iraq in March 2004 and came back in March of 2005. We took over control of an area just southwest of Baghdad, touching the airport property.”
With the enemy knowing a huge U.S. force was en route — it was all over television news — Kessel’s unit was moving to the front lines in April.
“It started out rough. They were waiting for us,” he said.
In the morning, his unit had taken control of the area.
“At 6 p.m., we had our first ambush,” he said. “Three of my guys were wounded, one very seriously. He was shot by a sniper from the second story of a school building.”
One wounded soldier got a gruesome gift.
“We were able to recover the round and give it to him as a souvenir,” Kessel said.
Over the course of the next several days, there were multiple ambushes ahead of the hard-fought Battle of Holy Week.
On Good Friday, one of Kessel’s soldiers said, “I don’t know that we could take a year of this.”
Kessel thought about it for a while.
“I’d gone to bed and prayed, and said to God, ‘I need help. We can’t put up with this for a year,’” Kessel said.
He said a voice told him, “Next time you get in an ambush, don’t get out of the kill zone, go out on full throttle.”
“I do believe it was the Holy Spirit. On Easter Sunday, that’s exactly what we did,” Kessel said.
“On Easter Sunday, we went through 20,000 rounds of ammunition, and I had one guy who got a piece of shrapnel in his calf, and that was it,” he said. “I credit God completely for that.”
But on Christmas Eve 2004, he was hit by an improvised explosive device in a city north of Baghdad, Tarmiyah, near the Tigris River.
His troops were told to look for a man who’d murdered U.S. civilian contractors. Kessel believes, based on photos, he’d found that man. But he disappeared.
And Kessel thinks that’s when he became a target. His Humvee was traveling at 50 or so miles per hour when the bomb went off.
“The last thing I remember was a donkey staked down on the side of the road,” he said.
When his vehicle lined up with the donkey, a cell phone set off the IED.
“They put the bomb on the wrong side of the road,” he said.
He was able to get the others out of the vehicle and only years later was told he had suffered a concussion from the blast. He still has bomb fragments pulled out of his totaled vehicle.
“It actually ripped the doors off my Humvee,” Kessel said. “The bulletproof glass was knocked out.”
With a new vehicle, Kessel continued the mission. Some 25 percent of his men earned Purple Hearts.
He married Alicia in 1997 and works at Edward Jones.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.