Kelli Pendleton, a longtime Fort Campbell supporter and president and CEO of Christian County Chamber of Commerce, was recently named as the new Kentucky (West) civilian aide to the secretary of the Army.
She was sworn in Jan. 14 by Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy to a two year-term, and takes the place of Hopkinsville’s Chuck Henderson, who served in the role for 16 years and is now a CASA emeritus.
Pendleton is one of 112 CASAs nationwide, tasked with representing the secretary of the Army at certain functions, spreading his message, reporting to him on community concerns impacting the military and much more. She doesn’t get paid, but for her and other CASAs this is a way to serve the Army, its Soldiers, Families and veterans.
Telling the Army’s story
“CASAs provide individual advice to the secretary of the Army, the chief of staff of the Army and commanders at all levels on public sentiments toward the Army,” Pendleton said. “They work closely with the Army and installation commanders, Army National Guard and the Army Reserve. CASAs tell the Army story and are considered the Army’s link to the people.”
Although CASAs are unpaid employees, Army protocol gives them the status of a three-star general. Her duties include representing the secretary of the Army at functions ranging from memorial ceremonies to answering questions at civic club events.
“CASAs fundamentally work for the secretary of the Army and help to carry out his objectives, such as helping with recruitment and transition into the civilian workforce,” Pendleton said.
CASAs are rare, and although Kentucky has two – Jerry Cecil represents the Fort Knox area – some states don’t have any, Henderson said. Hopkinsville is also home to two other former CASAs – the late TC Freeman, who represented the entire state of Kentucky, and CASA Emeritus Anna Caryl Guffey, who preceded Henderson.
Pendleton was nominated and then endorsed by many people at Fort Campbell and beyond, Henderson said.
The secretary of the Army’s office does an official search but asks for nominations from congressional leaders and Army posts near their homes. Candidates can also apply on their own.
“It’s a very involved process,” Henderson said. “She was endorsed by two former commanding generals of Fort Campbell who went right on up and eventually became four-star generals. She was nominated by one of the members of Congress.”
Pendleton also was endorsed by Henderson, who has long known her and her passion for the Army.
Connecting with Soldiers
Henderson met Pendleton when she was a television news reporter working in Hopkinsville years ago, before she went on to work at a Nashville station, got married and moved back to Christian County. He worked with her when she was named as the director of military affairs for the Christian County Chamber of Commerce, when she worked as assistant director of Fort Campbell USO and when she returned to the Chamber of Commerce as its president.
“My connection of working with her has been extensive so I knew Kelli to be a high-energy, very focused individual who cares deeply for our Soldiers, their Families and the Department of Army civilians,” Henderson said. “It made sense that someone who had that knowledge background and passion would make a great civilian aide.”
CASAs are strong advocates for the Army, who stay in close touch with the secretary of the Army’s office so they can be the Army’s voice during good times as well as tragedies, one in particular touched Pendleton’s heart.
“I was a broadcast news journalist in 2003 when the war started,” Pendleton said. “My first story was a memorial for 18 Soldiers who were killed downrange when two helicopters collided. From there, I covered many stories at Fort Campbell, from welcome home ceremonies to many, many more memorials and everything in between … the good, the bad and the unforgettable.”
Pendleton said after leaving news in 2008, she wanted to live nearby and knew she wanted to do something involving the military. That led to the first job at the Christian County Chamber of Commerce as director of military affairs and then the USO.
“These two positions allowed me to experience other perspectives within the military and to serve in different capacities – from playing golf with generals, to standing in as Family for a Soldier at a psychiatric hospital,” she said. “I’ve run across town to get food or a forgotten item for a Soldier getting on a plane to deploy, I’ve stocked supplies for farewells, welcome homes, sent care packages, connected veterans with jobs and helped a new Family in town transition to the area.”
The more she became involved, the more her love for Soldiers, their Families and the Army grew, Pendleton said.
“They give their all and have done and seen things most of us could not even fathom,” she said. “Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to find additional opportunities that allowed me to support such as serving on the Governor’s Commission on Military Affairs, serving as president of [the Association of the United States Army]-Fort Campbell, serving on the Campbell Strong Defense Alliance and now serving as a CASA. This new position allows me to tell more of the Army’s story and connect our community, our installation and the secretary in a number of ways.”
Henderson said CASAs meet annually at different locations across the nation to be educated, share information with one another and to find out what the secretary of the Army wants addressed.
CASAs provide feedback to the secretary on issues and also use their influence to open doors for the Army, he said.
In regular reports to the secretary’s office, Henderson has reported on issues impacting the Fort Campbell region such as veteran homelessness and how the community is helping address the problem.
“It’s really a team effort because how does a person in Washington, D.C., know about something good or bad happening at Army posts all over the world,” Henderson said. “That’s what civilian aides do in large part. We file every six months a report with his office, with what things we’ve been engaged in, what we’ve been working on. We represent his priorities as far as when we speak to Rotary and Kiwanis or anybody that wants us to come and speak.”
CASAs also use their positions to push the secretary’s priorities, perhaps by reaching out through people or institutions where they have influence.
“Right now, one of the Army’s big priorities is for civilian aides to work with recruiting command to help open doors in their respective areas of influence to help recruiting command meet their mission,” Henderson said. “That’s one of the priorities for CASAs to be assisting recruiting command to open doors, not to try to go out and get people to join the Army, but to open doors where they may be having a difficult time getting their foot in the door.”
Local CASAs may be called on to visit the Family of a service member who dies to provide condolences on the secretary of Army’s behalf.
Henderson said he left office as a fulltime CASA on Dec. 31 because Pendleton officially took office Jan. 1. But as a CASA emeritus he still plans to be involved, mentor Pendleton if needed, and represent the Army’s interests.
“I’m fortunate,” he said. “Around here, it’s not hard to tell the Army’s story because people already know Fort Campbell. It’s also about sharing great success stories that they might be able to implement somewhere else.”