OLD ORCHARD BEACH – Before her son was killed in combat in Iraq, Nancy Lee Kelley avoided public speaking at all costs. Talking in front of groups of people large or small made her nervous, and caused her great anxiety.

But ever since her son, Army Capt. Christopher Cash, was gunned down by insurgents in Baqubah, Iraq, on June 24, 2006, Kelley has proudly addressed any assembly to speak about her son and his service to this country.

This morning, Kelley will serve as grand marshal of Portland’s Veterans Day parade — the first woman to serve solo in that capacity. It begins at 10:30 a.m. and runs down Congress Street from Longfellow Square to City Hall. During ceremonies at City Hall, Kelley will talk about her son and her status as one of Maine’s Gold Star Mothers.

“I’m not worried,” Kelley said Thursday from her home in Old Orchard Beach, where remembrances of Christopher fill the home she shares with her husband and Christopher’s stepfather, Bob. “I’ll have Chris with me, and I’ll have Bob by my side if I fall down. He’ll pick me up.”

Kelley is the first woman to serve as the sole grand marshal of the Portland parade, according to Tim Flaherty, service officer for the Harold T. Andrews American Legion Post 17, the parade sponsor. A few years ago, Dorothy Wright served as co-grand marshal with her husband, Robert.

Patriotic to her core, Kelley feels great pride in her son’s service to the country. She pays tribute to veterans and the military on a daily basis by flying the American flag. She and her husband adorn their home with red, white and blue bunting, and she proudly displays photos of her son, the flag that draped his casket and the medals that he earned during his service.

But Veterans Day is a special day. It’s important to honor veterans, she said, because too often we take the sacrifices of veterans for granted.

“Honoring veterans is just a part of my life, and it always has been,” said Kelley, who turns 64 in December. “But being asked to be in a parade the size of Portland’s is a first for me. It’s quite an honor, I must say. I’m amazed they would ask just me, a normal mom. My husband and I, we’re just two people making the most of a tragic situation. But we’ll have Chris on our minds all day, along with all the other veterans.”

Cash was 36 years old when he was killed. He was involved in a major battle in Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. He and another American soldier were killed in a firefight.

Although he served in the North Carolina National Guard, Cash was a Mainer. He graduated from Old Orchard Beach High School in 1985 and enrolled at the University of Southern Maine. He joined the Army in 1986, and advanced to the Army Ranger School at Fort Bragg, N.C., and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.

Cash left active duty in 1989, moved to Maine with his wife and joined the National Guard. The couple later moved to North Carolina, where Cash continued his guard service. He became an officer, and was deployed to Iraq as a company commander. In all, he served the country for 18 years.

In her talk this morning, Kelley plans to highlight her son’s life and military career, and also talk about the history of the American Gold Star Mothers organization, which dates to World War I. Families with sons or daughters in the military were given blue star banners to display in their window. The families of those who died were given gold stars to honor supreme sacrifice.

Kelley serves as chaplain of the Kennebec Chapter of American Gold Star Mothers. The organization’s commitments include keeping alive and developing the spirit of service, peace and goodwill; perpetuating the memory of those killed in service; inspiring respect for the flag, especially among young people; and assisting other Gold Star Mothers.

After the parade in Portland, Kelley and her husband will participate in ceremonies at Veterans Memorial Park in Old Orchard Beach, at 2:30 p.m.

It promises to be a whirlwind day with plenty of emotion.

She thinks about and honors her son every day. So in that respect, today will be no different for Kelley than any other day.

But today, the eyes of a city will be on her as its residents pay tribute and respect to those who served and those who died.

Before she stands to speak this morning, Kelley will summon her son’s memory, fight back the tears, and maybe even muffle a private laugh. If her son were alive, Kelley thinks he might be amazed that his mother has conquered her fears and mustered the courage to address the masses.

“Oh, yes, he’d be surprised,” she admits. “But when it comes to talking about Chris or Gold Star families or saying a prayer on their behalf, I have no trouble with it.

“As a company commander, Chris spoke before large groups of people all the time. Somehow, I must have got the Chris bug in me. He must have passed that on.” 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes